Backtracking a bit, take a look at the invention itself. Doctor and inventor John Gorrie of Florida in the 1840s had ideas for cooling cities to relieve residents of ‘the evils of high temperatures.’ He believed the key to avoiding diseases and making patients more comfortable was to keep them cool, but his system required ice to be shipped from frozen lakes and streams in the northern United States - a logistical nightmare. He then designed a machine that created ice using a compressor powered by a horse, water, wind-driven sails or steam, and patented it in 1851. He was unsuccessful at bringing his patented technology to the marketplace – mainly due to the death of his chief financial backer – but his invention laid the foundation for modern air conditioning and refrigeration.

The idea of artificial cooling floundered for a while until Willies Carrier invented what we would know as an air conditioner in 1902, though initially, it wasn't his intention to cool your home. He worked for the Buffalo Forge Company and was tasked to solve a problem with humidity that was causing magazine pages to wrinkle at a publishing house in Brooklyn. Through experiments, he finally designed a system that controlled humidity using cooling coils, which could either humidify the air by heating water, or dehumidify it with cold water, and patented it. Soon he realized these systems could benefit many other industries, and he eventually broke off from Buffalo Forge and founded Carrier Engineering Corporation with six other engineers.

I admit that not everyone has aircon, and with the price of electricity spiralling, we may well have to go back to living without it anyway. How did people manage during hot summers before aircon was invented? Life must have been unbearable – or was it? As it turns out, they got by just fine and used a variety of different solutions.

Living underground or in cave dwellings was one solution. This is an ancient strategy for keeping cool. From a climate control angle, living in a cave or underground offers pretty stable temperatures all year round, and in some places, entire cities were built underground.

Thick walls also helped to cool down their houses, and the principle of cave dwelling was copied by use of local stones, man-made bricks or to build thickly walled dwellings, and these tended to maintain a relatively stable temperature throughout the year – some even integrated towers or turrets to act as ‘wind catchers’ to help exhaust internal heat.

Live in the shade - one of the biggest problems with homes in the summer is heat gained through windows, and some older homes tended to plant deciduous trees to the East and West elevations to give shade. They effectively blocked the sunlight from ever hitting the house, and when the leaves died off, sunlight could then help heat the home as the sun’s angle is lower in the winter. Smart thinking.

Sleep on the porch- In hot climates this also became a means of social interaction for occupants. You could either just chill on your own or visit your neighbours and relax there.

And primitive air conditioning was used in tropical areas such as India, where rattan-like screens made from the roots of vetiver - a perennial tall grass - covered the windows and were sprayed with water to reduce the heat. Also in India, many ancient buildings included a second outer wall known as a ‘jaali.’ Often decorated with intricate cut-out designs, these perforated walls also protected against the heat.

Once considered a luxury, air conditioning is now considered an essential in some parts of the world, allowing us to cool homes, hospitals, and other places vital to our economy and daily lives. In fact, air temperature is so important that 48 percent of all energy consumption in American homes alone is a result of cooling and heating, according to the Energy Information Administration. Today, almost 75% of US homes have air conditioning, but for an appliance that has become a near necessity for Americans, one of the first made was surprisingly unconcerned with human comfort.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan