From Antiquity to Today: The Evolution of the Air Conditioner
Aqueducts, Clay Pipes, and Badgirs, oh My!
We think of air conditioning as a modern luxury. An invention that has come on the heels of the industrial revolution and electricity. The first patent for an at-home refrigerator could barely keep a pint of milk cold without someone cranking a lever; there is no way for the civilizations of yesteryear to have had such a convenience. That is the hubris of our modern times; our ancestors have been utilizing low-tech versions of AC for thousands of years. It has been developed independently in different places all over the world, across different times. Think of air conditioning along the same lines as the pyramids. Ancient solutions for ancient problems.
Everyone from the Ancient Egyptians, the first individuals definitively known to use some primitive air conditioning of sorts, to the Ancient Greeks, have used inventive ways to try and cool off their dwellings during the sweltering Mediterranean summers. Certain techniques even doubled as old-school humidifiers by putting moisture back into the air—an exciting "new" way to stave off the parchedness of the climate surrounding their territories. So, if the Egyptians were the first to have an idea for air conditioning, why are they so frequently overlooked?
Egyptians would hang wet reeds in their doorways and windows allowing the hot breeze to blow through them, displacing the heat inside their homes. An exceedingly primitive A.C. unit. Keeping their dwellings moderately cooler, an added benefit of these wet reeds was having that moisture released into the air, keeping the surrounding air a tad bit humid, a nice, unexpected bonus. Despite most of their civilization encompassing the Nile basin and the Mediterranean coastline, the climate is still exceedingly dry despite popular belief. Living along the coastline does not constitute a reasonable humidity level for people to live in moderate comfort. Considering the area around the Mediterranean Sea can get well past 100 degrees during the summer, the people living in this region had to get creative.
However, one civilization rose above the rest with the large-scale constructions, running water, and air conditioning- the Ancient Romans. With the help of cold water, clay pipes, and the help of gravity, Romans had access to air conditioning. While the original idea was ‘tactically acquired’ from the Greeks, how they improved on it would be more than enough to get a patent by today’s standards. This technique made use of their massive aqueduct systems to push cooler water through glazed clay pipes, pumping it straight into public spaces. These aqueducts feed water to places like bathhouses and fountains could keep the masses cool and compliant during the summer months.
The Romans knew a thing or two about assimilation, and to do this, they needed their people milling around with those they have conquered. In essence, they needed to keep themselves and the people they conquered comfortable and malleable enough to embrace the Roman Way. There is a reason people say, “necessity is the mother of invention.” The Romans had a need, and this was the best way to solve it.
How did the Roman people get their homes cooler with just water? Did all of Rome have "air conditioning"? If there was air conditioning way back in the late B.C.E., how did we lose this knowledge? The easiest of those questions to answer, “how did we lose this knowledge?” Humans are going human.
As a species we have been trying since the dawn of time to make themselves more comfortable during heat waves, including conquering and subjecting people they consider others or outsiders. Without inventions like share files or the humble printing press to make mass dissemination of information possible, it would have been an Aegean Task to even attempt. Even if the printing press was invented in 450 A.C. instead of 1450, the average Roman could not read.
What does running water have to do with ancient AC? Running water is what made Rome one of the great ancient civilizations. The Romans would use their aqueducts to bring fresh water from miles upon miles away, and it was a feat of architectural genius. Rome had running water for public bathrooms and bathhouses, and it was not until the Dark Ages that the use of aqueducts and running water like this was lost. These aqueducts supplied cool water from mountain ranges like the Alps into the private villas of Rome's rich, mostly noble upper class. The cooler water ran through the inside of walls and floors in the clay pipe. These clay pipes helped to cool off the villas and keep people much more comfortable in the summer.
The mosaic tiles they used on the floor of these homes were perfect for conducting the water temperatures running beneath them. So, much like the heat coming out of bakeries being used to heat public bathhouses, these private villas could also be heated by warming the water in similar ways. The poor lower classes of the Roman People would congregate in public bathhouses and around large fountains constructed to keep the masses cool during arid summers.
Some historians believe that the Jusitiniane and/or the Antoine Plagues (possibly a strain of Yersinia Pestis or Smallpox) could have contributed to Rome's fall, thus us losing their architectural mastery. No running water equals no more air conditioning. However, early Christians saw the Romans' wants for material comforts as gluttonous and the plagues a wrathful act of God. The combination of ignorance of microorganisms and mass conversion you get a direct route to the Dark Ages. When a little over a fifth of a civilization's population is wiped out, and an infection rate directly tied to prostitution and bathhouses, it is no wonder why the Dark Ages abstained from the "sinful decadence" of bathhouses, air conditioning, and forks.
While the Romans had what looks to be the most advanced infrastructure for air conditioning in mass and were able to bring this luxury to not only the wealthy elites' private villas but to public spaces. However, they were not the only ones doing so. Other civilizations had an even more passive A.C. at roughly the same time. All used some combination of water to create a cooler artificial breeze.
The Persian Empire:
During the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran), beautiful structures called badgir (Farsi pronunciation: bawd gir) or windcatcher were constructed to beat the heat; these badgirs are towering structures fitted with massive fans. The wind catchers are still used to this day, blowing cool air through homes, and shifting the warm air outside. In addition, they would be used to keep perishable food stores cool in extensive underground storage facilities in years past. They put modern doomsday preppers to shame, needing little maintenance and no electricity.
It is noted in various studies that these large wind towers can cool the ambient temperature down about 10 degrees, above group. Historians have been debating whether the Persians or the Egyptians initially built these magnificent towers first. Both parties point to different paintings and papyrus texts from their respective culture as evidence that they are the rightful architects who deserve their ancestors' glory (Abdolhamidi, 2018). How do badgirs work? Are they like windmills? Well, almost but are rather pleasing to the eye and they use water much like Roman aqueducts to cool off their homes and temples.
Badgirs rest upon a building's highest point to literally catch the breeze. Fitted underground a channels of cool mountain water add to the refreshing breeze, these ancient marvels might be making a comeback. As a passive way to cool down a building, engineers are looking at these low-tech solutions in a whole new (green) light. Talk about retrofitting your HVAC system. In addition, Badgirs can get rooms down to refrigeration temperatures, which is how the Persian Empire stored their food. These rooms being underground they are already cooler than their above ground counter parts. Add some water and four to six Badgirs to your underground storage unit and boom! Now we have a walk in that any chef would be happy to have.
These wind catchers have made their way across the centuries and over an ocean to the Zion National Park Visitor Center in Utah, which is a much greener sustainable option for the park (Fagan & McLaughlin, 2019).
The Han Dynasty (China 202 - 220 B.C.E.)
Used Cooling Halls that used water turbines and people to power fans that kept the ruling elite cool. China was also the first place that handheld fans can be traced to (Puiu, 2018).
The Beginning of the Modern A/C
Dr. John Gorrie wanted to cool his patients off while practicing medicine, during this time a bad fever could be a death sentence. This Floridian doctor believed "the evils of high temperatures" kept his patients from recovering from diseases like Malaria. Unfortunately, after being granted a patent in 1851 for a horse, water, and sail-powered rudimentary centralized air conditioner, Dr. Gorrie could not succeed commercially from his invention after his main doner tragically died (Lester, 2015). It begs to question how long Syphilis would have taken to get some type of cure pre-antibiotics if he had been successful. As doctors would purposefully infect those suffering with Malaria to induce fever to kill the strains of Syphilis. It could have potentially killed off hundreds of thousands in combination with the great war and the Spanish Flu.
The next big step in keeping the heat in one’s home subdued came with the Victorians. Which is mind-boggling, considering Cleopatra, the seventh, lived closer to us here in the 21st century than to her ancestors, who used the wet reeds to keep the heat at bay. While women were fainting in their layers of garments, western civilization had lost their means of A.C and the Islamic Enlightenment ended only a few hundred years prior. They still had their A.C, it was only western civilization that was suffering. Their homes, with high vaulted ceilings, were designed with the heat in mind. Keeping a person's body temperature cool was extremely hard in Victoria, England, even with their substantially milder climate. Many have the misconception that only women wore corsets, and while they started to fall out of fashion when Napoleon became the Emperor of France, even into this era, men were wearing corsets.
Add twenty layers of thick fabric onto that corset, for modesties' sake, and the problem with overheating was in the forefront of every Ladies' and Gentlemen’s mind. While Victorian homes typically have small closed-off rooms to make heating easier, the high vaulted ceiling makes it easier to cool off certain rooms within these beautiful old homes. Open a window and pray for a nice breeze; that English breeze blowing through the home will force up any hot air, keeping people more comfortable on the bottom floors. It is a significant factor in why we frequently see bedrooms upstairs in these classic homes. Then again, and for modesty’s sake.
The Victorians also had ice imported to keep their food cold, using little ice chest they would have to refill frequently. Even with electricity being invented, there was no standard for electricity for years after being invented and used in the posh Victorian's home. There was a patent during this period for the first refrigerator. Operated by a hand crank and barely able to keep a pint of milk cold, this is where the modern air conditioning units and fridges have their roots. Not to this single attempt at refrigeration, but with the standardization of electricity. As modern civilized people: we do not need to use hand cranks to keep ourselves or milk cold; also, with the invention of rubber, no toxic fumes are escaping into the air, slowly poisoning us.
Fun History Fact:
People use to keep a window open while heating their homes to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning while they slept. The U.S. government was still making PSAs to warn the public about the dangers of gas heating well into the 1950s.
Over the years, we have seen those multiple civilizations, and their engineers have used innovative ways to try and beat the heat. So, it is no surprise that the industrial revolution has cultivated the same conditions over these past two and a half centuries. The invention of rubber, electricity, and the need for centralized temperature-controlled rooms for commercial uses drove these pioneering men to creative solutions- thus leading the mother of all comforts central air conditioning.
The invention of rubber gaskets and being able to seal gases without leaking coolant propelled the AC straight into the homes of middle-class Americans. Those hand-cranked mini-fridges were silently killing the working-classes that were employed to keep them running. At the same time, eventually, refrigeration and air conditioning would have likely been tossed to the wayside without the invention of the rubber gasket. The coolant would constantly be running low at such a rate that only the top 1% could afford to have it in their homes. This is only if once OSHSA and the E.P.A. looked the other way once they both came into existent. The first rubber O-Rings came into being in 1890, then the rubber gasket in 1937, both invented by Niels Christensen, an ex-pat inventor who single-handedly primed the way from modern air conditioning, and frankly, technology (Lienhard, 1988).
The amount of groundwork that went into making the modern HVAC system possible is quit a cluster, people having the same idea over the years. The fact that humans ever lived without some temperature cooling efforts in mind is almost entirely false. There is even evidence that our cave-dwelling ancestors lived in caves to beat the heat and migrated elsewhere during the winters to stay warm. While looking at any historical event, we must keep in mind that so many factors are coming into play all at once. The who’s are sometimes either lost through time, or simply written over. People get swept up in the excitement and misreport what really happened, but at the end of the day, we are here enjoying the fruits of their labour. Steadfast and unapologetically building off the past knowledge to make the future a bit better.
1758 – Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley:
Tested their theory of evaporative cooling, it worked. Together they were able to lower the thermostat 7 degrees.
1760 – Industrial Revolution:
Thus started the hyperdrive need for an indoor cooling system. Any mechanics around the world rejoice, less overheating today than in yesteryear.
1837 – Victorian Era:
Innovation takes off, we get electricity, rubber, and it paves the road for modern HVAC systems to even be a possibility.
1851 - Dr. Jon Gorrie:
Horse-driven, water-powered air conditioning that used ice imported from the Great Lakes. Flopped. Big time. Probably a good thing, importing ice sounds tedious.
1890 - Niels Christensen:
He invented the first rubber gaskets at the ripe old age of 72. For the first time in history, it was possible to have a seal strong enough for both liquids and gases; without this, the ability to have HVAC systems, automobiles, or most modern engineering feats would be nil. He would years later invent the O-ring.
1902 - Willis Carrier:
Finally, we have the first commercial AC unit. At the same time, it was more of a happy accident. Initially, Carrier was trying to build a dehumidifier for publishing houses to help the ink dry quicker after leaving the printing presses. He patented his invention as an "Apparatus for Treating Air.”
1904 - St. Louis World's Fair:
The first-time mechanical refrigeration was used in a non-commercial setting at the Missouri State Building. Imagine how bewildering that would all be, overwhelming even.
1929 – Frigidaire:
The first split-system room cooler, which in theory was cheaper but not affordable enough for it to be used in many residences. Americans were on the cusp of the Great Depression.
1930 - Thomas Midgley, Albert Henne, and Robert McNary:
Hey, Ma! Look, non-flammable refrigerating fluids! A safer alternative that may also eat holes in the o-zone. Remember that it will be a thing later.
1932 - H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman:
Invented the first window units, no retrofitting needed, in essence, drops the price. Not really it would have if the worst economic period in the short history of the States was not going strong.
1933 - Willis Carrier:
Remember him from 1902? His air conditioners are the first to be obtainable by the middle-class American. The ones that were left that is.
1947 - Henry Galson:
Designs an air conditioning unit that is affordable for the average American and mass-produced. Americans get AC in droves.
1970 - Energy Crisis:
It makes it not so affordable leading to the Energy Department's Appliance and Equipment Standards Program, forcing companies to make their appliances sustainable, along with massive civil unrest at home and abroad. Rebranding of Banana Republic’s, coups in Iran, and the Civil Rights movement are all happening literally at the same time.
1990 - Thomas Midgley, Albert Henne, and Robert McNary:
Phased out globally from enacting the Montreal Protocol (Told you it would be a thing) to preserve the planet. This is the beginning of the green movement on a global scale. The worlds eyes are looking towards preserving a future for their country’s children.
Today - The Future of Air Conditioning?
The badgirs have made their way across the centuries and across the pond to the Zion National Park Visitor Center in Utah, where they are being used as a greener passive option for the park (Fagan & McLaughlin, 2019). With countries undergoing massive overhauls to become carbon neutral, these beautiful structures have become a focal point for engineers to deconstruct and make more efficient. It is a win-win in Utah, less cost for the taxpayer, and more esthetically pleasing to have for a view than windmills.
What other ways are current and future engineers going to take from the past in their quest for a sustainable, carbon-neutral future? How many of these designs are going to be incorporated in both commercial and residential buildings? Will we be seeing reclaimed water running under desert cities to public spaces? Badgirs fitted to warehouses to keep the employees’ cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter? With the debate still raging on retrofitting older prisons with air conditioning, why not use a tried-and-true method? Repurposing badgirs and aqueducts with some modern twist, and boom, a whole new way to keep the masses cool.
Meshing the old with the new is eventually going to change an entire industry. While these changes will be slow and gradual and will not be able to be used across the board in every home or even every commercial building. It might have taken a few thousand years to get here but building off the backs of our predecessors; we have been able to keep up that momentum. With innovation being made in leaps and bounds, it is exciting to watch this ever-changing industry.
Abdolhamidi, S. (2018, September 27). Travel - an ancient engineering feat that harnessed the wind. Retrieved June 16, 2021,
Fagan, L., & McLaughlin, G. (2019, January 07). Ancient 'WINDCATCHER' cooling tech is the new low-carbon A.C. Retrieved
June 16, 2021, from https://www.sustainability-times.com/clean-cities/ancient-windcatcher-cooling-tech-is-the-new-low-carbon-ac/
Lester, P. (2015, July 15). History of air conditioning. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-air-conditioning
Lienhard, J. H. (1988). No. 555: O-Ring. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi555.htm
Puiu, Tibi. (2018, January 09). Who invented air conditioning? Retrieved from https://www.zmescience.com/science/inventor-air-conditioning/
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