It's a typical 3-H Washington, D.C. summer: hazy, hot and humid. And with small variations, the rest of the country sweats through this same season.
But I sit typing in cool comfort, looking out a window into the park at the statue of an admiral who might want to yield his pedestal for a likeness of Willis Haviland Carrier. Who was Carrier and why does he deserve our esteem? He's the American who invented and commercialized the modern air conditioner.
Carrier was born in 1876 and grew up on the cold shores of Lake Erie in Upstate New York. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University in 1901 and went to work for the Buffalo Forge Co., where he worked on heating systems for companies to dry lumber and coffee.
One of his firm's customers, Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, faced a problem. Climate variations in their facility meant that the printing equipment would expand or contract subtly, making it difficult to keep the machines properly aligned for the multistage printing process. Carrier solved the company's problem by producing the first system to control temperature, humidity, and ventilation; U.S. Patent No. 8008897 for the "Apparatus for Treating Air" was granted in 1906.
Carrier started his own company in 1915. Entrepreneurs soon understood that cool could attract customers. By 1924, Carrier was producing air conditioning systems not only for industrial concerns but also for department stores and theaters. Carrier's creations meant that in the hard times and long, hot summers of the Depression and World War II, Americans could chill out watching a Clark Gable movie.
In 1928, Carrier produced the first AC unit for private residences but, as with television, that other great invention of the era, the economic situation in the country delayed its widespread introduction into homes until the 1950s. Now AC is everywhere, even in our cars.
Some of the principles for cooling air had been known for many years. In Florida in the 1830s, John Gorie noted that compressed air heats up and reducing compression cools air, and he employed this principle in experiments to chill rooms in the summer. He reasoned—mistakenly—that because tropical diseases like malaria do not occur in winter, cold air is the cure.
But Carrier's achievement was that of a capitalist at his best. He made scientific-engineering discoveries and applied them to create equipment to manage temperature and humidity in a controlled, uniform manner. He and his company then went further, doing what only private entrepreneurs can do: They commercialized their products, making them widely available first for manufacturers, then for retail establishments, and finally for homes, cutting prices and increasing quality. Carrier's initial $35,000 investment resulted in a company with sales of $12.5 billion in 2005.
Of course, air conditioning not only keeps us comfortable, as important as that is, it literally can keep us alive. A recent Centers for Disease Control publication reported about 4,780 heat-related deaths in the U.S. between 1979 and 2002, about 200 per year. In light of omnipresent AC in America, we suspect most of those tragedies occurred outdoors. By contrast, the 2003 heat wave in Europe killed some 15,000 French, most of them elderly and in non-air-conditioned dwellings; throughout Europe as many as 35,000 might have succumbed to the heat. With fewer government regulations that drive up AC costs, many of those lives could have been saved with a $150 AC window unit.
But don't air conditioners mean more energy consumption? Absolutely. It's great that the human mind and entrepreneurs in the free market can figure out how to dig for coal, drill for oil, and discover the quantum secrets of the atom, all to produce power so we can all live in comfort.
In distant centuries, when we actually run out of oil—a different problem from government prohibitions on drilling in politically correct locations—entrepreneurs will figure out commercially viable ways to employ the energy from wind, ocean waves, and even solar power, not only on Earth but from giant orbiting solar collectors. That will give us cheap, clean power.
So as you sit, I hope, in a nice, cool, air-conditioned room reading this, give a silent thanks to the capitalist who made your comfort possible: Willis Haviland Carrier.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.