- 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 the fall of 1924, after word of mouth about the Texas installations reached New York, the Rivoli Theater on Forty-ninth street and Broadway decided to rip out its ventilating system and replace it with a centrifugal refrigerating apparatus. Carrier quickly realized how important this showcase would be for future sales. When city safety inspectors denied the theater a permit because the refrigerant, dielene, had not been approved for commercial use, he took matters into his own hands. He marched into the safety chief’s office, poured some dielene into a container, and lit it with a match. The safety chief, Carrier later recalled, was furious and a bit scared; but as the chemical slowly burned, without flare-up or explosion, he became convinced that it was not hazardous and granted the permit.
During the 1930s air conditioning took over office and factory, but it did not come into the home.
THE AIR-CONDITIONED Rivoli Theater was scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend, 1925, but, partly because of the delay in getting the permit, the system was not operational until the last minute. Carrier and his engineers were up most of the previous night getting everything ready. Long before the doors opened, people were lined up at the box office. “It was like a World Series crowd waiting for bleacher seats,” Carrier wrote in a memorandum after the event. “They were not only curious, but skeptical—all of the women and some of the men had fans….” Among those in attendance was Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, who had come from California to observe the new system firsthand.
The air conditioning still had not been turned on when the doors finally opened. Carrier recalled what happened next: “The people poured in, filled all the seats, and stood seven deep in the back of the theater. We had more than we had bargained for and were plenty worried. From the wings we watched in dismay as two thousand fans fluttered. We felt that Mr. Zukor was watching the people instead of the picture—and saw all those waving fans!”
At last the compressor began to whir, the dielene to flow, and the temperature in the theater to fall. “Gradually, almost imperceptibly,” Carrier wrote, “the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. Only a few chronic fanners persisted, but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them ‘cold’ …”
After the show Zukor came downstairs and approached Carrier. The movie had been silent, but the studio chief was not. “Yes,” he said, “the people are going to like it.”
The box-office grosses at the Rivoli during the next three months proved Zukor correct: ticket sales were up $100,(K)O over the previous summer—more than the cost of installation itself. During the next five years Carrier air-conditioned over three hundred theaters around the country. Not only had he saved Hollywood from its summer doldrums but, by introducing comfort cooling to the masses, he created a demand for air conditioning that carried his own company through the Depression.
It took the air-conditioning of movie theaters to persuade some members of Congress in 1928 to finally do something about the oppressive conditions in the Capitol. Until then the idea that people should be cool while they worked was considered somewhat fanciful. Although a few offices were air-conditioned before the war, most Americans, including their elected representatives, sweated through the summer months.
Congress first looked into the possibility of cooling the House and Senate chambers in the early 1920s, but like so many other proposals on Capitol Hill, this one got bogged down in committee. Some members objected to the cost of installing such a system—over $300,000 —insisting, in public at least, that it was a luxury they could do without. As late as 1927 the idea was voted down.
Then, early in 1928, a panel of experts that included members of the Public Health Service issued a report recommending that Carrier air-condition the Capitol. Dr. Leonard Greenburg, a member of the panel, testified before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, saying that the quality of the air in summer months was impairing the health and mental faculties of the nation s legislators. This touched off a vigorous debate between William Holaday, a congressman from Illinois, and Frank Murphy of Ohio.
MR. HOLADAY : I would like to have some information as to whether or not there is any real need for this change. Personally, I have not noticed anything wrong with the air in the Hall of the House …
MR. MURPHY : There have for several years been some complaints about the condition of the air in the Chamber. Many of our Members have died recently.
MR. HOLADAY : Maybe their deaths were caused by hard work rather than by the air in the Chamber.
The matter remained unsettled until John Sandlin, a Louisiana Democrat, had the last word. “I think most of the Members,” he said, “heretofore have had the feeling and the belief that there was a lot of foul air in the Hall.”
This time the vote went in favor of the appropriation, and Carrier was called in to do the job. By the end of the year his machines were pumping cool, dry air into the House chamber, and the following summer a similar system was operating in the Senate.