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On the anniversary of air conditioning

By Salvatore Basile


Those who love celebrations, take note — July 17 marks the birthday of air conditioning. To recap the story, it was 112 years ago today that young engineer Willis Carrier unveiled the plans for his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” a contraption that was designed to lower the humidity in a Brooklyn printing plant. There was a bonus; it could cool the air, too. So thank you, Mr. Carrier. Once again, with the thermometer climbing into the Yow! zone, it’s time to celebrate your invention.

In the 1830s, Virginia inventor (and US Naval Commodore) James Barron patented his mechanically powered punkah as a ‘‘machine for fanning bed chambers, dining rooms, halls, &c.’’ (National Archives, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office).
In the 1830s, Virginia inventor (and US Naval Commodore) James Barron patented his mechanically powered punkah as a ‘‘machine for fanning bed chambers, dining rooms, halls, &c.’’ Public Domain via National Archives.

And to hear from everyone who wants it to vanish.

This is nothing new. There have always been people who found air conditioning controversial. In its earliest years they considered it mystifying, possibly evil, because summer heat was something sent from Heaven and the mere idea of a machine that could cool the air was “going against the will of nature.” In later decades, it was seen as a symbol of fat-cat indulgence; then it morphed into a symbol of the soulless, sterile big city. Now, more than a century after its invention, air conditioning has been recast once again — as an out-of-control monstrosity, seducing third-world countries with the sleazy lure of hot-weather comfort while draining the planet of energy resources, and destroying the atmosphere as well.

In response, a whole confederation has grown up around the idea that we should — either gradually, or instantly, depending on who’s talking — give it up. British economist Gwyn Prins scolded that “physical addiction to air-conditioned air is the most pervasive and least noticed epidemic in modern America.” And Stan Cox, author of the book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About our Air-Conditioned World, went further with a Washington Post article in which he envisioned/recommended a future Washington, DC completely devoid of mechanical cooling. “In a world without air conditioning, a warmer, more flexible, more relaxed workplace helps make summer a time to slow down again. Three-digit temperatures prompt siestas. Code-orange days mean offices are closed. Shorter summer business hours and month-long closings — common in pre-air-conditioned America — return. . . . Saying goodbye to AC means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors — particularly in the late afternoon and evening, when temperatures fall more quickly outside than they do inside — neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing. Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer.”

Interesting. But whether it takes place in Washington or anywhere else on earth, the attractiveness of this scenario doesn’t stop it from being nonsense of the highest order.

For one thing, it’s unrealistic. Our “physical addiction to air-conditioned air” comes from living in hot homes (many of them built with no consideration for thermal efficiency) and working in hot buildings (the great majority of them built as tightly-sealed greenhouses; short of throwing a chair through a glass wall, the HVAC system is the only ventilation). Trying to exist in these structures without air conditioning would be virtually impossible. And as to the idea that American businesses will considerately “slow down,” build siestas into their schedules, shorten summer business hours and cancel work outright on the hottest days — yeah, right.

The other problem with the non-air conditioning scenario is that there’s a lot of arrogance packed into it. Sneering at a “physical addiction” to conditioned air is more than a bit nervy; so is the implication that there’s something wrong with you if you can’t stand “three-digit temperatures.” (Some people become sickened by excessive heat. Others even die from it, whether or not they get siestas.) And the insistence that you will spend time outdoors, engaging in “spontaneous socializing,” that you and your neighbors will “get to know one another,” that your streets will “become safer” . . . rather presumptuous. Also naive.

After a century of providing heat relief, no one can seriously believe that air conditioning will vanish, any more than refrigerators or computers or any other power-gobbling devices will vanish. Actually, it’s spreading — Chinese citizens recently bought over 20 million air conditioners in a single year. Rather than demand that people live without air conditioning, better to find a new version of air conditioning. It’s true that the compressor-powered, refrigerant-cooled system of 1902 needs reworking to fit today’s needs. But there are alternatives waiting in the wings, some of them usable today and others in development: geothermal and cold-water and solar-powered cooling, green buildings that supervise their own natural ventilation, systems that cool entire buildings with cheaply manufactured ice, even a prototype machine called a DEVap that can achieve cool dry air without refrigerants and with 90% less energy. Demand will spur the perfection of a viable substitute, perhaps more than one. As with Carrier’s original system, it will probably make its first appearance in large-size commercial form, then will shrink in size and price for home use.

Mr. Carrier would quite probably approve of this plan. And I bet he’d be troubled that “air conditioning” has become a dirty word.

Salvatore Basile was educated at the Boston Conservatory and The Juilliard School and began his career as a professional musician. After penning various music-related articles, he entered the field of social commentary with his history Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Fordham). His new book, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything (Fordham), will be published in September.

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