Forefixers: The Innovators Who Brought Air Conditioning to Your Car

Air conditioning console in vehicle

Source | Mike/Pexels

Unless you’ve owned a car with a broken air conditioning system, it’s hard to imagine having to slog through the long, hot summer in a vehicle that’s just as hot inside as everything else is outside. We treasure our cool climate, whether in the home, the office, or somewhere in between at the wheel of our cars. But air conditioning is a relatively modern invention—about half as old as the car itself. So who were the early contributors to our freedom from summer’s brutal reign? Read on to find out.

Black and white photo of Willis Carrier in front of a large machine

Source | Carrier

Willis Carrier

The most important figure in any discussion of air conditioning in the modern sense is undoubtedly Willis Carrier. Yes, that Carrier—there’s a good chance your home’s A/C unit bears his name.

In 1902, Carrier invented the first modern electrical air conditioning unit. Carrier’s impetus for figuring out the electric-powered air conditioner was to improve the quality and uniformity of specialized printing runs for a printing plant. As a result, the systems that created the cool air were large, bulky, and had little potential for any other use.

It would take a little more than a decade for the wealthiest Americans to begin installing the first air conditioning units in their private homes. But it would be several decades before others managed to engineer a solution small enough to fit in a car, yet effective enough to be worth the hassle.

Photo portrait of Thomas Midgley Jr.

Thomas Midgley Jr. Source | Creative Commons

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Carrier’s air conditioning design used cold water in the cooling portion of the device, but that only allowed a small potential for cooling the ambient air. To get much colder air temperatures, and do it quicker, pressurized refrigerants were necessary. That’s where controversial inventor Thomas Midgley Jr. came in.

While pressurized refrigerant air conditioners had been created and used before, it was Midgley who found a way to use a nontoxic, nonflammable refrigerant to keep things cool. Previous systems had used dangerous chemicals like propane or ammonia, but Midgley’s system used Freon, or R12 as it’s also known. R12 powered the first automobile air conditioning systems, and that same refrigerant would continue in use in the U.S. until 1994, when R12 was banned and replaced with R134a, due to R12’s environmental hazards.

Edward L. Mayo

Even though the air conditioning scene for buildings and other enterprises was going gangbusters, it wasn’t until 1938 that a serious attempt to provide air conditioning for cars was patented. That year, Edward L. Mayo, working for the Bishop & Babcock Mfg. Company of Cleveland, Ohio, applied to patent the Bishop & Babcock Weather Conditioner. The system included not only an air conditioner but a heater, too.

Mayo’s design was innovative, and, for the time, very compact. Still, it took up considerable space in the vehicle’s interior, typically occupying a significant portion of the available trunk space. It was also expensive and didn’t have any temperature controls other than an on-off switch. As a result, the system never gained much widespread use and was eventually discontinued.

Vintage air conditioning ad

Nils Erik Wahlberg & Joseph F. Sladky

Another decade and a half passed before the next big advance in air conditioning arrived, by way of the Nash-Kelvinator company and its engineers, Nils Erik Wahlberg and Joseph F. Sladky. Filed in 1950, and approved in 1954, the patent showed an automobile air conditioning system that put all of the components required to manage the cabin air temperature under the hood and cowling. They were tucked away from the passenger and cargo space, meaning the system required no real compromise.

It was called the All-Weather Eye—less expensive and easier to assemble and install than previous systems. And unlike its predecessors, the All-Weather Eye didn’t drive the air conditioning compressor continuously, whether it was being used or not. Instead, it used an electrically operated clutch to engage or disengage the compressor as needed—just like on modern air conditioning systems. That innovation meant less power was diverted from driving the car, improving acceleration and gas mileage when the A/C wasn’t in use.

Future forefixers

The air conditioning system is still undergoing upgrades and changes. We’ve seen the introduction of two-, three-, and even four-zone climate control within a car’s cabin, as well as systems for electric cars and hybrids that minimize the function of the air conditioning under certain conditions to improve efficiency. There’s even an industrywide move to switch from the current refrigerant, R134a, to an even safer, more environmentally friendly alternative, due to take effect in parts of the world by 2018.

In 100 years, there’s no doubt we’ll have many more forefixers to add to this list.

Do you know of any more air conditioning forefixers? Let us know in the comments.