- Historic Sites
The Air-conditioned Century
The story of how a blast of cool, dry air changed America
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
In Houston, which may be the most air-conditioned place on earth (95 percent of the homes there have some form of air conditioning) and where the cooling season can run from late February to early December, the psychological effects of all this isolation may even have something to do with the city’s high murder rate. As the historian David McComb, author of Houston, the Bayou City , recently observed: “When you get everything air-conditioned, it shuts people off from the outside environment. So Houstonians are a little out of touch with fellow men, and it’s easier for them to be hostile.”
But for all these negative side effects, there are few who would voluntarily give up cool air and return to the days when the only relief from the summer heat was a fan, a five-cent chip of ice, a front stoop, or for those who could afford it, a trip to the mountains or the seashore.
BEFORE AIR CONDITIONING , movie houses and concert halls would close down when it got too hot. Productivity would fall dramatically. And in some places, like Washington, D.C., business would melt away altogether. There are those who no doubt agree with Emerson that “the less government we have, the better,” but there is no disputing that the nation’s capital was worse off then than it is today. “In those years,” William Manchester has written of the early 1930s, “Washington was officially classified by the British Foreign Office as a ‘sub-tropical climate.’ Diplomats loathed its wilting heat and dense humidity; with the exception of a few downtown theaters which advertised themselves as ‘refrigerated,’ there was no air-conditioning. In summer, the capital was a city of awnings, screened porches, ice wagons, summer furniture and summer rugs, and in the words of an official guidebook, it was also ‘a peculiarly interesting place for the study of insects’”
Things, not people, were the first beneficiaries of Carrier’s technology: it was as an aid to industry that air conditioning found its initial applications. Not until the 1920s were public places, like movie theaters, department stores, and restaurants, air-conditioned in any significant number. And it was even longer before office buildings and homes were mechanically cooled. By following the pathways of this developing technology, it is possible to trace the outlines of social and economic growth in twentieth-century America: from the modernization of industry and the rationalization of production, to the rise of a consumer society, to such things as the advent of the skyscraper, the growth of the Sun Belt, and the development of suburbia.
The term air conditioning was coined not by Carrier but by a man named Stuart Cramer, a North Carolina textile engineer who, in 1906, patented an apparatus for humidifying the air inside textile mills. The manufacture of cloth requires that yarns be kept moist during weaving, which is one reason the industry originally was located along the New England coast—the climate was relatively cool and humid. In the nineteenth century, teapots were used to release moisture directly into the air—a process known as conditioning the yarn—but this tended to make textile mills uncomfortably warm, even in cold weather. Cramer s device was essentially a nozzle that sprayed a fine mist of water into the air, cooling it by evaporation and pumping up the humidity at the same time. By controlling the humidity, he could control the moisture content of the yarn much more precisely than before. He called this process air conditioning. Although his apparatus was not as sophisticated as Carrier’s, the term stuck. Air conditioning, everyone agreed, meant not just cooling air but controlling humidity as well. (The definition, as later expanded by both Cramer and Carrier, included the ventilation and cleansing of air.)
Air conditioning for comfort rather than for greater industrial productivity remained a tough idea to sell.
Despite competition from Cramer and other engineers, Carrier remained at the forefront of technological developments in the field. After refining his installation at the Sackett-Wilhelms printing plant in the spring of 1903, he introduced similar devices to a variety of other industries—a Johnny Icicle planting the seeds of climate control all across America. He air-conditioned the first paper mill in New York in 1906; the first pharmaceutical plant in Detroit in 1907; the first celluloid-film plant in New Jersey in 1908; the first tobacco warehouse in Kentucky in 1909; the first candy-manufacturing establishment in Milwaukee in 1910; and the first bakery in Buffalo in 1911.
In each of these industries humidity was the chief culprit, affecting the thickness of the gelatin capsules used in drug manufacturing, turning chocolates pale, causing mysterious white spots to appear on the RIm being made for the early motion-picture business. In each case the introduction of air conditioning eliminated these problems, rationalized production, and increased output.