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Thank an engineer for HVAC

When you think of engineering achievements, what comes to mind? Aerospace engineers building space shuttles to reach the moon? Or maybe nuclear physicists creating the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project?

One of the top engineering achievements of the twentieth century was actually the invention of HVAC for homes and businesses. It’s something we take for granted as part of our everyday lives, but we wouldn’t have it without decades of dedicated, innovative engineers.

From famed engineer and inventor Leonardo da Vinci’s attempt to cool down homes with the first mechanical ventilating fan to today’s connected, automated systems, there have been centuries of innovators trying to find a way to make homes and businesses more comfortable. Much of the progress toward modern HVAC was due to the efforts of engineers in the last century, starting with Willis Carrier’s “Apparatus for Treating Air,” intended to control humidity in a publishing company in Brooklyn in 1902.

In 1907, one of the first systems designed for commercial use was installed in the Congress Hotel by an Chicago engineer Frederick Wittenmeier.

In 1913, Fred W. Wolf, Jr. created the first affordable mass market air conditioner for homes.

Freon, the first nontoxic refrigerant, was invented by mechanical engineer turned chemist Thomas Midgely, alongside Albert Henne and Robert McNary in 1928. In 1936, Henne synthesized the refrigerant that would decades later be considered the best replacement for Freon and other CFCs.

In 1938, Trane changed the commercial air conditioning industry with the invention of the Turbovac. It was the first of its kind to be practical for wide distribution, and was the first step for Trane towards the CenTraVac, the most energy efficient system available for large buildings.

Over the course of the next few decades, incremental improvements were made to increase the efficiency of HVAC products. The next big thing was the use of electronic controls.

In the 1990s, electronic controls largely replaced pneumatic controls, placed on individual devices that communicated back to a central system. Then, it connected to the internet. Building automation systems now communicate with each other, and software allows constant system monitoring.

The incredible access we now have to climate controlled buildings, constantly monitored and kept comfortable, is all thanks to the work of engineers over the past century. They are still constantly innovating and improving HVAC technology to increase comfort and efficiency – who knows what they’ll come up with next?

US Department of Energy
A Century of Innovation by Constable and Somerville