Wills Carrier

Willis Carrier (1876-1950) was the "father of air conditioning," developing both the theory and the applications of air conditioning systems.

Willis Haviland Carrier was born in Angola, New York, on November 26, 1876, a member of an old New England family. Young Willis was educated at Angola Academy and taught school for two years before entering Central High School in Buffalo, New York, to meet college entrance requirements. Carrier then won a state scholarship to attend Cornell University. He graduated from Cornell in 1901 with a degree in electrical engineering, whereupon he joined the Buffalo Forge Company in Buffalo as a research engineer. Carrier became chief engineer of the firm in 1906.

While associated with Buffalo Forge Carrier assisted materially in the development of blowers and of pipe-coil heaters manufactured for the company and formulated a technical method of testing and rating blowers and fan-system heaters. He also devised and published the first system of scientifically determined rating tables defining the capacities, speeds, and resistances of heaters at various steam pressures and air velocities. When the problem of providing clean air was encountered, Carrier invented a spray-type air washer, from which he later developed the spray-type humidifier or de-humidifier.

He next undertook an exhaustive study of a number of issues, including the first analysis of de-humidification by use of mechanical refrigeration. As a result of this, Carrier was able to make the first applications of his spray-type air washer. During studies of these applications, he realized the fundamental importance of humidification (that is, the control of air's moisture content) and developed dewpoint control, a method of regulating humidity by controlling the temperature of the spray-water in the conditioning machine. As a result of these investigations, Carrier presented two papers in 1911 to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers describing humidity control.

Carrier's work was not simply theoretical. Through the offices of Buffalo Forge he put his concepts into practice. Very early he designed for Sackett-Wilhelm Lithography and Publishing Company a system which maintained 55 percent humidity in the building throughout the year at a temperature of 70 degrees in winter and 80 degrees in the summer. By 1907 Carrier systems had been installed in several cotton mills and other plants. Therefore, later in that year Buffalo Forge decided to establish a wholly-owned subsidiary—the Carrier Air Conditioning Company—to engineer and market complete air conditioning systems. For the next six years Carrier was vice-president of the subsidiary and chief engineer and director of research for the parent firm. During this time Carrier equipment was installed in several industries: tobacco, rayon, rubber, paper, pharmaceuticals, and food processing.

Carrier, then, was the "father of air conditioning" in America in both a theoretical and a practical sense. Although the term "air conditioning" was first used by Stuart W. Cramer, a Charlotte, North Carolina, mill owner and operator, Carrier quickly adopted it, defining air conditioning as control of air humidity, temperature, purity, and circulation. In 1914 Buffalo Forge decided to limit itself to manufacturing and withdrew from the engineering business. Carrier then formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation. Shortly thereafter Carrier made an invention which would transform the industry. He developed a radical new refrigeration machine—the centrifugal compressor—which used safe, non-toxic refrigerants and could serve large installations cheaply. This opened the way for a system whose objective was human comfort.

During the 1920s Carrier began installing complete air conditioning systems. One of the earliest and most significant of these was in the massive J. L. Hudson department store in Detroit in 1924. This was followed in 1928-1929 by installations in the House and Senate chambers of the American Capitol. Of more local significance was the fact that by 1930 more than 300 movie theaters had installed air conditioning systems. The company, which Willis Carrier had started on a shoestring in 1915, prospered as a result of these and other installations and by 1929 was operating two plants in Newark, New Jersey, and a third in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In 1930 Carrier Engineering merged with two manufacturing firms—Brunswick-Kroeschell Company and the York Heating and Ventilating Corporation—to become the Carrier Corporation, with Willis Carrier as chairman of the board.

The depression of the 1930s, however, forced the company to fight for its survival. Bringing in business consultants, Carrier cut costs and systematized his operations, centralizing everything in a plant in Syracuse, New York. He also began to search out new markets. An obvious candidate was the tall skyscraper, but until the late 1930s no system could effectively provide this service. In 1939, however, Carrier invented a system in which conditioned air from a central station was piped through small steel conduits at high velocity to individual rooms. Although adoption was stalled by World War II, after the war there was a great boom in air conditioning, as it virtually became compulsory for any office building. Carrier Air Conditioning reaped a lion's share of this business, but a heart attack forced Carrier to retire in 1948. He died on October 7, 1950.

Carrier's achievements were manifold, and at his death he held more than 80 patents. Besides those things previously mentioned, he also played a significant role in the development of the centrifugal pump, determined and published basic data pertaining to the friction of air in ducts, developed practicable means to ensure uniform and effective air distribution and circulation within buildings, designed the diffuser outlet, and developed the ejector system of air circulation in which a relatively small volume of air is ejected through converging nozzles in such a manner that it induces the movement of air from three to five times its own volume, thereby providing an effective circulation within the given enclosure.

One of the most notable installations of Carrier equipment was made at the Robinson Deep in South Africa, the deepest mine in the world. By means of Carrier equipment, the owners were able to increase the mine's depth 1,500 feet to a total of 8,500, thereby increasing the available amount of gold. Carrier was awarded the John Scott medal by the city of Philadelphia in 1931 for his air conditioning inventions; the F. Paul Anderson medal of the American Society of Heating Engineers; and the American Society of Mechanical Engineer's Society medal in 1934.


Further Reading on Wills Carrier

M. Ingels, W. H. Carrier: Father of Air Conditioning (1927) provides a biography. Information on the air conditioning industry can be obtained from books published by Carrier Corporation.