The Air-conditioned Century


The appeal to women apparently worked: the room air conditioner, and later central air conditioning, became a standard feature of the American home, as integral a part of the middle-class family as the washing machine and the two-car garage. What had once been a special privilege of the rich was now an inalienable right of the common man. “The rump of a room conditioner bulging out of the window,” Fortune wrote in 1953, “is becoming as unexclusive a social symbol as the television aerial overhead.” By 1962 nearly six and a half million homes in the United States, six out of ten hotel rooms, and half of all office buildings were air-conditioned.


In 1941, just before shifting his attention to the war effort, Willis Carrier predicted, “The time is almost here when men will no more let themselves and their families suffer from heat and humidity than they now permit them to suffer from cold and storm.” Carrier did not live to see that day. He died in 1950. But within a few years of his death, the revolution he started and nurtured for half a century had finally come to pass.

ON A COLD, SNOWY DAY last March, in a vast factory outside of Syracuse, New York, dozens of Carrier air conditioners were rolling off an assembly line. If the air outside could have been bottled and sold in hot weather, a man would make a fortune. Inside, hundreds of men and women were doing the next best thing: manufacturing machines to keep us cool this summer. There was an enormous green compressor, taller than a man, destined for Bellevue Hospital in New York, and another headed for an animal research laboratory in Atlanta. In one part of the plant, fat rolls of aluminum were being cut and stamped into wafflelike fins that would become the guts of a 7,600 Btu Siesta room air conditioner. Overhead an endless row of empty steel cases inched along toward the paint room.

The mere contemplation of all this potential cooling was enough to chill the mind. Indeed, it took me a while to realize that something was terribly wrong. In summertime the problem might have been more obvious, but in the middle of winter one hardly noticed. Yet there they were, sitting on shelves, standing in corners—silent, grimy relics of a bygone era. My guide, a retired Carrier employee who had worked in this plant for more than twenty years, assured me that, yes, they were used to keep the factory cool in summer. Still, it was hard to believe. In a factory where air conditioners are made, a factory run by the company that started it all, they still use electric fans.

Willis Carrier would not have been happy about that.

Days of Unconditioned Air