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6:46 pm
Mon July 28, 2014

How Mosquitoes Helped Bring The World Air Conditioning

Dr. John Gorrie's ice machine is on display at John Gorrie Museum State Park in Apalachicola, FL. An 8-by-10-inch block of ice would be stored inside it.
Dr. John Gorrie's ice machine is on display at John Gorrie Museum State Park in Apalachicola, FL. An 8-by-10-inch block of ice would be stored inside it.
Credit mamabird50/flickr

Like every other state, Florida has two statues in the U.S. Capitol that honor notable people in the state’s history. Dr. John Gorrie is one of them, because he pioneered a contraption in the mid-1800s that changed our lives: Air conditioning.

It all got started in the Gulf Coast town of Apalachicola, a busy port for trade and commerce when mosquito-borne illnesses set in. Dr. John Gorrie was tending to an influx of patients in 1841 when malaria and yellow fever led to more than 100 deaths in the town.

Malaria is an Italian word that means bad air. Gorrie had a theory that the nearby swamps harbored bad air from decomposing vegetation, and that was causing the diseases to spread.

So he came up with a machine that froze a block of ice and used a fan to blow air over the ice.  A saltwater solution acted as a refrigerant.

“This cooling unit that John Gorrie came up with was a way to treat patients because he felt if he kept them cool it would prevent a lot of the carrying of this fever from one patient to the other,” says John Nix, a senior engineer with Florida Power and Light. He’s also a member of ASHRAE, a trade group focused on sustainable technology and indoor air quality.

Nix says Gorrie’s invention was the seed that transformed the way we live and travel.

“Before air conditioning, houses were built with very high ceilings so that heat could rise.” Nix says roofs got smaller thanks to indoor cooling. “Railroad cars got air conditioning and people started traveling on the railroads more and more. Theaters, retail stores got popular. It allowed for the building of large hotels.”

Air conditioning wasn’t widely used until the 1920s. Now, more than 80 percent of all homes in America have some form of air conditioning, and it looks very different from Gorrie’s ice machine. Willie McNair, a park ranger at the John Gorrie Museum State Park, says the machine looks like a moonshine still.

“It has a double action pump on it, got wheels on the side,” McNair says. “It was operated by a belt-driven steam engine. It has a large container, which stored the block of ice, which was an 8-by-10-inch block. It took eight hours to produce that 8-by-10-inch block."

Gorrie's idea transformed the process for shipping perishables. 

“It kind of put Apalachicola on the map here,” McNair says. “It kind of changed the economy here for seafood. You know, we’d be able to ship seafood thousands of miles away and be able to keep fresh vegetables, be able to transport them also.” 

So the next time you swat a mosquito, consider that the pesky insect is indirectly responsible for air conditioning. These little disease spreaders led Dr. Gorrie to build his ice machine. The irony, according to Tallahassee family physician Dr. Thomas Hicks, is that the machine did not do what Gorrie originally intended.

“The ice did work in making the room cooler, but did not prevent or cure the disease,” says Hicks, who owns a home on Gorrie Drive near Apalachicola.

But credit for the modern air conditioner goes to Willis Carrier, an engineer from New York. In 1902, a foggy train platform inspired Carrier to design a humidity control system -- the basis for air cooling. Yet Gorrie published his ideas about cooling the air decades before Carrier's invention. That's why many historians consider Gorrie the father of refrigeration and air conditioning.

Gorrie got a patent in 1851 for mechanical refrigeration. But the ice-making industry ridiculed Gorrie’s invention, and he couldn’t get any financial backing. He died broke and alone at age 52, four years after getting his patent.