Most of North America is at the moment sweltering its way through another gross, humid, gross summer. I myself am writing this from in front of an itty-bitty ten-year-old window-unit air conditioner, trying not to stick to the leather of the couch I’ve awkwardly shoved in front of it.
It’s with a certain amount of joy and gratitude then (seriously, I bought a tiny cake) that I celebrated July 16, 2012, the 110th anniversary of the first air conditioner! Air conditioning is pretty much everywhere now, and if you’re unlucky enough not to have it in your own home, in the heat of the summer the government actively encourages you to go someplace that does.
It has left the category of Luxury Purchase, if you will, and is now entering a lazy, elliptical, but increasingly declining orbit around the planetoid Necessity. All of which qualifies air conditioning as Tech That Changed Everything.
Prior to the dawn of air conditioning, human beings had rather limited options to help keep themselves cool in the summer. They swam. They fanned themselves. As playwright Arthur Miller wrote of his own childhood:
On the streets venders manning little carts chopped ice and sprinkled colored sugar over mounds of it for a couple of pennies. […]
People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.
However, air conditioning had its humble beginnings not as a human-comforting device, but as a business necessity. In 1902, a printing plant in Brooklyn, New York, had a problem: charged with the weekly production of a satirical magazine, the printers found that in the hot summer months, the paper they ran through successive (black and colour ink) presses would absorb moisture from the humid air and expand just enough that their colours wouldn’t align properly.
A junior engineer with the building’s furnace company named Willis Carrier (yes, his Carrier Corporation fortune yet to be made) came up with the solution that had eluded big thinkers for centuries. It involved “fans, ducts, heaters, and perforated pipes,” and in 1903, Carrier further modified his design to include a refrigerating machine that would more swiftly cool the water-filled pipes across which air was forced.
Carrier’s designs spread quickly over the next few years, and ushered in an era not only of personal comfort, but of industrial climate control. Really: if we didn’t have air conditioning, there would be no such thing as “clean rooms,” where all our electronics and sensitive devices get put together. No A/C = no Internet!
It wasn’t all unwilting daisies and non-panting puppies and not-melting ice cream, though. “Improvements” to Willis Carrier’s original concept included the dastardly chloroflouorocarbons, used as refrigerants. The horrible effects of CFCs, like those of many facets of life in the post-war era (see also: DDT, smoking), weren’t immediately apparent. Soon, those suckers were gnawing holes in the ozone layer, and usage was banned in 1979.
Today’s refrigerants are a bit more benign, blended from a variety of chemicals that aim to strike a balance between efficiency of cooling and environmental soundness. One of the biggest environmental concerns is the fact that air conditioners suck electricity like a fox does eggs (dear lord, do they ever!)— and how your electricity is produced has an effect on how “green” it is.
I for one am pretty damn grateful for the invention of air conditioning, even though I often experience the flipside of such riches: the too-cold office or public building, where you actually have to put on a sweater to warm up! The pendulum has swung all the way around, and now we can’t even imagine that a cup of ice chips with sugar used to be the only game in town. Air conditioning: definitely tech that shaped our world.