Could you imagine if air condition had not yet been invented, especially living here in the Phoenix heat during the middle of summer? It would be unbearable! I’m not one that sleeps well at night if I don’t have cool air blowing over the top of me and I certainly couldn’t stand trying to sleep in temps that exceed 80 degrees. I, and I imagine a lot of others, would be miserable.
The image below shows a home that was built in the late 1800’s. Back then people did not have the luxury of nice cold air circulating through their homes like we do today. They had to resort to other tricks to stay cool. Some homes were built with more windows and higher ceilings to allow air to flow through the house more freely and to avoid moisture from settling in rooms with no windows or low ceilings making household temps a bit sticky and warm.
Others, who did not have the luxury of owning a home with an abundance of windows and high ceilings resorted to building larger porches outside their front doors that wrapped around the house. The reason for porches, or bigger porches, was if it was a hot day, the family could spend the day in the shade on the porch and avoid their hot home until the sun set. Sometimes families would even set up cots on their porches and everyone would sleep out on the porch to keep cool.
People who had homes with no porches had other tricks up their sleeves in order to stay cool! Some did the obvious and went swimming all day to keep their body temperatures down while others decided to sleep the days heat away. They would wake up in the evening after the unbearable heat had given way to the cooler night air and be able to relax more. Many kept man made fans with them at all times trying to wave cooler air int heir faces with a flick of their wrist.
It wasn’t until around 1902 when the first machine resembling an air conditioning unit was built. The man responsible for this first version of an A/C unit was Willis Carrier. Born in Angola,NY in 1876, Carrier eventually moved to Buffalo,NY after graduating from Cornell University in 1901. As you can see Mr. Carrier dove right into his goals, and a year later, this first unit was created.
Soon afterwards, industrial buildings and hospitals started to adopt this technology in an effort to cool their works spaces and environments. The first person to air condition his private home was Charles Gates, son of industrialist and profligate gambler John Gates, who set up a cumbersome system at his house in Minneapolis in 1914.
During the 1920’s, specifically during the depression years, technology allowed A/C units to be made in smaller and safer versions. Even though this was a lot more convenient at the time, most places could not afford to have air conditioning. However, there was one type of business that saw a potential and rewarding investment in these new lines of A/C systems and that was movie theaters. Theaters across America thought since most places and people could not afford these cooling systems, if they made their theaters nice and cool, people would spend their money just to sit and watch movies all day long in the nice cool air. It was a huge success for the movie theaters.
It was during the postwar period that air conditioning arrived in American homes, with more than one million units sold in 1953. The machines were heavily promoted by two key industries. Air conditioning served the needs of homebuilders eager to build huge numbers of cheap houses and utilities were only too happy to keep ramping up electricity sales to the burgeoning suburbs. AC for cars became a status symbol, too, so much so that some people without it supposedly drove around with their windows up in 100 degree heat to give an impression otherwise. The suburban American dream was built on the sweat of air conditioners.
Many of the central changes in our society since World War II would not have been possible were air conditioning not keeping our homes and workplaces cool. States like Florida, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Southern California all experienced significant growth during the later half of the 2oth century. It’s hard to imagine life without air conditioning.
The advent of air conditioning has shaped our homes and family lives. Houses are designed not for ventilation but for central cooling systems. Porches, where they exist, are relics of another age, and few new homes include them. Families gather inside, in the comfort of 72-degree living rooms, to watch TV. Would television have even gained its central place in American family life if the rooms from which we watch it were not so enjoyably cool?
As Americans think about reducing their energy consumption, many are considering keeping their air conditioners off. But air conditioners haven’t merely chilled the air around us — they’ve reshaped our infrastructure, our entertainment, and our habits. I don’t know about you, but thank God for Willis Carrier and those who came after him. If it wasn’t for nice, cold air flowing through our homes, I think the world would have gone mad by now.