By P Sanchez
Nowadays, it’s easy to take for granted the modern conveniences provided by the modern car, one of which is air-conditioning. Since it is a feature present in almost all cars in the last two decades, it’s hard to imagine that car a/c was an expensive luxury option in the time before.
In this Auto Blog segment, we’ll take a short look in the history of automobile air-conditioning which is almost as old as the development of the modern automobile itself.
Old Timey Ways
Refrigeration, commercial and domestic air-conditioning and automobile air-conditioning have always used the same cooling principles and therefore shared whatever practical technology available at a given time. Their development have always closely followed each other with refrigeration leading the way and cars last to adopt the technology.
Refrigeration has always had the the most pressing need: keep food from spoiling. From ancient times to as recent as the 1800’s, the only means of cooling food and drinks is using naturally occurring ice that was either formed and collected during a frigid night, transported from colder regions, or stockpiled in ice warehouses during the winter. Portions of ice were stored together with perishables in ice boxes during the warmer months.
Early efforts in cooling living spaces used the same rudimentary technology of “treating” indoor air with contraptions that essentially used melting ice. Refrigeration and air-conditioning depended heavily on availability of naturally formed ice which in turn was either an expensive and logistically challenging procurement (as in the case importing ice), inconsistently local production (local weather/climate), or unreliable and cumbersome technologies (ice boxes, building cooling). There was a need to create ice artificially and the late 1800’s saw formative steps to address this.
Several individuals in different parts of the world had their own patent on a machine capable of making ice using endothermic properties of decompressing water-cooled compressed vapors. There was also a race to come-up with the best refrigerant, a fluid with a low boiling point, ideal for the new found cooling principles. inventors were stuck using whatever was available in their era: ammonia, ether, alcohol compounds, even gases like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide were used with mixed results. Only with the development of CFC gases much later on that spurred more efficient refrigeration designs.
The invention of an electro-mechanical machine that used the evaporation of fluid for heat absorption is given to Willis Carrier. In 1902, Carrier was working for a lithograph and printing company and had to solve a problem with humidity that was getting in the way of production. He devised an apparatus that used cooling coils to dehumidify the air. He later was able to refine his invention, giving it the ability to automatically control the cooling of ambient temperature and dehumidifying the air. Not long after, he and six other engineers established their own company, Carrier Engineering Corporation that provided their air-conditioning solution to other industries as well.
Around the turn of the century was also the “birth” of the automobile. Much of the effort went into the refinement of the engine that drove the horseless carriage. This meant that creature comforts for drivers and passengers were only a little more than just a seat and shade. Not until the more practical engineering hurdles have been largely overcame and the closed body automobile design became the norm that improving cabin conditions were given serious attention.
Next: Start of the Modern Era of Car Air-Conditioning