The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

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…

et cetera
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