The Air-conditioned Century


Ever since the early nineteenth century, when New England ice merchants built a thriving international trade on a homegrown product that made it possible to store food year round, Americans had been in the forefront of attempts to control the environment. The first ice-making machine was patented in 1851 by Dr. John Gorrie, the director of the U.S. Marine hospital in Apalachicola, Florida, who used it to keep his malaria and yellow fever patients cool when his supply of natural ice from Boston was interrupted by a regional trade dispute. Another Southerner, a transplanted Scot named David Boyle, invented the first ammonia compressor in 1872, which he used to produce ice for the King Ranch in Texas. Within a decade mechanical refrigeration devices were being used by breweries, restaurants, and meat-packing plants all over the country, prompting Ogden Doremus’s famous challenge: “If they can cool dead hogs in Chicago, why not live bulls and bears on the New York Stock Exchange?” Indeed, by the end of the century, refrigerating plants were being used in conjunction with cooling coils to chill air for the comfort of humans and, at Cornell Medical College in New York, for the preservation of corpses.


At the same time these advances in refrigeration were being made, another breakthrough in the control of the indoor environment—the domestication of electricity —was under way. Thomas Edison’s experiments with the distribution of electricity, culminating in the opening of the first electric power plant in New York in 1882, made it possible, for the first time, to have a convenient and relatively inexpensive source of energy in residential and commercial buildings. And his invention of the incandescent light bulb a few years earlier meant that illumination could now be provided without befouling the air with moisture, carbon oxides, and other by-products of combustion.

It was on the foundation of these two developing technologies—refrigeration and electricity—that Willis Carrier built his first air-conditioning apparatus in 1902. Carrier was a pragmatist—“I fish only for edible fish, and hunt only for edible game, even in the laboratory,” he once said—and his interest in humidity was strictly a business proposition at first. The Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, where the humor magazine Judge was printed, was having trouble with its color registration during the summer months. The paper, it seemed, was absorbing moisture from the air and expanding, so that colors printed on humid days did not line up with ones laid down in drier weather. Carrier, who was working for the Buffalo Forge Company at the time, was called in to solve the problem.

The apparatus the young engineer devised was primitive, but it worked. Using chilled coils to cool the air and rid it of excess moisture, he was able to keep the humidity down to 55 percent. And he managed to provide the equivalent cooling effect of melting 108,000 pounds of ice a day—ten times as much as was actually melted to cool President Garfield’s bedroom. Carrier may have been a practical man, but he was enough of a visionary to realize that the machine he invented could have a dramatic impact on the quality of life in America and around the world.

It is difficult today, some eighty years after Carrier’s revelation, to conjure up a world without air conditioning. Take computers, for example, which cannot operate at high temperatures. Or the city of Houston, which would hardly exist as we know it today without air conditioning. Or jet travel. Or any one of a thousand drugs, synthetic fibers, precision instruments, and foodstuffs that could not be manufactured in an unregulated environment. Whole areas of the world, including the Sun Belt of the United States, have been opened up to productive industry. And so accustomed have people become to cool air that two-thirds of all new homes and 83 percent of all new cars built in this country are now equipped with air conditioning. In the first nine months of 1983 alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Americans spent $9.5 billion—more than the gross national product of many Third World nations—keeping their homes, offices, and factories cool.

Carrier was the Johnny Icicle who planted the seeds of climate control across turn-of-the-century America.

There are some who say we live in an over-air-conditioned society. The novelist Henry Miller entitled his account of a 1940 cross-country trip Air-Conditioned Nightmare —his metaphor for everything he found artificial about America. In more recent years there has been talk about “tight-building syndrome,” a cluster of physical ailments affecting people who work in hermetically sealed environments; about leaving public buildings warmer in summer months as a way of reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil; about the danger of bacteria being spread through air-conditioning ducts, as Legionnaire’s Disease apparently was at a Philadelphia hotel in 1976; and about the general atomization of society in cities where people rarely leave the comfort of their air-conditioned houses, cars, or offices.