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The Air-conditioned Century

July 2024
23min read

The story of how a blast of cool, dry air changed America

IN THE SUMMER of 1881, as James Garfield lay dying of an assassin’s bullet in the White House, a team of naval engineers was called in to solve a vexing problem: how to cool the President’s bedroom. The temperature in Washington was hovering above ninety, and the humidity was uncomfortably high.

Within a week of the shooting, working virtually around the clock, the engineers had rigged up a contraption that provided some relief. It consisted of a large cast-iron box, about the size of a coffin, which contained dozens of screens, each made of a thin layer of terry-cloth cotton. On top of this box was a tank holding more than half a ton of shaved ice, salt, and water. As the ice melted, it turned into a briny slush, which trickled down onto the terry-cloth screens. A fan at one end of the lower box sucked in air from the outside, which was cooled as it passed across the screens and was then pumped through a duct into the President s bedroom.

After making a number of refinements to control the incessant clatter of the machine and the moisture content of the air it produced—at first the humidity in the room actually increased—the engineers finally succeeded. The temperature in the sickroom dropped twenty degrees, and the air was noticeably drier than outside. Of course, these conditions were not achieved without considerable effort: during the fifty-eight days that the apparatus was cooling the President, it consumed over half a million pounds of ice. In the end Garfield s doctors allowed their mortally wounded patient to escape the enervating Washington heat by removing him to the New Jersey shore.

Nevertheless, the naval engineers were pleased with the results of their experiments. “This field of study,” they noted in their report, “presents great opportunities for effecting a better condition of the atmosphere of our rooms… . Hospitals and public buildings ought to he especially protected from the evil results attending a vitiated condition of the air, and we can see no reason why their atmosphere may not be made comfortable and healthful at all seasons and under all conditions of the outside air.”

The 1881 White House “air conditioner” used more than four tons of ice a day just to cool one room.

Twenty-one years were to pass before what is now considered the first real air-conditioning apparatus was installed by Willis Haviland Carrier in a Brooklyn printing plant; another twelve before the first hospital ward was air-conditioned; ten more before the first department store was mechanically cooled; and seventy years in all before the vision of President Garfield’s attending engineers was fully realized.

Although we now take for granted what can be accomplished with a flick of a switch, the ability to control indoor environment was, only a hundred years ago, still beyond the reach of technology. The experiments at the White House in the summer of 1881 notwithstanding, a practical solution to the problem of regulating both the temperature and the moisture content of air remained as elusive as ever. A system that required the melting of several tons of ice a day to cool just one room was an extravagance that only the very rich or the very powerful could afford.


And even then there was no guarantee of comfort, because air passing through damp cloth or over melting ice absorbs moisture from evaporating water. As ingenious as men had been in devising ways to cool themselves—an eighth-century Baghdad caliph packed imported snow between the double walls of his summer villa, and Leonardo da Vinci designed a water-driven fan to cool the boudoir of his patron’s wife—no one had figured out how to conquer humidity, short of picking up and moving to a drier climate.

The simple reason was that the precise relationship between temperature and moisture was not understood before Carrier. The clue had been staring people in the face for centuries—every time drops of moisture condensed on the outside of a glass of ice water—but until Willis Carrier had his epiphany on a cold, foggy night in a Pittsburgh train station in the fall of 1902, the trick of reducing humidity to a desired level and holding it there had not been mastered. Carrier was only twenty-five, just a year and a half out of Cornell University. What he saw on that fog-shrouded night was the fundamental principle upon which the air-conditioning industry was later built, a concept so simple and yet so paradoxical that no one had seen it before: it was possible, he realized, to dry air by saturating it with water.

Carrier’s solution to the problem of humidity control, which he patented four years later as his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” was to create an artificial fog by spraying a fine mist of water into a box, thereby saturating the air inside. By adjusting the temperature of the water spray, he could control the temperature of the air and, since cold air was known to hold less moisture than warm air, regulate the humidity as well. In effect he was able to wring the excess moisture out of the air passing through his apparatus by using the water particles from the spray as a condensing surface. And he could do it with precision, achieving any level of humidity desired.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Soon other branches of government grew envious. During the winter of 1929, after a Christmas Eve fire destroyed the old office wing of the White House, and at the outset of America s darkest depression, Herbert Hoover approved the installation of a $30,000 air-conditioning and heating unit in the renovated West Wing. Hoover, who went so far as to build a retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains to escape what he once referred to as “Washingtons exhausting summer heat,” was delighted with the results. Not to be outdone, the Supreme Court followed suit in 1931, air-conditioning most of its building, even though the Court was not in session during the summer months.

Gradually the idea of c(X)ling off the workplace took hold, although the growth of the air-conditioning industry, the number of installations, and the development of the necessary technology were set back by a decade of economic stagnation.

The first multistory office building to be fully air-conditioned, in 1926, was a small, eight-story structure in Fresno, California; the first large air-conditioned office tower was the twenty-one-story Milam Building in San Antonio, Texas, which opened two years later. The Milam Building, the tallest concrete-framed structure in the world at the time, had a central refrigerating source in the basement and a series of smaller plants on every other Boor. Cool air was distributed to each office through metal ducts, and warm air returned via the hallways. The problem with this system, a problem that made air conditioning an unattractive proposition to most builders until the late 1930s, was that the ductwork took up a considerable amount of space: the comforts of air conditioning simply could not offset the loss of valuable square footage. Thus, the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, and most other large office buildings constructed during those years were not air-conditioned, even though the technology was available.

Those buildings that were air-conditioned provided a continuing source of wonderment as well as comfort. Secretaries no longer had to worry about soot coming through the windows. Bosses took to wearing sweaters in the middle of summer. And a study of Detroit Edison workers done in 1938 showed an astounding 51 percent increase in productivity.

WHEN THE BUILDING that housed the Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, was air-conditioned in 1935, the business manager, William L. White, the son of the paper s famous editor, William Alien White, marveled at the cooling coils that looked like “large-sized copper macaroni” and the condenser that reminded him of the “motor of a 1910 Packard sedan with a fresh coat of paint.” According to White, “the greatest wonder of these wonders to our mind is this: you can put your hand for an instant on that 3-inch pipe, which is almost hot enough to fry an egg, and feel the concentrated, pulsating bodily warmth of nine doctors, two dentists, an osteopath, three professional men, 10 comely office girls and an indeterminate number of assorted patients—all passing through that pipe, throbbing under the fingers of your one hand, in one gesture, in one second. A thrill, gentlemen, that Lincoln, Louis XIV, Nero Ahenobarbus, and Ramses II never could have enjoyed.”

What finally made the air-conditioning of skyscrapers feasible and ultimately made the modern, boxlike office building possible, was another Carrier invention—the Conduit Weathermaster System—introduced in 1937. Carrier’s solution was to distribute moisture-controlled air through narrow ducts at high velocity, thus allowing smaller pipes. The air was then further cooled or heated at the point of delivery by individually controlled units placed under the window of each office. These units, which had chilled or warmed water circulating in coils, depending on the season, controlled not only the temperature of the air but also noise and drafts. Among the first buildings to make use of the system were the Bankers Life Building in Macon, Georgia, the Durham Life Building in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C.

IT WAS NOT until after the war, however, that this new technology had its greatest impact. Along with the development of the fluorescent light tube in the late 1930s, which made it possible to illuminate windowless areas without generating an excessive amount of heat, the Conduit Weathermaster freed architects from environmental constraints on design: windows could be sealed (or eliminated altogether); airshafts were no longer necessary for lighting or ventilation; and interior areas could now be turned into usable space.

The first signs of this architectural liberation could be seen in Howe and Lescaze’s 1931 Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, the second fully air-conditioned office tower in the country and the first to make use of an International style design; its apotheosis was reached with the forty-story United Nations Secretariat Building, completed in 1951. Not only was this one of the first glass office towers, but it also provided an example of how the service floors that housed the air-conditioning plants could be cleverly integrated into the external design of the building. As Reyner Banham, the architectural historian, has noted: “Le Corbusier’s vision of the Cartesian glass prism of the slab skyscraper, and Carrier’s practical technology for solving any environmental problem that offered an honest dollar had met, literally, in the UN building, and the face of the urban world has been altered.”

Although air conditioning had made many inroads into factories, commercial establishments, and office buildings prior to World War II, its penetration into any one of these areas, and especially into the residential market, remained shallow. The 1930s had seen the cooling of Pullman cars and cafeterias, of hospitals and ocean liners, of hotels and funeral parlors. But the air-conditioning industry still had not fulfilled its promise of revolutionizing indoor life in America.

As Fortune magazine observed in an article about the Carrier Corporation published in 1938: “The market spread out rather than up. With ‘every inclosed space’ as its touted potential market, the industry reached into almost every type of inclosed space, and got no further. Out of 22,000,000 wired homes in the U.S.—and that is where real volume sales were expected to blossom—less than 0.25 per cent can yet boast so much as an air-conditioned room.”

Part of the problem was price. It cost at least $1,500 to air-condition a home in the 1930s, $400 to buy the smallest portable cooler on the market. But even at $1,200, a 1938 Fortune survey revealed, two-thirds of the public still would not pay to air-condition their homes. And when the Kelvinator Corporation introduced the fully air-conditioned Kelvin Home in 1936 for only $7,500, extolling centralized cooling as “one of the most important changes in our future sociological, artistic, and technical approach to the health and happiness of millions,” sales did not match expectations.

This suggested an even more fundamental problem: The industry had not yet convinced people they actually needed air conditioning in their homes. As early as 1931 a Chicago magazine called The Aerologist had published an editorial headlined “Wanted, An Air-Conditioning Flivver,” advocating the mass production of an inexpensive, home cooling unit that, it predicted, “would soon make air-conditioning more of a necessity than the radio or even the automobile….” But Carrier was no Henry Ford, and his first home units, such as the “Atmospheric Cabinet,” were bulky, expensive, difficult to install, and likely to break down. The company sold only a thousand of them over a three-year period and lost $1.3 million on the venture. In the wake of this miserable failure, the Carrier Corporation retreated to the industrial and commercial market, all but abandoning its effort to develop a reliable, Model-T air-conditioner for the home: even as late as 1948, in a confidential study of the residential air-conditioning market, company officials concluded that the profit potential in this area was not attractive.

By 1953 the “rump of a room conditioner bulging out the window” was as common as a TV antenna.

All this was to change dramatically in the early 1950s. Within just five years of Carrier’s assessment, the demand for home air conditioning increased more than tenfold, and the company that started it all was left out in the cold. Sales of room air conditioners jumped from 74,000 units in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. Dealers sold out $250 million worth of equipment in 1952 and had to turn away 100,000 customers.

What accounted for this sudden surge was the arrival, at long last, of the air-conditioning flivver—a simple, dependable, self-contained box that could be plugged into an electrical outlet—and the formulation of a new, more sophisticated marketing strategy designed to convince people that a cool home was a necessity. Companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Chrysler, all more attuned to the consumer market than Carrier, had entered the business and were quick to perceive that air conditioners could be better sold as appliances than as equipment to be installed by contractors.

As with many other household appliances, the pitch for air conditioners was directed mainly at women. If, according to the ideology of the time, a woman’s place was in the home, then she ought to be as comfortable there as possible. The actress Betty Furness appeared in television commercials for Westinghouse talking about the pleasures of an air-conditioned kitchen. Jack Davies, an air-conditioning salesman in Texas at the time and now the senior vice-president of Montgomery Engineering in New Jersey, remembers cosponsoring fashion shows at Neiman-Marcus to convince women that they could wear designer clothes in their own homes without fear of damage caused by the effects of heat and humidity. And the National Association of Home Builders financed a major research study in the early 1950s, which found that families living in air-conditioned homes slept 10 percent longer during the summer, enjoyed their food more, did nearly three times as much entertaining, and spent only two-thirds the time cleaning house as did their non-air-conditioned counterparts. The study also found that wives spent more time on hobbies, husbands brought home more work from the office, and babies suffered less from heat rash.

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

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