Thursday, July 14, 2011

It is the birthday of air conditioning

Just down the road from where I am sitting is the port of Apalachicola, Florida. There, 161 years ago today, Dr. John Gorrie used his mechanical ice-making machine to astonish the guests at a reception given by the French consul to honor Bastille Day.

The doctor first complained about drinking warm wine in hot weather, then suddenly announced, “On Bastille Day, France gave her citizens what they wanted. [Consul] Rosan gives his guests what they want, cool wines! Even if it demands a miracle!”  Then he signaled for waiters to enter with bottles of sparkling wine on trays of ice. It was a sensation: mechanically made ice in the sweltering Florida summer. Smithsonian magazine dubbed that party the “chilly reception.”

Gorrie received a British patent a month later and U.S. patent 8,080 on May 6, 1851, but he failed at business. His business partner died, and Gorrie’s inefficient, leaky machines were mocked in the press by the ice-shipping establishment. He died in poverty and ill health in 1855, still in his early 50s. It would take Frenchman Ferdinand P.E. Carre’s closed, ammonia-absorption system (patented in 1860) to make way for practical, widespread mechanical refrigeration – and the air conditioning that makes the Summers here in the deep south bearable.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine, and John Gorrie State Museum via

Fever Man: A Biography of Dr. John Gorrie at

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