King Of Cool

8 minute read
Molly Ivins

Would you like to write about Willis H. Carrier?”

“And who the hell might he be?”

“Man who invented air conditioning.”

“A lifelong hero of mine!”

And what a splendid fellow he was too, in addition to being such a benefactor to mankind (unless you want to hold all the Yankees who have moved to the South against him). A perfectly Horatio Alger kind of guy was Willis Carrier, struggling against odds, persisting, overcoming. Slapped down by the Great Depression, he fought back again to build an enormous concern that to this good day is the world’s leading maker of air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems.

And think of the difference he’s made. As anyone who has ever suffered through a brutal summer can tell you, if it weren’t for Carrier’s having made human beings more comfortable, the rates of drunkenness, divorce, brutality and murder would be Lord knows how much higher. Productivity rates would plunge 40% over the world; the deep-sea fishing industry would be deep-sixed; Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel would deteriorate; rare books and manuscripts would fall apart; deep mining for gold, silver and other metals would be impossible; the world’s largest telescope wouldn’t work; many of our children wouldn’t be able to learn; and in Silicon Valley, the computer industry would crash.

The major imponderable in the life of Willis Carrier is whether he was actually a genius, which depends, of course, on the definition. Engineers will tell you that theirs is a craft more of persistence than inspiration. Yet Carrier was without question the leading engineer of his day on the conditioning of air (more than 80 patents). Carrier was also an exceptionally nice man, according to all reports, modest and sometimes droll, and a farsighted manager–he devoutly believed in teamwork and mentoring decades before the management consultants discovered it. One of his other management precepts, born of his own experience, is that time spent staring into space while thinking is not time wasted.

Carrier was the offspring of an old New England family–in fact, his many times great-grandmother, who was known for her “keen sense of justice and a sharp tongue,” was hanged as a witch by the Puritans in Salem. The son of a farmer and a “birthright Quaker” mother, Carrier was the only child in a houseful of adults, including his grandparents and great-aunt. He seems to have been a born tinkerer and figurer-out of problems. Unfortunately, he was seriously handicapped by lack of wherewithal. He worked his way through high school, taught for three years and finally won a four-year scholarship to Cornell University.

I picked up some of these nuggets from a wonderfully dated biography by Margaret Ingels (Father of Air Conditioning; 1952). The introduction to this respectful book was written by a Chicago banker, Cloud Wampler, who helped bail out Carrier’s firm during the Depression and later became its CEO. Wampler wrote, “The stage was set for my unforgettable first meeting with ‘The Chief.’ I had already been told that Dr. Carrier was a genius and that his talents lay in the field of science and invention rather than in operation and finance. All the same I wasn’t prepared for what happened…right off the bat Dr. Carrier made it clear he had a dim view of bankers…I remember so well the ring in his voice when he said to me that day: ‘We will not do less research and development work,’ ‘We will not discharge the people we have trained’; and ‘We will all work for nothing if we have to.'”

The Father of Air Conditioning’s first job was with a heating outfit, the Buffalo Forge Co. In appropriate young-genius fashion, his research had soon saved the company $40,000 a year, and they put him in charge of a new department of experimental engineering. At Buffalo Forge he met Irvine Lyle, a gifted salesman and ultimately his partner in Carrier Corp. We’d all know the name Buffalo Forge today if the company hadn’t decided in 1914 to kill off its engineering department. Disillusioned, Carrier, Lyle and five other young engineers left a year later to start their own operations.

Air conditioning did not begin life as a cooling system for homes and offices. Nor did it begin life as a system. Carrier’s first customer, in 1902, was a business with a production problem: a frustrated printer in Brooklyn whose color reproductions kept messing up because changes in humidity and temperature made his paper expand and contract, causing a lot of ugly color runs.

Carrier could solve this problem by controlling humidity. But in ’06, a cotton mill in South Carolina gave him a new challenge–heat. “When I saw 5,000 spindles spinning so fast and getting so hot that they’d cause a bad burn when touched several minutes after shutdown, I realized our humidifier was too small for the job.”

One industrial challenge after another led Carrier to make refinement after refinement in his systems. In the early days of Carrier Corp., one of its testing grounds was wet macaroni. The company had guaranteed a pastamaker it could fix a moisture problem. Suddenly there were 10,000 lbs. of macaroni on the floor, in millions of bits, none of it drying worth a damn. The Chief was called in. The Chief arrived. Long trip, cleanup at the hotel, dinner, back to the macaroni factory. All night long, The Chief paced, The Chief thought, The Chief would suddenly leap up and march off down the corridor. By dawn The Chief had a plan: he started with a 48-hour drying time and continued to shorten it until it reached the minimum at which macaroni dried satisfactorily. “We ruined a lot of macaroni,” reported one of his associates.

For the first two decades of air conditioning, the device was used to cool machines, not people. Eventually, deluxe hotels and theaters called in Carrier. Three Texas theaters, I am pleased to report, were the first to be air-conditioned (the claims of Grauman’s Metropolitan in Los Angeles in this regard are to be ignored). The hot air generated by Congress was cooled by Carrier in 1928-29–and needs it again today. But it was not until after World War II that air conditioning lost its luxury status and became something any fool would install, either to appeal to customers or to increase the efficiency of employees.

Willis Carrier, who read and sought out knowledge until his death at 73, married three times (twice a widower) and adopted two children, neither of whom survive. In classic American-businessman fashion, he was a Presbyterian, a Republican and a golfer.

Alas, there is a downside to this tale. Scientists now believe the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCS), used in refrigeration systems are largely responsible for blowing a hole in the ozone, and that will cause potentially zillions of cases of skin cancer, cataracts and suppressed immune systems. That’s quite a big Oops! for our exemplary Horatio Alger figure.

The First Rule of Holes is: When You are IN one, Stop Digging; and that is what Carrier’s namesake has done. In 1994 the company, now part of giant United Technologies, produced the first chlorine-free, non-ozone-depleting residential air-conditioning system. It has since announced the production of two generations of chlorine-free cooling units, well before the Montreal Accords or the still unratified Kyoto Accords have come into play. Much in the fashion of its founder, the company is trying to fix all this without a grand scheme, but simply by doing the next right thing.

On the whole, the premise that technology got us into this mess and technology will surely get us out seems to be a dubious proposition. But if you had your druthers, wouldn’t you really want to see the biologists backed up by engineers? Rachel Carson backed by Will Carrier: The Chief really did know how to get things done. Molly Ivins’ latest book is You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You. She lives in Texas

Clarence Birdseye

Birdseye started out with a fan, salt brine and ice and showed what deep freeze could do. Dining has never been so effortless; last year frozen-food sales topped $67 billion.

Most people subjected to arctic weather don’t dream up more ways to keep things cold, but Clarence Birdseye was rarely predictable. In 1912 he traveled to Newfoundland to seek his fortune trading pelts. He found it under the unlikeliest circumstances. A naturalist and keen observer, Birdseye spent hours watching Inuits fish, noticing how their catch would freeze almost instantly upon emerging from the icy sea. What intrigued him was that the fish remained flavorful and flaky when thawed — even months later. He doused barrels of fresh cabbage in salt water, exposed them to freezing winds and eureka! Mealtime would never be the same. Birds Eye Frosted Foods debuted in 1930. Birdseye eventually came in from the cold to obtain some 300 patents, including a dehydration technique.

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