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Air Conditioning, The “Gorrie” Details

There may be a raging debate about climate and how it may or may not affect our current COVID-19 situation but there is an interesting story behind air temperature and the evolution of a machine near and dear to every Floridian.

If you have ever lived through summer in Florida, you know enough about heat to never take your AC unit for granted. Those mysterious boxes of steel and aluminum with their filters and pipes and parts and purring machinery give cool joy and, at times, strike terror in the hearts of every year-round resident of the Sunshine State. And the origins of this all-important appliance have an interesting history and relationship not only with Florida but also with, of all things, viruses.

The air conditioner was invented in the charming town of Apalachicola, Florida by a man named John Gorrie in the mid 1800's. But this was no engineer or machine guy. John Gorrie was a physician. Born in the West Indies to Scottish parents on October 3, 1803, he spent his childhood in South Carolina. He received his medical education at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York in Fairfield, New York.

During an outbreak of Yellow Fever (Malaria), Gorrie became concerned for patients ill with the disease. He urged draining the swamps, clearing weeds, and maintaining clean food markets in the city. He recommended sleeping under mosquito netting to prevent the disease although he wasn’t aware that mosquitoes actually carried the disease. He also became convinced that cooler air could heal, noting that “nature would terminate fevers by the changing seasons.”

From there he advocated the cooling of sick rooms to reduce fever and increase the comfort of patients. He cooled rooms with ice in a basin suspended from the ceiling. Cool air flowed down across the patient and through an opening near the floor. Since ice had to be brought by boat from the north, Gorrie began to experiment with making ice.

He invented a machine that produced ice in 1842. The basic principle required heating a gas by compressing it, cooling it by sending it through coils then expanding it to lower the temperature. The process is still used in refrigerators today. This machine would lay the groundwork for modern refrigeration and air-conditioning

But his efforts to gain financial support for a factory to manufacture his invention failed to get backing. Boston ice-shipping companies campaigned in fear of losing business and newspapers called him a "crank down in Florida."

Gorrie never profited financially from his discovery, but in time his ideas changed everything. Refrigeration paved the way for a new of life. He died in 1855 but did not receive any recognition until 1911, when a group of Jacksonville students nominated the doctor to represent Florida in the U.S. Capitol. He was memorialized in 1914 with a statue in Washington's Statuary Hall.


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