King Of Cool

WILLIS CARRIER So it was the humidity! How a kindly engineer from the Snowbelt helped make the Sunbelt boom

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Would you like to write about Willis H. Carrier?"

"And who the hell might he be?"

"Man who invented air conditioning."

"A lifelong hero of mine!"

And what a splendid fellow he was too, in addition to being such a benefactor to mankind (unless you want to hold all the Yankees who have moved to the South against him). A perfectly Horatio Alger kind of guy was Willis Carrier, struggling against odds, persisting, overcoming. Slapped down by the Great Depression, he fought back again to build an enormous concern that to this good day is the world's leading maker of air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems.

And think of the difference he's made. As anyone who has ever suffered through a brutal summer can tell you, if it weren't for Carrier's having made human beings more comfortable, the rates of drunkenness, divorce, brutality and murder would be Lord knows how much higher. Productivity rates would plunge 40% over the world; the deep-sea fishing industry would be deep-sixed; Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel would deteriorate; rare books and manuscripts would fall apart; deep mining for gold, silver and other metals would be impossible; the world's largest telescope wouldn't work; many of our children wouldn't be able to learn; and in Silicon Valley, the computer industry would crash.

The major imponderable in the life of Willis Carrier is whether he was actually a genius, which depends, of course, on the definition. Engineers will tell you that theirs is a craft more of persistence than inspiration. Yet Carrier was without question the leading engineer of his day on the conditioning of air (more than 80 patents). Carrier was also an exceptionally nice man, according to all reports, modest and sometimes droll, and a farsighted manager--he devoutly believed in teamwork and mentoring decades before the management consultants discovered it. One of his other management precepts, born of his own experience, is that time spent staring into space while thinking is not time wasted.

Carrier was the offspring of an old New England family--in fact, his many times great-grandmother, who was known for her "keen sense of justice and a sharp tongue," was hanged as a witch by the Puritans in Salem. The son of a farmer and a "birthright Quaker" mother, Carrier was the only child in a houseful of adults, including his grandparents and great-aunt. He seems to have been a born tinkerer and figurer-out of problems. Unfortunately, he was seriously handicapped by lack of wherewithal. He worked his way through high school, taught for three years and finally won a four-year scholarship to Cornell University.

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