The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{January 4, 2011}   Just a little bit of history repeating

When I’m asked what I do, and I say “I’m a building services engineer”, people often look at me blankly – it’s not a role they’re familiar with. So I explain it in brief by saying I design air-conditioning…this usually illicits a response akin to being told they’ve got to do the washing up – bored acceptance. People are aware that air-conditioning is sometimes necessary, but they assume it’s a dull job to be designing it.

That wasn’t always the case though, air-conditioning, cooling and ventilation designers were once so respected that their names, or at least their designs, live on hundreds of years later. These are a few of their stories;

The first air-conditioning design on record is a rotary fan intended for cooling. It had 7 wheels, each with a 3m diameter, and was manually powered. This was designed by a Chinese inventor named Ding Huane…right back in the 2nd Century, yet we still know his name now. Cooling designs, such as water powered fans and fountains were then used in Chinese palace design…one particular example being the ‘Cool Hall’ of Emperor Xuan Zang’s court in 747.

Of course the Chinese were not the only culture to have incorporated cooling into their architecture. The Ancient Romans’ ran aqueduct water through the walls of some buildings and the Medieval Persians used wind catcher towers, cisterns and water towers to provide cooling in their buildings – as can be seen in the diagram:

Persian Air-Conditioning - image credit: 'Cyrus' from

Getting gradually closer to our time, one of the first working air-conditioning systems was developed by Cornelius Drebbel and was demonstrated at Westminster in the 17th century. At the time Drebbel and his inventions were considered so exciting that he was employed by King James I & given rooms at one of the palaces so that he could entertain and astonish the court! His inventions also earned him an invitation to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.

Last, but by no means least, the inventor of modern air-conditioning was Willis Haviland Carrier. He designed a machine using the same kind of refrigerant circuits as every air conditioning system uses today. His contribution was just over 100 years ago (his invention was in 1902), and his name is still known and for his work he has been inducted into America’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, received an honorary doctorate and been awarded the Frank P. Brown medal.

For me, being part of an area of engineering that has been going for hundreds of years and yet still keeps pushing technology further to remain on the cutting edge, makes my job really exciting. I also love to know that my predecessors made emperors comfortable and entertained kings, that tells me that whilst it may be a hidden art these days there was a time when being a building services engineer was a truly glorious role. Perhaps I can make it a little more glorious again, and my blog is where I shall start…


Charlene says:

I bet people are grateful for people like you when it’s hot out! Imagine the boredom in people’s eyes when you tell them you’re a clerical assistant. Although at least most people knew what that meant – Business Support Officer is harder to explain!

Your blog post reminds me of some of those buildings we went to in India with water flowing through to keep it cool.

geekchloe says:

Hi Charlene,

You’re right there – people are always more interested when it’s hot, so of course it was hot countries that first developed ways of keeping structures cool…much like the beautiful places we saw in India as you point out. I love the way that ‘climate control’ was such an integral & ornate part of the buildings back then too – now it tends to be more of an after thought.

Business Support Officer sounds quite cool though…most things with Officer in the title do!


[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marilyn Booth. Marilyn Booth said: RT @geekchloe New blog post about historic HVAC engineers: #ingw […]

Firesparx says:

I know what you mean about the blank look!! I usually get defensive and blurt out “it’s VERY interesting, I swear!” I think the problem is that people in general don’t understand how much science and design is behind heating and cooling. They just think it’s about blowing hot or cold air around the room and calling it a day.

geekchloe says:

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there – people just don’t know how much science & maths is behind it! That’s why I tend to tell people *why* I do it, rather than what I do…people are alot more switched when you tell them that you keep chocolate factories cool enough for the chocolate bars to set, or provide ventilation to stop whisky distillaries exploding rather than “I’m an HVAC engineer” – blank look – “I design air-conditioning” – bored look….

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