The First Man of HVAC

The First Man of HVAC

October 3, 2007 marks the 205th anniversary of the birth of John Gorrie. Sadly, few contractors know much about Gorrie. That's a shame. He was, perhaps, our industry's greatest pioneer. He was The First Man of HVAC.

By any measure, Gorrie was remarkable. Trained as a physician, he also served as postmaster, mayor, and bank president. He founded a church that stands today. He introduced one of the nation's first municipal ordinances requiring the inspection of meat, fish, and produce for freshness, predating the federal Meat Inspection Act by 70 years.

Gorrie was just 24 when he graduated from one of the country's most prestigious medical schools in New York. An interest in yellow fever and malaria led Gorrie to Apalachicola, FL, a gulf coast boomtown in the 19th century. Hot, humid, and surrounded by marshes, Apalachicola was beset with mosquito-borne yellow fever and malaria every summer, sometimes leaving dozens dead.

Gorrie believed that the summer heat weakened people's ability to resist disease. This led him to focus on reducing room temperature and humidity.

In a special series of articles on the history of air conditioning, published in the ASHRAE Journal, John Gladstone wrote, "As early as 1842, Gorrie devised an air-conditioning system to treat fever-stricken sailors by blowing air over buckets of imported ice into the sickrooms."

Gorrie's need for ice was a problem in tropical Florida. Ice was shipped to the port from the north, but it was expensive and delivery was sporadic. Faced with a lack of supply, Gorrie decided to produce his own, mechanically.

Air Conditioning the South.
In 1844, Gorrie wrote a newspaper article suggesting that "The houses of warm countries be built with equal regard to insulation, and a like labor and expense be incurred in moderating the temperature and lessening the moisture of the internal atmosphere."

That same year, in an article about the prevention of malaria,

Gorrie described his machine: "The proposed engine for ventilation, and cooling air in tropical climates by mechanical power is simple in its construction, requires but a small expense of power, admits of being complete in its operation, and its parts if well made are not liable to be injured by wear. It consists essentially of two double-acting force pumps, one for condensing, and the other for rarifying air, and an air magazine or receptacle for condensed air."

After much trial, error, and considerable expense, Gorrie built his machine, receiving a British patent in 1850 and a U.S. patent in 1851.

Rather than praise, Gorrie found only opposition to his invention. Ice was a big business and Gorrie was a direct threat to the established ice industry. Its magnates started a public relations smear campaign against Gorrie. A New York editor, for example, quipped that, "Some crank down in Apalachicola, FL, a Doctor John Gorrie, claims he can make ice as good as God Almighty!"

Matt Michel, The First Man of HVAC
Matt Michel (with baseball cap) and his daughters - Madison (the redhead) and Mackenzie (behind Matt) - work on repainting the base of the Gorrie monument.

Gorrie invested his life savings in the creation and promotion of his invention, but was unable to secure the necessary financing to make his invention commercially viable thanks to the efforts of the ice industry. He concluded his product was "in advance of the wants of the country."

Bernard Nagengast, the past chairman of ASHRAE's historical committee wrote in the ASHRAE Journal that, "A claim can be made that Gorrie is the father of air conditioning. This claim can be made based on the fact that he was probably the first to propose, scientifically discuss, construct and operate a refrigeration machine for comfort cooling."

The Journal of the American Medical Association pleaded that "The entire country should be interested in securing for this devoted physician and neglected inventor the distinction he deserves as a scientific student of medical problems, working for the benefit of his patients and devising a great sanitary invention calculated to be of ever increasing benefit to humanity."

We in the HVAC industry should be especially grateful. It's too bad so few are aware of Gorrie. After all, he was "The First Man of HVAC."

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable, HVAC's largest independent contractor alliance. Subscribe to his free Comanche Marketing newsletter and learn more about the Roundtable at www.ServiceRoundtable.com. For a free copy of Matt's ebook, Cracking The Public Relations Code, contact Liz Patrick toll free at 877/262.3341 or by email at [email protected]

Sadly, few contractors know much about Gorrie. That's a shame. He was, perhaps, our industry's greatest pioneer.

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