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How air conditioning changed America forever

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For those of us who live in the sweatier parts of the country, life without air conditioning can be difficult to imagine. Not even the opportunity to pop into a chilly movie on a sweltering day?

But when air conditioning was first invented in the 1800s, hardly anyone actually wanted it. It took more than 100 years for AC to really catch on. This innovation took a long road, which Salvatore Basile explores in his new book, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.

"I think there were many people who thought, 'God made bad weather so you should just put up with it.' And I think the idea of dealing with heat was to ignore it," Basile told me in a recent phone interview.

Eventually, air conditioning did win out and ended up changing a lot — from where people live in the United States to the architecture of our buildings to even the evolution of computers. The interview with Basile is below:


Susannah Locke: Many people know that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. But who invented air conditioning? This person never seemed to get that level of fame.

Salvatore Basile: The key person is John Gorrie, who in the 1840s put some ideas together. He was sort of an amateur tinkerer and developed the first refrigeration compressor. It was something driven by a steam engine. He could make cold air. He could also make ice.

He was a doctor who worked in Florida, treated a lot of fever patients, and thought that if you could bring their temperature down, they might be cured. That is how he became interested in this machine. It worked in his hospital. But when he tried to patent it, he ran into opposition — this is sort of the legend — from the natural-ice trade at the time. Artificial ice would have ruined their business. He was never able to get his machine into production, and the machine pretty much fell into oblivion.

Then it was years later that Willis Carrier developed what we all know as the first real air-conditioning system. But it was a very expensive job no matter where it was done, so it was done exclusively in factories. Carrier tried for years to sell this to the home market. But unfortunately at the time when the technology was becoming small enough to be inserted in a house, the depression hit. And people who could not afford bread were not about to worry about their summertime comfort. And once the country recovered from the depression, we were in the middle of World War II. So it wasn't really until after the second World War that the United States consumers had a chance to look at air conditioning as a possible, real, viable alternative.

SL: There seemed to be a ton of resistance to the idea of air conditioning. People weren't even interested in the idea of getting cooler air. Why was that?

SB: The US is a puritan country. And because we're a puritan country, I found that there were people who would quote the book of Amos from the Bible as the reason — that the Lord was the being who created the wind. In other words, man was not to do this. So fans were inherently sinful. This, I think, carried on to the idea of any machine that would change the weather, even though heat was something that we'd been doing for millennia.

The idea of cooling your own air, I have a feeling, to many people that felt very self-indulgent at the time. I think they objected to that from a moral standpoint. So the idea that human comfort would be mixed up with morals, well that's sort of a bad place for the PR of air conditioning to exist. And when we got into the idea of having a machine that could actually cool the air (and the first examples of that were in the 19th century), there was one man who was ousted from his church because he had seen such a machine. And it was powered by a steam engine, and his church committee had accused him of lying because such a thing could not exist. It was against nature.

So transferring that into the modern time, I think there were many people who thought "God made bad weather so you should just put up with it." And I think the idea of dealing with heat was to ignore it. Indeed, in Victorian society, one must ignore hot weather because it did not exist. That was simply the given standard of behavior for the time. And so many people would ignore it and then keel over from heat stroke.

With that kind of mindset in the population, to offer them the chance to be cool did create a lot of opposition at first.

Metropolitan Opera old

Concert at the Metropolitan Opera. Arts venues often used to shut down completely in the summer because of horrific heat. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

SL: For a long time, extreme cold was viewed as unhealthy, but extreme heat was viewed as an annoyance. What was medicine's view of why people felt bad in stuffy, crowded rooms?

SB: Doctors did not have a standardized way of dealing with heat exhaustion, heat stroke or even a standardized way of viewing it. In a confined space, which theaters were the worst because they had no windows, basically the idea was that something called crowd poison would spring up out of nowhere from the exhalations of people.

And the medical establishment at the time was so divided and so opinionated and in many cases so unscientific that there were doctors who recommended you drink as little as possible in order to get through a hot day. If someone were to collapse on the street of heat exhaustion, I found that they might be injected with brandy or given a turpentine enema or rubbed all over with mustard. And it was only a few doctors who thought, "Cool the patient down," and very few thought to hydrate the person. And as far as the consequences, every day in the papers you would have a list of people who had died from the heat, and depending on the day it would be sometimes a very long list, unfortunately.

SL: One of the things that was making people so hot was that buildings weren't designed with ventilation — moving the air around — in mind. What were some of the terrible designs that made people swelter?

SB: Of course, part of the biggest problem was that glass in the 19th century was very expensive no matter how you got it. So windows were at a great premium. Because of that, many buildings ended up having very little in the way of openings to the outside air.

And, of course, with the stone and brick construction, buildings like that might be somewhat insulated from heat, but when they got hot they stayed hot longer.

When skyscraper architecture began to exist, the theory was that space was not really rentable if it was more than 25 feet from an open window because there would be no way to get air into the building. In New York, if you look at many of the great towers, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State building, absolutely they had been built very carefully to makes sure that they would be very open to windows, if possible.

It was not until the advent of air conditioning that the actual climate inside could be changed. By the 1950s, buildings were being built that had no windows operating at all. In that sense, air conditioning was responsible for an entirely new type of architecture.

Empire State Building

The Empire State Building could have had a bigger footprint like newer skyscrapers if people hadn't needed to be near a window to keep cool. (D Dipasupil/Getty Images for New York Cosmos)

For that matter, computers would not really have existed without air conditioning because the thousands of tubes that computers used in the 1940s and 1950s. They had to be in refrigerated rooms, basically, in order to not burn up.

SL: Air conditioning is a huge energy consumer, and energy use is becoming more and more of an issue. What do you think is the way out?

SB: That is a problem. I have learned that there's research happening now for systems that will be entirely different from the current version of air conditioning that we all know and love. There are machines that will take the place of the compressor-driven air conditioner.

There is research being done on something called a DEVAP, which is pretty much a refinement of what used to be called the swamp cooler, the evaporative cooler. (Evaporative cooling is the old system where air would be blown through a moistened filter.) It is enabling air to be cooled without using refrigerants. Now, if this is able to come into the marketplace, you'll be looking at a machine that could cool air for possibly an energy savings of up to 90 percent. That is great. This would work in a very low humidity environment.

And then manufacturers of standard air conditioning as we all know it have been working for some years to make those machines much more energy efficient and with refrigerants that would be much more powerful. As far as the energy efficiency — yes, that is a problem by all means, however it is also a problem to die of heat exhaustion.

SL: At what temperature do you keep your air conditioner?

SB: I tend to keep mine at 73. I've tried 74, really I have. I'll try to do better in the future, I promise.

Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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