Willis Carrier, Inventor of Air Conditioning: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson we will learn about the life and work of Willis Carrier, an American engineer famous for introducing the term 'air conditioning' and designing the first working units in the first and second decades of the 20th century.


If you underestimate the value of HVAC (Heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technicians, just think back to 100 ago when homes, factories, offices, and municipal buildings lacked the comfort of air cooling! Today, especially in the warmer climates, it's hard to imagine life without it. We have Willis Carrier and his invention of the first air conditioner to thank for this. The story of Willis Carrier's life covers modern feats of engineering, innovative approaches to architecture, and important advances in science.

Carriers legacy lives on. he posthumously made it into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Time Magazine List of 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. Let's take a look at Carrier's personal and professional life.

Who Was Willis Carrier?

Carrier was born in 1876 in Angola, New York, just outside of Buffalo. He came from humble beginnings, but with the aid of scholarships, made his way through Cornell and graduated in 1901 with a degree in engineering. That same year he went to work at the Buffalo Forge Company (Buffalo, NY), a manufacturer of fans and heaters.

Portrait of Willis Carrier, 1915
portrait of carrier

An Unusual Problem - An Innovative Solution

Buffalo Forge Advertisement
buffalo forge poster

An opportunity arose for Carrier in 1902, when Buffalo Forge hand him an unusual project. A lithographic printing company in Brooklyn, NY, the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithographic and Printing Company, commissioned them to figure out a system that would reduce the humidity in their printing rooms. In the hot summer months, the ink in their color prints would bleed in the high humidity. The Sackett & Wilhelms project posed ''a unique engineering problem.'' The system that Carrier delivered is considered the first air conditioner.

Carrier explained:

We went at the subject backwards. A more normal approach, the front way, would have been to humidify the air and control its moisture content at a level higher than in outdoor air. But here we were, designing a system to hold the moisture content at a specified level that was lower than in air out of doors. We started the hard way.


But there was plenty of work still to be done. In the words of Carrier:

I realized that the design was not the final answer for controlling the moisture content of the air, so I began working toward a design that would be the answer.

Carrier's innovation changed the way engineers thought about heating and cooling. Before 1900, rooms could be cooled by blowing air over ice using fans. It was no longer as simple as raising or lowering air temperature. Carrier introduced the notion that the living condition in modern, interior environments can be managed by controlling the ratio between temperature and humidity. Carrier's air conditioning system created cool fog, not cold air. At the time, they called it coolth air. Carrier later introduced the term air conditioning, defining it, in his words, as ''the artificial regulation of atmospheric moisture.''

In 1911, Carrier unveiled the Rational Psychrometric Formulae that turned heating and cooling into a science. Psychrometrics is the science of determining the ideal ration between temperature and humidity. It's also the cornerstone to the science of HVAC engineering.

psychrometric chart
psychrometric chart

Carrrier later reminisced that the early experiments at Buffalo Forge:

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