A Brief History of Heating and Cooling America’s Homes

“The inventions of central heating and air conditioning coupled with cheap and apparently abundant fossil fuels would free building designers from considering the external environment and allow them to use brute force heating and cooling solutions to overcome building designs totally inadequate for their local climates.”


For the first 100 years home heating in a heavily forested America was dominated by biomass (wood) and it was not until 1885 that the nation would burn more coal than wood. Prior to 1885 the majority of homes in America were heated with wood burning brick fireplaces and derivatives of the cast iron Franklin Stove invented in 1742.

By the end of the 19th century the invention of low cost cast iron radiators would bring central heating to America’s homes with a coal fired boiler in the basement delivering hot water or steam to radiators in every room. At about the same time, in 1885, Dave Lennox built and marketing the industry’s first riveted-steel coal furnace. Without electricity and fans to move air, these early furnaces transported heat by natural convection (warm heated air rising) through ducts from the basement furnace to the rooms above. These two methods would dominate home central heating until 1935, when the introduction of the first forced air furnace using coal as a heat source used the power of an electric fan to distribute the heated air through ductwork within the home.

Shortly thereafter, gas and oil fired versions of forced air furnaces would relieve the homeowners from the chore of “stoking the coal fire” and relegate coal furnaces and cast iron radiators to the dust bin of history. Fast forward to today and about 60% of our homes are heated with gas fired forced air furnaces(FAU’s) and another 9% with oil fired FAU’s. In warmer climates, a quarter of our homes would be heated by FAU’s using electric “heat pumps” to supply both heating and cooling energy.


The cooling of America’s homes follows a different timeline closely intertwined with the development of electricity as a means of delivering useful energy to our homes. In 1882, the first coal fired electric power plant opened in New York city delivering enough power to light 11,000 light bulbs and marking the beginning of the end for gas and kerosene lamps.

In 1886, Schulyer Wheeler invented the electric fan, which would become the primary tool for home cooling comfort until the post WWII economic boom.

In 1902 Willis Carrier would build the first air conditioner to combat humidity problems inside a printing company and in 1917 the first documented theater to use air conditioning made its debut at New Empire Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama. Between 1928 and 1930 the Chamber of the House of Representatives, the Senate, the White House, the Executive Office Building, and the Department of Commerce would be air-conditioned.

By 1942 the nation’s first “summer peaking” gas fired power plant would be built to accommodate the growing daytime electrical load from industrial and commercial air conditioning. However, residential air conditioning would remain a luxury item for the wealthy until the post WWII economic boom.

The early 1950’s would see the introduction of residential thru-window and central air conditioning systems. By 1953 room air conditioner sales would exceed one million units and by 1998 shipments of unitary air conditioners and heat pumps set a record of more than 6.2 million units.

Unlike the impact of the relative convenience of central heating, air conditioning would have a profound influence on both building design and population migration and development. The air conditioner’s widespread adoption would eliminate front porches, wide eaves and high ceilings from production housing and usher in the ranch house, “picture” windows, and sliding glass doors. Together, the inventions of central heating and air conditioning coupled with cheap and apparently abundant fossil fuels would free building designers from considering the external environment and allow them to use brute force heating and cooling solutions to overcome building designs totally inadequate for their local climates. Air conditioning alone would make possible the explosive post WWII growth of Sunbelt cities like Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Miami. These cities would owe their very existence to the invention and continued use of air conditioning. Air conditioning would also change our national patterns of living, turning us into 7/24 shoppers and gamblers trapped in giant malls and casinos without windows or any sense of time or place.

Before air-conditioning, American life followed seasonal cycles determined by weather. Workers’ productivity declined in direct proportion to the heat and humidity outside — on the hottest days employees left work early and businesses shut their doors. Stores and theaters also closed down, unable to comfortably accommodate large groups of people in stifling interiors. Cities emptied in summers … Houses and office buildings were designed to enhance natural cooling, and people spent summer days and evenings on porches or fire escapes. They cooled off by getting wet — opening up fire hydrants, going to the beach or diving into swimming holes.” – National Building Museum

We would become a nation that spent over 5% of it’s gasoline consumption just to keep cars air conditioned while we drove from our air conditioned homes to air conditioned offices, factories, and shopping malls. Today, about 20% of the electricity generated in the U.S. is required to cool our buildings, most of the nation’s natural gas “peak demand” power generating capacity was built to satisfy air conditioning demands, and 70% of our GNP is dependent on the air conditioned “consumer”.

Kaufman House, Palm Springs

Sustaining this lifestyle will become increasing difficult in a “post peak” oil, gas, coal, and uranium, climate impacted world.

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6 responses to “A Brief History of Heating and Cooling America’s Homes

  1. Tomas Ruzicka

    Hi! I am a Fulbright Scholar from Czech Republic. I currently went through experiencing US air-conditioning habits. Quite a nightmare I must say. Why Americans live constantly in fridges? I took a bus from Boston to Salem, it was about 75F outside. Just the right temperature one would think but the bus was cooled down to about 60F. Freezing cold, I admit. To live at Salem College was also difficult. You cannot open a window to get a fresh air! Only through air conditioning (again about 60F). So, although it is nice outside, I cannot stay in doors because of the cold. Why does the college spent so much money on cooling the buildings when most of the students are gone in the summer anyway! Well, your choice. The price of energy is just not as high as it should be, yet. You can really tell by these simple observations. Or it might be the way the Americans are keeping US energy sector alive during the recession?

  2. Tomas,

    Thanks for your “refreshing” insight. Central air is also about “central” control. With electric rates expected to increase 30 to 40% this year (due to increases in coal and natural gas prices) perhaps we’ll see an easing of the tyranny of central air.

    All the best,


  3. Nice informative article, we could control our room temps by renewable link in systems, like, solar,wind, geothermal and multi fuel boilers

  4. Thank you Mr. Van Doren, this is just what I was looking for. My house in Boston seems poorly adapted to the winters here and now I see it’s because the house was built with central oil heating in mind.

    Now I’m just grateful that it’s hot water radiators and not forced air, and we have porches for the summer heat.

  5. Pingback: Obama’s budget to call for slashing oil tax breaks, boosting clean energy – The Hill’s E2-Wire | GoodOleWoody's Blog

  6. I found the quote from the National Building Museum quite interesting. It seems that life before AC units almost had a continental style, with working patterns and lifestyle dictated by the weather. If temperature increases continue then this may be something that we revert back to in the near future, perhaps working mornings and evenings rather than mid-afternoons.

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