In most areas of the United States these days, life would be almost unimaginable without a welcome blast of cool, indoor air. As a sort of ode to this modern antidote to triple-digit temperatures, Slate recently ran “A History of Air Conditioning.” For everyone from HVAC service technicians to ordinary people who love to spend a hot day indoors, enjoying the cool air, there were plenty of interesting things to note. Here are some of the highlights.
1. “Primitive air-conditioning systems have existed since ancient times.”
In Rome, the rich ran cool water from the aqueduct system through the walls of their homes. The emperor Elagabalus had donkeys bring down loads of snow to his garden in the third century to cool off next to. However, some Romans saw finding ways to beat the heat as a sign of weakness. “Seneca, the stoic philosopher, mocked the ‘skinny youths’ who ate snow to keep cool rather than simply bearing the heat like a real Roman ought to.”
2. “Such luxuries disappeared during the Dark Ages, and large-scale air-conditioning efforts didn’t resurface in the West until the 1800s, when well-funded American engineers began to tackle the problem.”
One of such attempts was air forced through cotton sheets soaked in ice water to cool the dying President James Garfield in 1881. The method used a half million pounds of ice. No word on whether Garfield had to withstand temperatures as hot as last week, when Washington D.C. had a recorded heat index of 121 on July 22.
3. “In 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system.”
That name should sound familiar to many of you — although Carrier wasn’t aiming to cool people down with his invention, but rather to reduce the humidity in the printing plant where he worked.
4. “In 1922, (Carrier) followed up with the invention of the centrifugal chiller, which added a central compressor to reduce the unit’s size.”
The device was introduced in a Times Square movie theater three years later, and the practice of heading to an air-conditioned theater to avoid the heat led to the term “summer blockbuster.”
5. Residential air conditioning was slower to take hold: As late as 1965, just 10 percent of U.S. homes had it, according to the Carrier Corporation … By 2007, however, the number was 86 percent.
For all the nostalgia over “radio days” and the era when black and white TV first started creeping into homes, the adoption of air-cooling technology has grown even more impressively over the last 40+ years. Back in ’65, when a majority only the elite had access to cool indoor air, 92.6% of American households had a TV.