Famous Inventors of HVAC Technology

There are a lot of famous inventors you could probably name like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and others. But the famous inventors that are keeping you from sweating or freezing as you read this are probably more mysterious. After all, how many people know who invented the air conditioner or the furnace? Few, but this article can change that.

10 Famous Inventors of HVAC that You've Probably Never Heard of

We'd like to tell you the whole story of the 5,000 year struggle for civilization and energy efficient air conditioning, but we don't have that kind of word count. What we can do is illuminate the life of ten of the most famous inventors in HVAC from across history. If it weren't great thinkers like these, our world would be a different place with a lot more sweating and shivering.

In no particular order....

#10. Nikolay Lvov

Russian polymath Nikolay Aleksandrovich Lvov is famous as a poet, historian, architect, geologist, artist, and ethnographer. He's less well known for his heating and air innovations, but those have made a significant contribution to our modern civilization.

What makes Nikolay Lvov one of our favorite famous inventors?

Way back in 1793, Lvov designed his own heating system, and wrote a two-volume treatise, Russkaya Pyrostatica, on heating and ventilation. He even built HVAC systems into the walls of the buildings he designed, a remarkable achievement for his day and age. Many contained complex heat exchange systems which warmed up incoming air. That was a real advantage during a Russian winter.

#9. Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday was an English scientist very well known for doing cool stuff with electricity and other science-things. Today, physicists, chemists, electricians, and magnet salesman all rely on Faraday's discoveries and innovations. Without Michael Faraday, our world would be a very, very different place.

When it comes to heating and air innovations, Faraday was very important. Most modern HVAC blowers and fans rely on electric motor technology, and it was pretty much due to Faraday that those exist at all. Before his innovations the only thing able to turn a fan was a hamster in a wheel, and you know how lazy hamsters can be.

#8. Reuben Trane

Trane is one of the most famous names in the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning industry. Today, they employ about 30,000 people, sell somewhere around $8 billion worth of stuff every year, and celebrated 100 years of business in 2013. They owe most of their success to co-founder and inventor, Reuben Trane.

Reuben Nicholas Trane was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin way back in 1886. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in engineering in 1910. Not an auspicious start for this list of famous inventors, but Trane didn't stop there.

Relying on their mechanical understanding of heating systems, Reuben Trane and his father, James, founded the Trane Company in 1913. Shortly thereafter, Reuben invented the convector radiator to replace bulky cast-iron radiators. The convector radiator was a real innovation. It would not be long before Trane's radiator spread to homes across the country. Many are still found, and functional, to this day.

#7. James Joule

James Prescott Joule was an Englishman, a brewer, and a physicist. Joule discovered the First Law of Thermodynamics, had a unit of energy (i.e. - the joule) named after him, worked with Lord Kelvin to develop the absolute scale of temperature.

As you can see, James Joule was an incredibly important scientist and inventor. If it wasn't for him, we might not be able to tell temperatures, understand the law of conservation of energy, or enjoy a pint of lager from the still operating Joule family brewery. That's not a joke. Joules is a brewery in England that operates to this day.

#6. William Rankine

I don't know if you've ever heard of him, but scientist William Rankine was a pretty amazing guy. He was a prolific researcher who published, literally, hundreds and hundreds of important papers on science and engineering topics. He was also an amateur singer, pianist, cellist, comedian, and botanist.

Most importantly to the heating and air industry, Rankine is the guy who created a complete theory of steam engines. Steam and boiler heating was a major part of the early HVAC industry, and we have Rankine to thank for that. Boiler heaters based on his research would be used to provide warmth to whole buildings in cities like London, New York, Chicago, and more.

#5. Sadi Carnot

Have you heard of Sadi Carnot? No? He was a French military engineer and physicist who wrote a book called Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire. And he really liked cannons. A lot. It could be said he was a bit obsessive.

Anyway, Carnot was not famous in his lifetime for his work on heat, steam engines or thermodynamics, but his writings were later used by researchers like Lord Kelvin and Rudolf Clausius in their own work. Carnot's one bit of writing was so important he is even described as the "father of thermodynamics." Pretty good for a guy that mostly wanted to blow things up.

Sadly, science and the world lost Carnot in 1832 at the young age of 36, dead from an epidemic of cholera. Wash your hands, folks.

#4. The Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin was a mathematician and engineer very well known for his work with temperature and heat. Knighted by Queen Victoria, responsible for the formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and credited with determining the correct value of absolute zero, Lord Kelvin was a renowned figure.

While Kelvin didn't invent any specific device for air conditioning or heating, his research was critical to the construction of all such devices that would come after him. Kelvin's work is the foundation of modern HVAC science, and a lot more science besides.

#3. Franz San Galli

Very few people have heard of Russian inventor, Franz San Galli, but, without him, most folks would be a lot colder at night.

Born in Prussia, Franz San Galli eventually found his way to Saint Petersburg, Russia, a country not known for its warm winters. He ran a business, started a family, and, most importantly, invented the radiator. Of course, the principle behind the radiator had been around for years, but it was Galli who popularized this heat exchange system between 1855 and 1857. Radiators were instrumental to increasing energy efficiency in urban areas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

#2. Willis Carrier

Willis Haviland Carrier is credited with inventing the modern air conditioner. Born in 1876, Carrier's family was Welsh and of modest means. Fortunately, Carrier broke with family tradition to become one the famous inventors who would do a lot for our air comfort.

Carrier's most important contribution to HVAC, the aforementioned modern air conditioner, was pretty much an accident. In 1902, Carrier worked for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company. In addition to their needlessly long and complicated business name, the S-W company had a problem: too much humidity in their warehouses.

They told Carrier to figure it out, and he did. Carrier knew he could remove humidity by blowing the warehouse air over cool pipes. He did that, the warehouses got dehumidified, and they got cooled at the same time. Carrier figured he was onto something.

Unfortunately, Carrier wouldn't get to work on his air conditioner in earnest until 1915. Still, he is the most important American on this list of our famous inventors, and was the most important figure in the North American HVAC industry of the 20th century.

#1. Ding Huan

As you might suspect, Ding Huan was a Chinese inventor who lived back during the days of the Han Dynasty in the first century BC. Which, if you're not up on your timelines, was a bit of a while ago. A craftsman, engineer, and inventor, Ding was responsible for constructing an air conditioning system based on evaporative cooling.

So, what exactly did Ding Huan invent?

Well, it was a far cry from the air conditioner you're using today. Ding Huan's device was a human-powered, 7-wheel fan that was more than 10 feet in diameter. To our knowledge, this was the first rotary fan in human history. It was supposedly even powerful enough to cool an entire room full of people! Not bad for a guy born over 2000 years ago.

Questions About HVAC?

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1 comment (view/add)
  • Larry James
    Larry James
    Posted on 7/24/2021

    I really enjoy reading this kind of history. Thanks for putting it together.


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