Saturday, November 26, 2005

Willis H. Carrier


Willis H. Carrier (born on this day in 1876 near Angola, Indiana) has a lot to answer for, apparently.

Sociologists regard the introduction of air conditioning in the U.S. as a major turning point in the evolution of the American lifestyle, transforming this once gregarious, outdoorsy, collaborative, porch-sitting population into an isolative, flabby, suspicious, couch-potato race of snarling lone wolves. Then, of course, there was the revelation in 1984 that chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration systems were largely responsible for the receding of the Earth's ozone layer, leading to an increase in global warming (ironically), skin cancer, cataracts and suppressed immune systems. On the other hand, as Molly Ivins puts it:

"As anyone who has ever suffered through a brutal summer can tell you, if it weren't for Carrier's having made human beings more comfortable, the rates of drunkneness, divorce, brutality and murder would be Lord knows how much higher. Productivity rates would plunge 40% over the world; the deep-sea fishing industry would be deep-sixed; Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine chapel would deteriorate; rare books and manuscripts would fall apart; deep mining for gold, silver and other metals would be impossible; the world's largest telescope wouldn't work; many of our children wouldn't be able to learn; and in Silicon Valley, the computer industry would crash."


Whew -- even if some of that is disputable, it's hard to dispute the positive impact Carrier's ideas have had on our culture.

A Cornell engineer, Carrier went to work for Buffalo Forge Company, where within a year he had designed a pumped ammonia system for controlling temperatures and humidity in a Brooklyn printing company, where fluctuations in heat and humidity were causing the misalignment of colored inks.

Next Carrier turned his thinking to cooling the spindles of a Carolina cotton mill, and in 1911, after a flash of genius while waiting for a train on a foggy night, Carrier developed the "rational psychometric formulae" -- equations for determining the relationship between temperature, humidity and dewpoint -- which became the basis for all fundamental calculations in the air conditioning industry. Short-sighted Buffalo Forge dismissed its entire engineering department in 1915, leaving Carrier and 6 engineer friends to form Carrier Engineering Corporation, dedicated to achieving whatever temperature and humidity levels were required by its industrial customers.

In 1922, Carrier invented the centrifugal refrigeration machine, the first practical method of conditioning air in a large space, using non-toxic, non-flammable chlorofluorcarbon refrigerants. As he had early on predicted, Carrier's designs would soon be used for human comfort, not just for industrial purposes. In 1924 Carrier installed centrifugal chillers in the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, and soon thereafter put them in the Palace, Texan and Iris movie theaters in Houston, causing the box office receipts in those theaters to jump off the charts during a heatwave; some even suggest that Carrier indirectly fostered the rise of the entertainment industry, which had always been hobbled by slacking attendance during hot summers.

Weathering the Depression with the assistance of enormously patient bankers, Carrier unveiled the "Weathermaker" air conditioner for private home use in 1926, and in 1939 he introduced a system for air-conditioning skyscrapers. Although World War II interrupted the advance of air conditioning, by 1995, Carrier Corp. sales topped $5 billion, even as the company began to produce the first chlorine-free, non-ozone-depleting residential air conditioners. Carrier himself passed away in 1950, just as the great lurch forward in the propagation of air conditioning was occurring.

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