Willis Carrier Biography (1876-1950)

engineer and inventor

Willis Carrier is widely regarded as the father of modern refrigeration and air conditioning. Carrier received more than 80 patents over 50 years in the field of air conditioning. He was the founder and chief executive officer of the giant Carrier Corporation, one of the largest manufacturing companies in the United States, and his name has become almost synonymous with air conditioning.

Willis Haviland Carrier, an only child, was born on November 26, 1876, to Duane and Elizabeth Carrier, in Angola, New York. He received his secondary education in the local school system and also attended the Buffalo General High School. Carrier won a competitive scholarship to study mechanical engineeringat Cornel University in Ithaca, New York.

Carrier graduated from Cornell in 1901, and accepted a position as an engineer with the Buffalo Forge Company in Buffalo, New York. From the beginning ofhis career, he was determined to put mechanical engineering on a more rational basis then what was the practice at that time. Because engineers did not really understand the reasons their machinery functioned the way they did, theywere forced to build large "factors of safety" into their designs, which ledto inefficiencies. To investigate the principals behind the functioning of the company's products, Carrier founded the world's first industrial laboratory at the Buffalo Forge Company. With the better understanding that he gave them, the Buffalo Forge designers were able to design better, safer, more efficient products.

Although the term air conditioning would not be coined for five years, Carrier's first design job as a young engineer was to develop an air conditioning system for the Sackett-Wilhelm lithographing company in Brooklyn, New York. The problem faced by the Sackett-Wilhelm Company was not heat, but humidity. The paper in their printing plant would shrink or expand depending on the amount of water it absorbed from the air. Carrier met this problem by designing asystem for the company that cooled the air in its plant to a constant temperature and reduced the air's humidity. Work on the Sackett-Wilhelm problem withhumidity sparked Carrier's interest in the physical properties of air. His first major contribution to the field of air conditioning and refrigeration came in 1904 when he discovered that air could be dehumidified by spraying water through it. Carrier came to this conceptual breakthrough while waiting fora train on a fog-shrouded railroad platform. He realized that fog is nothingmore than water vapor that has condensed out of air. From his research, Carrier knew that the amount of water vapor air can contain is dependent on the temperature. As air's temperature drops, the amount of water vapor it can contain also drops. So, if humid air is cooled (by spraying cold water through it,for instance) the amount of water vapor it can contain drops. Eventually, despite the extra water being sprayed through it, the amount of water vapor inthe air becomes greater than the maximum amount of water vapor the air can contain. When this happens, water vapor becomes water and fog or morning dew forms. The temperature where this occurs is called the air's "dew point." Within a few years the system was in use in industries as widespread as textiles and brewing. The fact that cool air was produced by Carrier's invention was only a side effect of the dehumidifying process. The original purchasers of hisdehumidifier weren't interested in comfort, only in increasing the productivity of their facilities by getting rid of excess moisture in the air. Five years after joining the Buffalo Forge Company, Carrier had risen to become thecompany's chief engineer. In 1906 he convinced management that the promise ofair conditioning was so great that they allowed him to found the Carrier AirConditioning Corporation of America as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Buffalo Forge Company. As Carrier had predicted, air conditioning soon became more important for the comfort it provided than for the industrial processes that it made possible. Air conditioning began to appear in theaters and concerthalls and in the skyscrapers that were beginning to appear in New York City and Chicago. In 1911 Carrier was invited to give a lecture to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, a high honor for someone so young. Carrier's lecture, published with the unpromising title of "Rational Psychometric Formulae," became the basis upon which the air conditioning industry was founded. Carrier's psychometric formulas describe the different combinations of temperature and humidity that are possible for air at a given pressure, and are stillin use today. Using the formulas, an engineer can design an efficient air conditioner that is capable of converting air at one temperature and humidity into air at a second, presumably lower, temperature and humidity.

Carrier and six of his subordinates left the Buffalo Forge Company in 1915 tofound the Carrier Engineering Company. Started with $35,000, mainly the savings of its founders, the company prospered. The net worth of the company hadrisen to $4,000,000 in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression. Despite theDepression, air conditioning was an invention that's time had come. Carrierand his staff designed the first centrifugal compressor for use in air conditioners. The centrifugal compressor, besides being much smaller than its predecessors, was also much safer and efficient. Using it in combination with lightweight finned coils, he was able to design the portable air conditioners that became ubiquitous in the 1940s and 1950s. He had made air conditioning available for everyone. Carrier was also a pioneer in the refrigeration industry.He was elected president of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineersin 1927 in recognition of his work in that field. He also served as the president of the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers in 1931. Hereceived an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree from Lehigh University andan honorary Doctor of Science from Alfred University. In 1949, the prestigious Newcomen Society of Great Britain honored him as the father of air conditioning. Carrier retired as chairman of the board of the Carrier Corporation in1943. He devoted his retirement to spreading the benefits of air conditioning to the rest of the world. He died on October 10, 1950.

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