Literally, one of history’s coolest ideas

Johnson, StevenIn Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation published by Riverhead Books/Penguin (2010), Steven Johnson examines the origin and development of what is quite literally one of history’s coolest ideas: the air conditioner.

Based in Brooklyn, the Sackett-Wilhelm Lithography Company housed “the first working version of a machine that would do more to transform the settlement patterns of human beings than any other twentieth-century invention, with the possible exception of the automobile.” After two summers of extreme heat, the Sackett-Wilhelm owners contacted the New York City office of the Buffalo Forge Company and inquired, if its experts could make air warmer, could they also make it cooler? One of those experts was Willis Carrier.

Here is Johnson’s account of what happened after two years of research and development under Carrier’s supervision.

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“The Sackett-Wilhelm system [to control humidity] had been a success, but the steel coils were prone to rust after regular use. One night, waiting for a train in Philadelphia, watching a heavy fog roll across the platform, [Carrier] had a sudden flash of insight. His air conditioning system could be a miniature fog machine: by drawing air across a fine spray if water inside the device, he could use the water itself as a condensing surface. Thanks to those tenacious hydrogen bonds, the molecules of water vapor in the spray would pull the moisture out if the air, regulating the humidity and eliminating the rust problem.

“As Carrier put it in his autobiography, ‘Water won’t rust.’ Carrier applied for a patent for his ‘Apparatus for Treating Air’ in September of 1904. On the second of 1906, the patent was granted. Before long, Carrier and a band of entrepreneurial engineers from Buffalo Forge formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation, exclusively devoted to the manufacture of air-conditioning systems.”

This is but one of several dozen examples that Johnson cites of breakthrough innovations. What do they all share in common?

o Collaborative efforts addressed a specific need or problem.

o Eventual success was achieved only after a series of failures.

o Those involved were provided with — or created — a “generative platform” (i.e. an open environment within which all kinds of values, perspectives, insights, and hunches could “collide and recombine”)

If you share my keen interest in the origins of transformational devices (be they creations or innovations), you will enjoy reading these books:

Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology
Eric Drexler

Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud
Peter Watson
Scientific American

Inventions and Discoveries: All the Milestones in Ingenuity From the Discovery of Fire to the Invention of the Microwave Oven
Rodney Carlisle and Scientific American

The Fire of Invention: Civil Society and the Future of the Corporation
Michael Novak

The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created
William Bernstein

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
William Rosen

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