- 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
There were also benefits for the workers. When Carrier air-conditioned an American Tobacco Company stemming room in Richmond, Virginia, in 1913, he not only cooled and humidified the air but also caused the dust to settle. “I never saw such a dusty atmosphere,” he later said. “I could see only a few feet in front of me, could not tell whether a person a few feet away was white or black, and could not see the windows across the room even when sunshine fell on them.”
Overnight the stemming room was transformed from a hellhole into one of the most comfortable spots in the factory. Workers from other areas of the plant began eating their lunch there in the cool, clean air. But these employee comforts were considered to be of secondary importance. Although other early air-conditioning installations had been made primarily for comfort—the New York Stock Exchange was cooled by an engineer named Alfred Wolff in 1902, and an air-conditioning apparatus was installed in the building housing Kuhn Loeb, the investment advisory service, in lower Manhattan in 1906 —most companies could not justify the considerable cost of cooling unless it resulted in immediate savings. In trying to persuade Stock Exchange members to install a cooling system in their new building, Wolff had sought to play on such tangible benefits as the removal of moisture from the air. “Instead of there being nine hundred pounds of water appearing in the shirt collars of members,” he told the building committee in 1902, “it is deposited before it enters your rooms.”
Employees, for their part, may have grumbled about the heat, but it was not until 1948 that the Textile Workers Union of America made air conditioning a bargaining issue. That year workers walked off the job at a mill in North Carolina when the indoor temperature hit ninety-five, and the national union went on record calling for temperature and humidity controls in the workplace. “We cannot stress too strongly, the union resolution said, the importance of air conditioning as a means for achieving improved production and employment conditions in the textile industry.”
The emergence of “comfort air conditioning”—as distinguished from “process air conditioning”—was largely a post—World War I phenomenon. By then Carrier had fully worked out the scientific principles of psychrometry (the study of the thermodynamics of air and watervapor mixtures), which he presented in a historic paper, called “Rational Psychrometric Formulae,” delivered to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1911. He had also made significant improvements in the design of his air-conditioning apparatus and had scraped together $32,600 from a group of associates in 1915 to form his own corporation, Carrier Engineering, after years of being under the wing of the Buffalo Forge Company.
IN ONE SITUATION after another, Carrier had successfully demonstrated that air conditioning worked. In 1914 he air-conditioned a hospital ward—the room for premature babies at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh—thereby reducing the mortality rate. That same year, he installed the first home air-conditioning unit, a monstrous affair, in the Minneapolis mansion of Charles G. Gates. And his equipment was used to cool the Pompeiian Dining Room of the Congress Hotel in Chicago, much to the satisfaction of the restaurant’s patrons.
Still, air conditioning for comfort was hard to sell. It was expensive to install and expensive to operate—a luxury beyond the reach of all but a very few. Carrier began to promote his machines more aggressively after the war, launching an advertising campaign with the slogan “Every day a good day.” But it took another invention, a group of adventurous theater owners, and a booming economy to really crack the market for comfort cooling.
The invention was the centrifugal refrigerating machine unveiled by Carrier at a dinner in Newark in 1922, to which he invited three hundred engineers. The machine marked the first major advance in refrigeration since Boyle’s ammonia compressor of 1872. It used a safe refrigerant called dielene, instead of toxic ammonia, and its centrifugal compressor was far more compact and efficient. Although there were problems with the early models, the design of the new machine made it more practical for commercial installations. In 1924 the first department store to be air-conditioned, J. L. Hudson’s in Detroit, purchased an air conditioner using a centrifugal refrigerating system to cool its basement. Summer sales picked up immediately.
It was the motion-picture business, however, that gave comfort cooling its biggest boost. A few movie houses had installed air conditioning prior to the invention of the centrifugal refrigerating machine—one, Balaban and Katz’s Central Park Theater in Chicago, as early as 1919. These initial installations were drafty, since the cool air was pumped into the theater through vents in the floor and did not efficiently control humidity. In 1922 Carrier engineers built the first top-down, or bypass, cooling system for Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles. This is generally considered to be the birthplace of theater air conditioning, although the real test came three years later at the Rivoli Theater in New York. Centrifugal refrigerating systems had been installed in a number of Texas theaters in 1924—the Palace in Dallas and the Texan and the Iris in Houston—revolutionizing the picture-show business there, but until the new system played on Broadway, it could not really be considered a success.