Origins of Steam

Steam is one of the oldest power sources known to man. The ancient Greeks were perhaps the first civilization to have central heating, with archeaology suggesting they had a crude hot-air heating technology 4000 years ago. They were also the first civilization to create a steam-powered anything, 2000 years ago. Heron’s Aeolipile Around the first century AD, there was a mathematician in Alexandria named Heron. He would write numerous books on geometry and early mechanical technology. His work also includes the first steam engine and therefore as good of a place as any for us to begin the story of steam. The Aeolipile was a water tank placed over a fire, with two pipes coming from the top and running into a sphere. The pipes function as an axle and as a pathway for the flow of steam. There’s two bent pipes on the ball for the steam to come out. When the water boiled, it caused the steam to shoot out of the ball like thrusters, and spin the ball. This was the first mechanical use of steam and the last one for over a thousand years after Heron’s death. Vacuum Power The story of steam picks up again in the 1600s. Giovanni Battista della Porta theorized that the state change of water into steam and back again would alter the pressure of a closed vessel. That is, this would increase or decrease the pressure. This idea if the […]

Read More →

Engine Driven Air Conditioners

The world of HVAC is a very strange place to live some days. We commonly think of air conditioners as being electrical devices. Perhaps the only real exception to that is the air conditioner in your car, which is essentially powered by your car’s engine. In the early days of air conditioning and refrigeration however, the opposite was true: cooling systems were mainly mechanically powered.   The World Before Electricity It’s the early 1900s. The telephone is still considered cutting-edge technology and you can go down to the local train station to send a telegram anywhere in the country. Electricity however, was not quite so common. In 1900, 3% of US homes had electricity. It wasn’t entirely feasible to just throw an air conditioner in your back room. Even businesses wouldn’t have had the easy option of just plugging in an air conditioning system, even if it occupied half their building. At this point, most working-power was mechanical. Factories would have massive boilers, which produced steam, that turned enormous turbines or ran crank systems, that ultimately ran everything in the facility. In order for any particular innovation to take off, it almost had to be mechanically driven. If you couldn’t throw some coal and water in a machine to power it, you probably couldn’t have it.   Steam Powered AC How exactly do we run an air conditioner on steam alone? Every motor in an air conditioner is doing just […]

Read More →

Evolution of Air Conditioners

When Air Conditioners first came out, they were a commercial-only piece of equipment. They were almost always custom designed and installed equipment. The first major system was built by Willis Carrier to regulate humidity for a printing company. There was no going out to the store or your contractor to buy this technology. It was made from scratch.   Public AC The first air conditioners were installed in factories. These started out with textile mills and pharmaceutical companies in the 1910s. In the 1920s, department stores and movie theaters would start investing in air conditioners. In these days, a large department store could get hot enough for customers and workers alike to faint. Cool stores attracted customers looking to escape the heat. The Milam Building, in San Antonio, Texas would later be built specifically to be air conditioned from top to bottom. The entire building had special accommodations built-in to ensure consistent airflow to every floor, room, and store. This custom system was first put to use in 1928 and would not be retired until 1989 after a full 60 years of service. These innovations all lead to better technology, but it still was not accessible. These 1920s systems were hand-designed, in many cases by Willis Carrier himself. His sales team could pitch an air conditioner to any client for any purpose and he would design whatever it took to make it work. This isn’t entirely unique today, but at […]

Read More →

The Fridge Came First

Every now and then, we discover the weirdest facets of fate and history. We’re all familiar with Carrier’s major break through in creating air conditioning in the early 1900s, but it turns out, he wasn’t exactly the first. There were working, mechanical refrigerators before we had working air conditioners.   The Ground Work The first artificial refrigeration was done by a Scottish professor in the 1755. He used a vacuum chamber and ether to lower the temperature inside the chamber. When the ether boiled, it removed energy from the chamber, cooling it down. The effect was just powerful enough to produce some ice inside. In 1758, Ben Franklin and John Hadley at Cambridge University would conduct similar experiments with volatile liquids. They were able to cool a  chamber now to 7 degrees fahrenheit, from an ambient 65 degree starting point. Franklin wrote, “From this experiment, one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.” At that point in time, there wasn’t yet a practical way to actually freeze anyone. This refrigeration involved a vacuum chamber. Anyone cooled down would be all but freeze dried in the process. Further refinements would come over the next century. In 1820 there was a closed-cycle system that could continuously cool a chamber and condense it’s refrigerant, it would be able to keep cool indefinitely. In the 1860s, German researchers began work on refrigeration for breweries. During the […]

Read More →

History of Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, businesses are closed and people everywhere are celebrating the unofficial start of summer. We’re also pausing to remember what it took to get us where we are. Today is a Memorial to the countless dead veterans of our military. Decorations Day In the 1860s as the American Civil War’s death count began to soar, cities and town across the US began holding memorials in the spring to mark the graves of the fallen with wreathes, flowers, flags, and other items to honor their sacrifice. These local events could occur at any time, there was no national holiday yet. In the northern states, General John A. Logan would call for a day to honor the fallen, a Day of Decoration. He placed it on the last day of May, 1868. This would spread until most northern states had adopted the day as a state holiday. The southern states however, would largely continue to celebrate the day on a local-only level. For nearly sixty years, the Civil War would reign as the United States’ deadliest confrontation. No other event up to then, not even the Revolutionary War left so many dead in its wake. Not until the World Wars started. With the country embattled around the world, the early 1900s saw Decorations Day/Memorial Day expand, not as just a memorial to the fallen of the Civil War, but a day to all fallen soldiers. […]

Read More →

The Origins of the HEPA Filter: Nuclear Research

There has been some… grim news recently about a possible war between the US and North Korea over their developing nuclear capabilities. There is a ray of light though, in this grim news. It gives us an excuse to talk about HEPA Filters. It turns out, they were created specifically because of nuclear research and the fall out of nuclear weapons.   Filters Before HEPA Air filters have been around for a long time. The first air filters can be traced all the way back to the 1500s, a primitive respirator to protect the wearer from gases, dust, and fumes. Damp-cloth respirators started to come around in the 18th and 19th century. These used damp wool and valves to filter dust out of the air. The liquid-based approach would end up expanding to water and oil bath systems that essentially washed the air. Most contaminants would end up dissolved or pushed down in the water, while the air could eventually pass through. This technology was used on cars, trucks, tractors, and even some early air conditioning systems. It was pretty much the only known way to clean the air. At the time, there were no electron microscopes and the concept of cells and bacteria was still pretty new. There simply hadn’t been research into all the little things in the air and how effective or ineffective the existing filters were beyond subjective opinions. In the 1940s, there came a very […]

Read More →

Albert Einstein Designed a Fridge

We all know Einstein as the man who invented E=MC2. He also used experiments to find Avogadro’s Number, proposed that light was not just a wave but also a particle (a photon), created the General Theory of Relativity, and among all his accomplishments, designed a fridge without a single moving part. As with all things in our industry, this relied on cheating the laws of physics into doing our bidding.   Motivation The first refrigerators were deadly machines. They used a similar compression system to what we have today, but there was a catch. The new technology had a short lifetime before failure and when it did fail, it failed deadly. At the time, there were three major refrigerants: methyl chloride, ammonia, and sulfur dioxide. Methyl Chloride can disrupt the central nervous system, starting with drunken symptoms and ending at paralysis, coma, and death. Ammonia is incredibly corrosive and will cause irritation of the skin, eyes, and lungs before more severe symptoms such as blindness and death by lung failure set in. Sulfur Dioxide is similar to ammonia, it attacks the skin and mucous membranes, and with the right circumstances can damage and destroy the lungs, and even interfere in the heart. The seals on early fridges would fail at random due to the newness of the technology, variations in product quality, and perhaps even outright design flaws. When such a failure occurred, toxic gasses got into the air, and […]

Read More →

115 Years of Keeping Cool

115 Years ago today, Willis Carrier submitted his drawings of the first Air Conditioner as we know them today. To get a handle on just how long ago that was, the Ford Model T wouldn’t be released until 1908. Cars were a luxury item and people primarily got around with horses, trains, and the odd trolley here and there. Let’s take a look back at what lead to the first air conditioner.   The Paper Problem To understand the first air conditioner, we need to understand why it was built and the problem it was intended to solve. It was commissioned by a printing company on the East Coast of the United States. They were having a problem though: their prints were getting ruined. It wasn’t that the machinery was shredding the paper, but that it was becoming misaligned and putting ink in all the wrong places. It all comes down to how the process works and the need for strict control of every step. The printing process used at the time was a four color process, perhaps similar or even the same as today’s CMYK printing. The paper stock would advance through the machine to receive one color. Then it would be lined up and run through the same or another machine, to receive another color. This would go on until four colors had been applied. Where colors overlapped, you could create things in between. Blue and Red ink […]

Read More →

The Long and Storied History of Getting Cold

When you think of air conditioning, I bet you think of Willis Carrier inventing the Air Conditioner 115 years ago, don’t you? It turns out, like many things, people have been chilling since long before 1902. This raises the big question: “How do you get cool without a compressor, a heat exchanger, and a whole lotta watts?” People are clever and crafty about manipulating the world to do their bidding.   Ancient Egypt The Egyptians are believed to have been one of the first, if not the first, to use Evaporative Cooling. Paintings dating back to 2500 BC show royalty being fanned in front of jars of water. Commoners would have put wet reeds in their windows and let the wind do their cooling. Cold air would blow in the window and be slightly chilled by the cold water on the reeds. The whole concept here relies on water’s amazing thermal properties. We’ve mentioned some of them before. In this case, it is the Enthalpy of Vaporization. When water changes states, it takes a lot of energy with it. In a hot, dry desert environment, the lack of humid air makes it easy for water to make that phase change. Any open water source will readily change states into a vapor at its surface. With a cold breeze, whether natural or artificial, more air is exposed to the water. More cool air is exposed to the room’s occupants. More heat […]

Read More →