Skip to main content
No. 688:
Willis Carrier

Today, we meet the spawn of a witch. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It was a hot August day in San Antonio, Texas. I was there to name the Milam Building as a Mechanical Engineering Landmark. I went from the hot street into the cool halls of this fine old 21-story Art Deco building. As if by witchcraft, the weather changed from awful to pleasant as I entered.

This was no ordinary witchcraft. You see, this was the first air-conditioned office building in the world.

Inside, I met representatives of the Carrier Corporation. They were proud this day. In 1928, their company installed the original system here. Of course everyone invoked the name of Willis Carrier.

Carrier was born in 1876. He was descended from an Andover, Massachusetts, woman. She was one of those hanged as a witch at Salem. Carrier's mother also had some of that creative witchcraft. For she had a mechanic's instincts. Carrier learned about math and machines from his mother.

Carrier was poor. He waited tables, earned scholarships, and sold stereopticon slides to get through engineering school at Cornell. In 1901, he went on to work for the Buffalo Forge Company. There he designed heating and cooling equipment.

He soon saw how little we knew about regulating the temperature and humidity of air. He went to work on the problem. By 1911, he'd written the science of psychrometry. It describes air temperature and humidity.

But Carrier did much more. He'd already begun creating a technology for controlling air condition. In 1907, Buffalo Forge saw the value of his work. They formed The Carrier Air Conditioning Corporation of America as a subsidiary.

So air conditioning spread across America. First theaters and churches. Then more complex structures. If you're old enough, you remember the early air-conditioned movie theaters. They used to paint blue ice cubes on their marquees.

The Newcomen Society met in 1949 to honor the witchcraft by which Carrier had changed our lives. The Bishop of Central New York, himself a member of that historical society, stood and intoned,

For the resource of the inventor,
for the will of the worker,
and for the initiative of the industrialist, ...
We thank Thee, O Lord.

Carrier died a year later. Now the Houston temperature climbs. And I too say "Thank God!" for the witchcraft that makes this sultry climate so pleasant -- all year round.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wampler, C., Dr. Willis H. Carrier: Father of Air Conditioning. New York: The Newcomen Society of England, American Branch, 1949.

Ingels, M., Willis Haviland Carrier: Father of Air Conditioning. Garden City: Country Life Press, 1952. (Two matters of interest here: The author, Margaret Ingels, was the first woman graduate of the University of Kentucky. This book also has a Foreword by Cloud Wampler, the author of the Newcomen Lecture, above. Wampler was then president of the Carrier Corporation.)

Anderson, O.E., Jr., Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and its Impact. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

See also, The Milam Building. San Antonio, Texas, New York: ASME Book No. HH9106, 1991.