In the broadest sense, air conditioning can refer to any form of cooling, heating, ventilation or system that modifies the condition of air, typically for thermal comfort. The more common use of air conditioning is to mean cooling and often dehumidification of indoor air, typically via a refrigeration system. An air conditioner (AC or A/C in North American English, aircon in British and Australian English) is an appliance, system, or mechanism designed to extract heat from an area using a refrigeration cycle. The most common uses of modern air conditioners are for comfort cooling in buildings and transportation vehicles.
While moving heat via machinery to provide air conditioning is a relatively modern invention, the cooling of buildings is not. The ancient Egyptians were known to circulate aqueduct water through the walls of certain houses to cool them. As this sort of water usage was expensive, generally only the wealthy could afford such a luxury. Medieval Persia had buildings that used cisterns and wind towers to cool buildings during the hot season: cisterns (large open pools in a central courtyards, not underground tanks) collected rain water; wind towers had windows that could catch wind and internal vanes to direct the airflow down into the building, usually over the cistern and out through a downwind cooling tower. Cistern water evaporated, cooling the air in the building.
In 1820, British scientist and inventor Michael Faraday discovered that compressing and liquefying ammonia could chill air when the liquefied ammonia was allowed to evaporate. In 1842, Florida physician Dr. John Gorrie used compressor technology to create ice, which he used to cool air for his patients in his hospital in Apalachicola, Florida. He hoped eventually to use his ice-making machine to regulate the temperature of buildings. He even envisioned centralised air conditioning that could cool entire cities.
Though his prototype leaked and performed irregularly, Gorrie was granted a patent in 1851 for his ice-making machine. His hopes for its success vanished soon afterwards when his chief financial backer died; Gorrie did not get the money he needed to develop the machine. According to his biographer Vivian M. Sherlock, he blamed the “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor, for his failure, suspecting that Tudor had launched a smear campaign against his invention. Dr. Gorrie died impoverished in 1855 and the idea of air conditioning faded away for 50 years.
Early commercial applications of air conditioning were manufactured to cool air for industrial processing rather than personal comfort. In 1902, the first modern electrical air conditioning was invented by Willis Haviland Carrier. Designed to improve manufacturing process control in a printing plant, his invention controlled not only temperature but also humidity. The low heat and humidity were to help maintain consistent paper dimensions and ink alignment. Later, Carrier’s technology was applied to increase productivity in the workplace and The Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America was formed to meet rising demand. Over time air conditioning came to be used to improve comfort in homes and automobiles. Residential sales expanded dramatically in the 1950s. In 1906, Stuart W. Cramer of Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, was exploring ways to add moisture to the air in his textile mill. Cramer coined the term “air conditioning,” using it in a patent claim he filed that year as an analogue to “water conditioning”, then a well-known process for making textiles easier to process. He combined moisture with ventilation to “condition” and change the air in the factories, controlling the humidity so necessary in textile plants. Willis Carrier adopted the term and incorporated it into the name of his company. This evaporation of water in air, to provide a cooling effect, is now known as evaporative cooling.
The first air conditioners and refrigerators employed toxic or flammable gases like ammonia, methyl chloride, and propane which could result in fatal accidents when they leaked. Thomas Midgley, Jr. created the first chlorofluorocarbon gas, Freon, in 1928. The refrigerant was much safer for humans but was later found to be harmful to the atmosphere’s ozone layer. “Freon” is a trade name of Dupont for any Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), Hydrogenated CFC (HCFC), or Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant, the name of each including a number indicating molecular composition (R-11, R-12, R-22, R-134). The blend most commonly used in direct-expansion comfort cooling was HCFC known as R-22 which was phased out for use in new equipment in 2010, and banned for use in 2015. For air conditioning purposes, Non-ozone depleting refrigerants have been developed as alternatives, with the current refrigerant gases being R134A (mainly larger liquid chillers from 300kW) and R410A, widely used in air conditioners, VRF systems and water chillers. Innovation in air conditioning technologies continue, with much recent emphasis placed on energy efficiency, global and environmental impact and for improving indoor air quality.