How Have Heat Pumps Evolved in Surf City, NC?

Today’s heat pump is an engineering marvel that can perform double duty as both a heating and a cooling system — and do so with impressive efficiency. It wasn’t easy to reach such a point, though, and many things had to occur to make heat pumps possible. Here’s the story about how heat pumps have evolved over the years.

The Foundations

The Austrian mining engineer Peter von Rittinger created the very first heat pump in 1856. Unlike today’s heat pumps, Rittinger’s machine had exclusively industrial applications, removing brine from Austrian salt marshes. Though Rittinger’s invention used a compressor to create condensation, it still stands quite far from today’s heat pumps, and it also had precursors as well.

To understand the history that took place both before and after Rittinger’s innovation, we have to remember that heat pumps have the power to both heat and cool an indoor area. Thus, they represent the culmination of two different paths of development in cooling and heating technology. To really sketch out heat pumps’ evolution, we must say something about these two paths.

As early as 1558, Giambattista della Porta found a way to use potassium nitrite to rapidly cool water. This was one of the discoveries that enabled the Dutch engineer and inventor Cornelis Drebbel to build a giant cooling machine and famously demonstrate its working by cooling Westminster Abbey in 1620.

From there, the Scottish chemist and doctor William Cullen created his own cooling machine in 1748. Cullen’s machine was special because it used a pump to form a vacuum above a solution of diethyl ether, making it an important ancestor of the heat pump. Ten years later, Ben Franklin and John Hadley also did some important experiments in evaporative cooling using alcohol.

In the 19th century, the Americans Oliver Evans and John Gorrie each designed their own refrigeration machines. These were special because they used compressors. Evans’ machine came first, but Gorrie subsequently made improvements.

In the field of heating, Ben Franklin invented a cast-iron furnace that had adjustable baffles in 1748. Franz San Galli invented and patented the radiator in 1857. Dave Lennox built heating machines that could burn coal in 1885.

The Turning Point

These two paths officially converged in 1852 thanks to an important theoretical discovery from William Thompson, a British physicist whom many more people today know as Lord Kelvin. Kelvin theorized that the same processes that make artificial cooling possible could run in reverse under the right conditions and generate heat. This finding is the theoretical core that eventually blossomed into the heat pump.

Modern Heat Pumps Appear

Rittinger’s original heat pump only pressurized water vapor in its compressor. In 1859, however, Ferdinand Carre modified the original design so that the device would use ammonia as coolant. Though this opened the door for heat pumps to use refrigerant, these systems would not find any domestic use until the 20th century.

In 1945, the English engineer John Sumner invented the first air-source heat pump, the prototype of today’s versions. Since England had plentiful coal at the time, there was unfortunately little interest in electric heating. Sumner’s invention was extremely efficient, and the American engineer Robert Webber expanded upon that design to create a ground-source heat pump in 1948.

Due to the 1970s energy crisis, fossil fuels became relatively scarce and expensive, and interest in electrically powered heating and cooling exploded. Governments began subsidizing research into alternative energy sources.

Heat pumps would steadily grow in popularity over the coming decades. Now, more than 17 million homes in the U.S. use heat pumps. The industry has expanded to include armies of skilled repair and maintenance service technicians.

This excursion into the history, evolution and grounding of heat pumps has hopefully given you some new appreciation for what these devices are capable of. You may have even decided that a heat pump would be just right for your home in Surf City, NC, this winter. Just call Gideon Heating & Air Conditioning, and we’ll gladly provide you with the heat pump services you require.

Image provided by iStock

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