New York’s Congressional delegation honored Willis Carrier on the 100th anniversary of his great innovation–inventing air-conditioning.
Carrier in 1902 had installed machinery in a Brooklyn print shop that cooled the air; he later installed air-conditioning in the U.S. Capitol, making it possible for legislators to meet in cool comfort even in Washington’s oppressive summers. President Jefferson had refused to spend summers in Washington’s brutal climate, but since 1928, thanks to Carrier, member of Congress could stay at their posts while their constituents sweltered at home.
Carrier had created a business in 1915, and the air-conditioning industry, Congress noted, employed 700,000 people, and made it possible for Americans to live and work in comfort. Congressman James Walsh, a Republican from Syracuse, sponsored the resolution–Syracuse was Carrier’s home, and Carrier was one of the largest employers in the State of New York. Joining in honoring Carrier were New York’s two Senators, Charles Schumer and Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the Senators from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman (Carrier’s parent company,United Technologies Corporation (UTC), is based in Farmington). Republicans, Democrats, Independents, from the Northeast and from Texas, joined together in cool comfort to honor one of the nation’s great benefactors.
As they passed between the cool chambers of the House and Senate on this hot day in June, did they pass the statue of Dr. John Gorrie? Gorrie stands in Statuary Hall representing the State of Florida, sent there in grateful tribute for his invention of . . . air conditioning.
Florida placed the statue here in 1914–so Dr. Gorrie sweltered in the Capitol Building for 14 Washington summers before Willis Carrier brought relief. According to the Architect of the Capitol, Gorrie is “considered the father of refrigeration and air-conditioning.” We can imagine Carrier and his installation team paying proper respect to their forbear.
Who was John Gorrie? He was a doctor, trained in upstate New York, who set up shop in Apalachicola in 1833. Apalachicola was just-f0unded as a cotton port. Though Apalachicola’s summer-time population dwindled to a thousand or so, it quadrupled in the fall and winter when the expansive bay was filled with ships from New England, Havana, LeHavre, London, and Liverpool coming to buy cotton brought down the Apalachicola River from Columbus, Georgia, and sell manufactured goods. By 1840 over 130,000 bales of cotton left Apalachicola every year, and more than forty 3-storied brick and granite cotton warehouses lined the waterfront. This boom-town was the 3rd busiest port on the Gulf Coast, after New Orleans and Mobile.
The founders laid out the streets in a grid-pattern modeled on Philadelphia, and Gorrie, 30 years old when he arrived, became active in the community–founding treasurer of the Masonic Lodge, founding vestryman of Trinity Episcopal Church, president of the Apalachicola branch of the Bank of Pensacola, postmaster, city councilor, and in 1837, four years after first setting foot in the town, the Intendant, or Mayor.
The next year he married Caroline Francis Myrick Beman, a widow, who ran the Florida Hotel.
Yellow Fever and malaria were two of the biggest health problems in Apalachicola, as in other warm-weather ports. No one at the time connected these diseases with mosquitos, but Gorrie did advise draining the swamps around the town, as suspicion centered on bad swamp air as a cause (hence, mal -aria, or bad air). During Philadelphia’s deadly yellow fever outbreak in 1793, Dr. Benjamin Rush–then one of the country’s leading physicians–had blamed rotting coffee brought from Surinam, and advised bleeding of sufferers. Yellow fever cannot be cured, we now know. Gorrie did not advise bleeding, but did advise draining the swamps, and sleeping under mosquito netting. He also sought to keep his patients cool–not easy in the hot, sultry air of Apalachicola.
He devised a machine, using a steam engine to blow air through a duct high in the wall of the patient’s room; as the air passed into the room it would waft over a block of ice, which would cool the air, making it heavier than the hot air in the room; the heavier cool air would fall onto the patient and relieve the oppressive heat.
But where in sultry Apalachicola would Gorrie find blocks of ice? Back in 18o5, Frederick Tudor of Boston had a brainstorm. New England in the winter had more ice than it could use; New Englanders would save ice through the summer and use their “ice houses” to keep things cool. If ice could keep into the summer, why not pack it on ships and send it to places where it could be sold?
Of course Tudor’s friends and families laughed at the idea–but within a few years Tudor was one of the wealthiest men in New England. Ice cut from the ponds around Boston was being shipped from Tudor’s Wharf, to the Caribbean, South America, and to India! The international ice business was one of the era’s phenomena–written up here in Mechanic’s Magazine in 1836.
Ice was available–but expensive. A pound of cotton sold in Apalachicola for eight cents; a pound of ice could be bought, when it arrived, for ten cents.
Gorrie knew he needed to find a way to make air cooler, and so he investigated ways that scientists in other parts of the world were doing this. Scientists by this time knew that different gases turned to liquid and to solid at different temperatures, and that if gas was compressed in a tube, surrounded by a liquid, and then allowed to expand again, this process would draw heat from the surrounding fluid, which would then contract into a solid, or freeze. William Cullen, an Englishman, had done this with ether in 1755, and the process had created ice. Michael Faraday was doing similar experiments with other gases, and in 1834 Jacob Perkins patented a machine that reduced a fluid’s temperature by pumping the vapor away, then condensing the vapor into a liquid. French chemist Charles Thilorier compressed carbon dioxide into a solid, which we call “dry ice.” James Harrison in Australia was at work on a refrigeration device–essential to shipping Australian beef–that used ether as the cooling fluid, and apparently he studied Gorrie’s patent for the model he displayed in 1862, two decades after Gorrie wrote in a local Apalachicola newspaper” If air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperature could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box.” [i]
Gorrie was one of many people around the world experimenting with ways to cool air, and discovering that they could create ice in the process. At this point, around 1840, Gorrie closed down his other enterprises to focus on making ice. He set off to have a model made, to secure a patent, and to find investors. Apparently he had a Boston investor interested–but the mysterious Bostonian died without contributing. Was this a potential rival to the Tudor enterprise? He had a model built in Cincinnati, shipped down the river to New Orleans, where he reassembled it, and in 1851 secured a patent for his ice machine.
But bad press–he suspected the sinister Tudor hand–kept other backers away, and his other patent proposal–for an air-cooling machine–languished. With his investors gone, his own finances in ruins, he died in Apalachicola, in obscure poverty, in 1855.
How did he go from obscure poverty to a statue in Washington? His ice machine in fact worked. . By the turn of the 20th-century, there were 1300 ice plants in the southern states, turning out 11 million tons of ice every year. In Columbus, Georgia–at the headwaters of Apalachicola’s navigation–was the Columbus Iron Works, one of only 3 American factories producing ice machines.
George Henry Whiteside, born in New York in 1844, moved South after the Civil War. He captained a steamboat between Columbus, Georgia, and Apalachicola.
In Apalachicola, he purchased the machinery Goree had left behind and entered the ice business.
He made the Apalachicola Ice Company a success, and recognizing the $70 million annual business that Goree had created, enlisted other Southern ice dealers in building a suitable memorial to the man who had created their prosperity. Each ice dealer contributed the proceeds from one ton of ice to build a memorial.
On April 30, 1900, The John Gorrie Memorial was dedicated in Pensacola. Whiteside then turned his attention to a national monument for Gorriee. Learning that Florida had not yet sent a statue to the U.S. Capitol (the concept of Statuary Hall, using the old House Chamber to honor 2 citizens of each state, had been introduced during the Civil War) Whiteside set about to have Gorrie sent to Washington.
Another question–what did Carrier invent? Meanwhile, what is happening in the world of cooler air? Thanks to a Congressional resolution, we know that in 1902 Willis Carrier was installing an air conditioning system at the Sacketts-Wilhelms Printing Company in Brooklyn. But that same year, in the same city, Alfred Wolff was installing an air-cooling system in the New York Stock Exchange.
2002 was the centennial year, then, for air conditioning–as Carrier’s Congressional honors attest, and as the building of the New York Stock Exchange with Wolff’s system indicates. But wait–in 1902 B.F. Sturtevant a Boston company (owned at this time by Eugene Foss, a Progressive Republican-Democrat-Republican, installed a ventilation system in the Armour Building in Kansas City–with each room’s temperature individually controlled! Foss stepped down from running the company that year to run, unsuccessfully, for Congress, though he later would be elected governor. The Sturtevant company competed with Carrier into the middle of the century; perhaps if Foss had stronger political allies the Massachusetts delegation would have been alert when Congress was honoring Carrier.
designed a building in Kansas City that had air cooling and heating installed in each room!
But still the New Yorkers are a puzzle–since they went out of their way to honor 1902 for Carrier, but not Wolff. In 1889, Wolff had installed an air-cooling system in Carnegie Hall. He used blocks of ice in the air ducts–similar to Gorrie’s original idea–to cool the concert hall. He had also installed an air cooling system in the Medical School at Cornell–while Willis Carrier was a student there. So while Wolff is installing air cooling systems all over New York, Willis Carrier is going to school. Where were Manhattan’s Congressmen while Congressman Walsh was snookering the Senators into paying homage to the guy from Syracuse? Good question.
Another question–what exactly did Willis Carrier invent?
The Sacketts-Wilhelms Printing Company in Brooklyn was not bothered by the heat, but the humidity. The wildly fluctuating humidity made the paper expand and contract, absorbing colors in different ways, so complicated print jobs done on successive days would look different. This was a problem for the printers, and they hired Carrier, a young engineer, to see what could be done.
Carrier happened to be at a train station in Pittsburgh one humid evening, and this is what he saw.
I could look at trains all night and not notice what Carrier did. In beam of the headlight Carrier saw the little drops of moisture–the humidity. He realized that this was something in the air, and that it must be possible to remove it. This was his moment–just as Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and saw the moon rising, Carrier saw the light refracted through the humid air and saw a solution to his problem. He was able to install a system at the Sacketts-Wilhelms Printing Company that not only cooled the air, it regulated the humidity.
This is a major innovation. And he also built a successful business–founded in 1915, the Carrier Company still is the name in air conditioning and refrigeration.
But Carrier would not have called it “air conditioning” in 1902. Stuart Cramer coins the term “air conditioning in 1904–talking about what was ahead for the North Carolina textile industry. Because of heat and humidity, textile plants would slow down in the summer months. Air conditioning would change that, and change the southern textile industry, and life in the southern United States, generally. This is one reason Florida honored John Gorrie–recognized for his development of the ice industry in the early 20th century, in more recent years it has been his contribution to air conditioning.
But in 1999, just three years before Congress honored Willis Carrier, the Orlando Sentinel named Dr. Gorrie “Floridian of the Millenium.” That is, the newspaper declared he was the most important or influential person in Florida in a thousand years. Think Ponce de Leon, Osceola, Andrew Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Estefan. John Haile, the Sentinel’s editor, recalled in 2013, “There were many arguments for political figures, for people who had developed different parts of the state, for others who had fought to protect those things that make Florida so special,” Haile said via Facebook message. “In the end, choosing the person who had developed the air conditioner just seemed to make so much sense. It made the modern Florida possible, including the pressures that continue to challenge the state.”[i].
So for good or ill, Gorrie has made the modern Florida possible. This may be why the New Yorkers were out to honor Willis Carrier.
But who was the father of air conditioning? Here is one book–Raymond Becker, John Gorrie MD, Father of Air Conditioning and Mechanical Refrigeration (1972) that makes it clear. But here is another- Margaret Ingels, Willis Haviland Carrier, the Father of Air Conditioning (1952) says that Carrier was the father. What about Alfred Wolff, who had neither a Captain Whiteside nor a Congressional delegation to do him homage? Or the Sturtevant Company?
To further complicate the matter, Bernard Nagengast, President of the American Society of Heat, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) wrote, “It would be a fabrication to claim that Gorrie is the father or the inventor of mechanical ice making or refrigeration. On the other hand, a claim can be made that Gorrie is the father of air conditioning. This claim can be made based on the fact that he was probably the first to propose, scientifically discuss, construct and operate a refrigeration machine for comfort cooling. However, it would not be proper to title him as the inventor of air conditioning. No one person can make that claim. The development came through the contributions (some great and some small) of many individuals over time, building on the success of others..”[i]
Well-said. Father, but not inventor. No one wanted to claim Gorrie when he was a penniless failure. But we can look back and see that he made the modern Florida possible. Carrier, having installed air conditioning in the Capitol, made the modern Congress possible, and given them the leisure to dabble in writing history.
[i] Quoted in John Gladstone, “John Gorrie, Visionary. The First Century of Air Conditioning, Article 1” ASHRAE Journal, December 1998, 35.
[i] Mike Lafferty, ‘Sentinel’s Central Floridian of the Year turns 30,” Orlando Sentinel, 20 January 2013.
[i] Quoted in John Gladstone, “John Gorrie, Visionary. The First Century of Air Conditioning, Article 1” ASHRAE Journal, December 1998, 34.
For more on this, here is Matt Buchanan in the New Yorker (2013).