Nowadays, the fan is still an integral item in keeping oneself cool... on an everyday basis, reinforcing the fact that the movement of air is vital for human comfort, and the fan is a cheap, simple option to fulfil this

The history of the fan can be traced back thousands of years. Having transformed and developed from a small hand held device to a mechanical invention, the fan continues to play an integral role in keeping people cool in high temperatures. Pictorial displays indicate that some of the earliest fans date from around 3000 BC, with Greeks, Etruscans and Romans using them to keep cool and as accessories in religious ceremonial displays. Materials such as feathers, paper, jewels and wood created the structure of the fan; the more highly decorative materials only being used on larger fans (held specifically by servants) to indicate wealth and power. The more well known smaller hand held fans are thought to have originated in China, with examples of woven bamboo ceremonial fans been found from as early as the second century BC. Historians have assumed that as these fans were made with very advanced techniques, earlier examples could date back even further. Both the fixed fan and the folding fan (a style that both Japan and China claim to have invented), were used as cooling devices in the hot seasons, but over time garnered many other meanings and uses. Some of these uses included; hiding ones emotions from another; ceremonies; theatrical productions; court processions; cleaning off dust and leaves from public spaces; and even varnished in sap to be used as umbrellas.

During the seventeenth century fans from China were exported in large quantities to Europe. Decorated in Chinese motifs by skilled painters, the nobility of the west were eager to display their “confections from the mysterious East.” Overtime, fans became a sign of wealth and class - a part of the costume for European women, adapted and decorated to suit the style of the time. By the nineteenth century, Japanese fans had become far more popular than their Chinese equivalents and as a result were rapidly exported to the Western market. A relatively cheap item, the Japanese hand fan was an affordable way for all levels of society to enjoy and showcase foreign art or cultural souvenirs (rather than being used as a cooling instrument) in their homes. From a design point of view, hand fans in the West adjusted their uses one more and became a form of advertisement for businesses to promote their goods as well as showcase the growing trend of photography – a rather distinct western representation from the original uses of cooling and ceremony. Nowadays, the fan is still an integral item in keeping oneself cool in Japan and China (not to mention many other countries in Asia and some parts of Europe and the US) on an everyday basis, reinforcing the fact that the movement of air is vital for human comfort, and the fan is a cheap, simple option to fulfil this.

A different type of human operated fan made popular in India in the early seventeenth century was the ‘punkah’ – a name that means ‘wing’ in Sanskrit. Initially made from palm fronds or a cloth-covered wooden frame, the structure was attached to the ceiling and operated using a series of pulleys by a ‘punkah wallah’, a boy servant who controlled the speed of the punkah by the use of his hands and feet. Connected via a string, inserted through a hole in the wall the punkah wallah sat on the other side of the wall. As a result he was required to be punctual, silent, continuously effective, trustworthy and discreet given he heard every detail of business and military planning. Only implemented in the homes and offices of the well to do, the punkah created a constant breeze for the inhabitants, enabling the British expats and wealthy Indians to work and sleep in comfort. As one British resident described, “you have a punkah over your bed, another over your bath-tub, another at your dressing-bureau, another over your dining-table, and another above your desk. Your body servant calls out to your punkah-wallah and has him shift from one cord to another as you move about your room, or go from one room to another. You have the punkah in motion all day and all night somewhere, and for this purpose you must have two men to relieve each other. When you go to bed … you are fanned to sleep.”

For one company, the Punkah is still an ideal option for cooling. The examples shown here are a far more modern electrical interpretation of the original hand pulled device. Source:

The punkah was exported to the wealthy homes of the Southern States of America in the early nineteenth century, appealing to plantation owners as a form of cooling, and because “slaves could labour out of sight”. Other examples of punkah’s have been seen as far afield as Mildura, Australia, Broadway, New York and the Middle East (where the idea is originally have thought to come from). Overshadowed by the invention of the electric fan, the Indian punkah is now often associated with colonialism. However, without its implementation in conjunction with other vernacular architectural methods it is likely that many of the British stationed there would not have adapted or withstood the tropical conditions at play. 

Other variations of the fan have been documented throughout history, including the Chinese invented contraption that consisted of a rotary fan made up of seven wheels, each ten feet in diameter, which could cool an entire hall. In ancient Rome, communities would combine a hand fan with ice or snow and would subsequently blow the cooling breeze onto hot individuals. In more recent times the American invention of blowing air over an ice bucket to cool hospital rooms was used to comfort malaria and yellow-fever patients. Each of these eventually funnelled into the actual invention of the fan as we now know it. In 1841 the first application of mechanical ventilation occurred in St George’s Hall, Liverpool at the hands of Dr David Reid. Reid implemented four large steam driven fans to push air, filtered and warmed (according to need), into a huge reservoir under the hall. Air escaped through thousands of holes near the floor, and subsequently the pressure produced by the fans, forced air into the room and drove the expended air out through holes in the ceiling. Variations on this design continued to be utilised until between 1882 and 1886 when Schuyler Skaats Wheeler, a New Orleans local, developed the precursor to what we now know as the electric fan.

The electrification of cooling via the fan was an iconic moment in comfort practices. Whilst taken up and used differently in different countries, the electric fan changed the focus of cooling from the body to the space of the room - an action that has since set the trend of cooling interior domestic (and other) spaces and allowed for the gradual consolidation of enclosed thermal envelopes. Initially consisting of two blades, and no protective cage, the desktop fan was marketed by the Crocker & Curtis Electric Motor Co. to wealthy individuals and business owners. Expanding on Wheeler’s idea, in 1887 Philip Diehl, a German immigrant to America, took the motor from a Singer Sewing Machine, attached a fan blade and mounted the structure to the ceiling, thereby creating the ceiling fan. Initially ceiling fans were only installed in factories to keep products and employees cool. Later on they were used as in high end hotels and restaurants, before gradually extending to households - primarily in the warmer regions of the South of the United States. By 1910 the electric fan had evolved into a safer, lighter and more functional model and as a result was being marketed by Westinghouse to the general public. Over the next few decades the fan would become a mass produced device, available to households all over the world in varying models, materials and speed sets. Whilst the development of the air conditioner in the 1950s saw the reduction of the use and sales of fans, its invention marked a significant shift in living and working habits, transformed everyday activities, as well as changed the expectations of indoor comfort - factors still relevant today.

In terms of percentages, the invention and accessibility of air conditioners marked the end to fans, with many fan manufacturers shutting down and households progressing to the latest trend. However, the oil embargo in 1973 in the United States and the rising cost of energy thereafter encouraged many people to return to the fan as an energy efficient and cheap source of keeping cool. The same ideals apply today and in response designers have produced varying models of fans for the consumer market.

Dyson has manufactured a bladeless fan that is 75% quieter, can consume up to 40% less energy than previous models and is considered far safer with no high-speed blades. The Big Ass Fan has been designed for both industrial and residential spaces and through the use of sensors, responds directly to the temperature of the room, adjusting as necessary. Utilising blades up to 3.5 metres in length, the Big Ass Fan is able to move large amounts of air within a large space (such as a warehouse), and as a result of the consistency of levels of comfort, makes occupants feel up to 5C cooler and simultaneously reduces energy costs compared to other cooling devices. In recent years, even a bed-fan has been invented to blow cool air underneath a sleepers sheets and comforter to assist in the reduction of body temperature.

Today the humble fan is a preferred option to the air conditioner for many people. Energy efficiency, purchase cost, longer life span, noise levels and air flow, as well as portability around the house and garden are all reasons for continued use and advanced development of the electric fan. The longevity of the fan, both hand held and electric, proves that individual thermal comfort will continue to be maintained by the airflow of fans, enabling those in society without the ability to access air conditioning a way to consistently keep cool and function in high temperatures.


Image References

Further Information

Heating up the debate on Electric Fans - Asian Scientist Newsroom, 2015

Is your Electric Fan trying to kill you? Fan Death: Korean Moms think that your electric fan will kill you - Slate, 2013

Picture Gallery on Fans