Air conditioning for cars
Air conditioning comes standard on almost every car sold in the U.S. today. Even if you are driving around sweating in a sweltering hot car, it is usually not because the vehicle doesn’t have A/C; it’s because the A/C it has is broken.
Yet for much of the history of the automobile, air conditioning was either a cutting-edge luxury or a sci-fi writer’s dream. The automotive air conditioners of today are the result of a century’s worth of invention and refinement. To give an idea of where we’ve come from, here’s a look back at the history and science of keeping cool in cars.
1886 – The first patent for a production automobile is issued. The vehicle lacks many things you’d expect on a car today: it has no windshield, roof, doors, steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal, and has only three wheels. Needless to say, it also has no A/C.
1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen.
1903 – A Packard Model F nicknamed “Old Pacific” becomes only the second car to drive coast-to-coast (a two-month trip at that time). Though cars still lack any kind of enclosed cabin, the driver set up a large umbrella to provide shade and make hot desert crossings at least a little cooler.
1919 – The Kool Kooshion seat cover uses small springs to hold drivers about a half-inch above the car seat, allowing air to circulate underneath them and behind their backs. It basically allows the sweat on your back to evaporate and help keep you cool. The Kool Kooshion is actually still sold today at major retailers.
1921 – The Knapp Limo-Sedan Fan is a small electric fan that can be added to the inside of a car (since most cars are now enclosed). Such fans still don’t cool the air, though; they just create a breeze and help evaporate sweat.
1930 – The “car cooler” uses the evaporation of water (rather than your own sweat) to cool air, which is then blown in through the open passenger-side window. Though it’s the first item to actually lower the air temperature, it only works in areas with very low humidity—and, it looks like you have a vacuum cleaner strapped to the side of your car.
1939 – Packard becomes the first car manufacturer to offer air conditioning as an option. The cooling system is located in the trunk, rather than in the dash, and you have to manually install or remove the drive belt from the A/C compressor to turn the system on or off. The option costs $274 at a time when the average yearly income is $1, 368. That, plus the start of World War II, causes the option to be short-lived.
1953 – Eight years after the end of the war, A/C finally returns to the automotive industry. Several manufacturers offer A/C as an option, all of them being rear-mounted systems not much different from what Packard used in 1939.