Air Conditioning

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT HATED it. Las Vegas would not exist without it. It has been credited with everything from lowering the incidence of heart attacks to the rise of the sun belt. It has been blamed for the disappearance of the front porch and the exploding size of the federal government. Few of this century's inventions have been so damned and praised as air conditioning. The rock band NRBQ once wrote a song called "I Love Air Conditioning," which included the lyric "And when I'm tired, and I'm so confused/Air conditioning I will use." There is even a mythology of air conditioning: for years the (unfortunately) baseless tale has circulated that the big character heads--Mickey, Goofy, et al.--at Disney World and Disneyland are air-conditioned. Like the car and the television set, air conditioning has always done double duty. It is both an appliance and a social force.

People knew they wanted air conditioning long before they were able to produce a machine that could do the job. The early efforts would have made Rube Goldberg blush. The first serious attempt to build an air conditioner in the United States took place in Florida in the 1830s. Dr. John Gorrie created a system that forced air over buckets of ice suspended from the ceiling to lower the temperatures of hospital patients suffering from malaria and yellow fever. Not much progress had been made by the summer of 1881, when President James Garfield lay dying from an assassin's bullet. Naval engineers contrived a box in which melted ice water saturated flaglike cloths over which a fan blew hot air. This could lower the room temperature by 20 degrees, but in the two months that their machine comforted the dying president, it consumed more than half a million pounds of ice.

What we would recognize as an air conditioner--a machine that cools, cleans and dehumidifies air--was not invented until 1902, when a young engineer named Willis Carrier created what he called an Apparatus for Treating Air. Carrier built his machine for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y., where humidity was bedeviling printers' efforts to accurately print color. Carrier used chilled coils to cool the air and lower humidity to 55 percent--or to any level desired and precisely every time. This exactness was the most wondrous aspect of the new invention. Carrier's machine was the template from which all future air conditioners would be struck.

Printing plants, textile mills, pharmaceutical manufacturers, the occasional hospital-the first air-conditioned buildings were mostly industrial. (The idea of using Carrier's invention merely for personal comfort lay decades in the future, although the first air-conditioned home appeared in 1914, when Charles Gates, son of the high-rolling gambler John "Bet a Million" Gates, installed a cooling system in his mansion in--of all places--Minneapolis.) Carrier's earliest systems were enormous and expensive, as well as dangerous. The original coolant was toxic ammonia. But in 1922 Carrier achieved a double breakthrough, replacing the ammonia with a benign coolant called dielene and introducing a central compressor that made the cooling units much more compact. The biggest step forward came when Carrier sold his invention to the movies, or, more exactly, movie-theater operators.

A handful of movie palaces were air-conditioned in the early '20s, but the most important debut was at the Rivoli on Broadway in New York City in 1925. Adolph Zukor himself, the head of Paramount Pictures, showed up for the opening. Willis Carrier was there, too, literally sweating it out because when the doors opened to let in the first customers, the system had just been turned on and the building was still hot. "From the wings we watched in dismay as 2,000 fans fluttered," Carrier wrote of that night. "We felt that Mr. Zukor was watching the people instead of the picture--and saw all those waving fans." At last cool air began flowing through the air ducts. One by one, the patrons dropped their fans into their laps. "Only a few chronic farmers persisted," according to Carrier, "but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them 'cold'."

Before long, office buildings, department stores and railroad cars got central air. In 1928 the U.S. House of Representatives got it, followed a year later by the Senate and a year after that by the White House and then the Supreme Court. But the industry's biggest growth spurt came after World War II. The first window units appeared right after the war, and sales took off immediately, jumping from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1958. The dripping box jutting out of the bedroom window joined the TV aerial on the roof as instant fixtures in the American suburban landscape.

Washington journalists have written endlessly and only half-jokingly about the effects AC has had on D.C., pointing out that the federal bureaucracy mushroomed only after air conditioning appeared on the scene to keep the city's famously fetid summers at bay. (Federal workers used to be sent home whenever the temperature/ humidity index topped 90 degrees.) But sociologists and historians have been largely silent about a much larger change: the rise of the sun belt in precisely the same decades that air conditioning became commonplace south of the Mason-Dixon line.

In the 1960s, for the first time since the Civil War, more people moved into the South than left it. In the next decade, twice as many people moved in as departed. The South today is a busier, more crowded, more urban, more industrialized place than it was 50 years ago. It even looks different. Walk down the street of a Southern or a Southwestern city at night, and there's no one out. All you can hear is the sound of the heat pump on the side of the house; all you can see is the blue glow behind the living-room curtains. Where people once wore seersucker and linen, the shoppers of Atlanta and Houston and Phoenix now buy the same clothes people buy in Cleveland or Seattle.

With 95 percent of the houses buttoned up for air conditioning, their porches gone, the owners inside all year round, there is no longer any need to accommodate the weather. As Raymond Arsenault, a professor of history at the University of South Florida, points out, "Ask any Southerner over 30 years of age to explain why the South has changed in recent decades, and he may begin with the civil-rights movement or industrialization. But sooner or later he will come around to the subject of air conditioning. For better or worse, the air conditioner has changed the nature of Southern life." Mostly, Arsenault suggests, by making it less Southern.

"General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman," Arsenault writes. The only thing that allows us to talk about places as different as Miami and Houston and Knoxville and Tucson in the same sentence, the only thing, in fact, that allows us to entertain the notion of something called the sun belt, is that all those places are less unique, blander, if you will, than they were before air conditioning. "The modern shopping mall is the cathedral of air-conditioned culture," says Arsenanlt, "and it symbolizes the placelessness of the New South." Perhaps, but it is, at last, a cool place.

Join the Discussion