Air Conditioning

What's Cool About Summer

|

Heading off to see a summer blockbuster? Thank the early 20th century movie hero who kicked off the phenomenon. Not Superman. Not Captain America. Not even Rin Tin Tin.

William Carrier.

In 1902, the young engineer was working for a heating outfit called Buffalo Forge. That company was approached by Sackett & Wilhelms, a print shop in Brooklyn that was facing a dilemma. Four-color printing meant paper had to be inked four separate times, with each run laying down a different hue. Thanks to humidity, sheets would often shrink or expand in the interim between inkings, making the finished image a mess. What could be done?

Carrier came up with a way of "conditioning" the air in order to keep the temperature and moisture level steady. You can probably guess what he called his invention.

Not only did printing companies suddenly have a solution to the problem of summer, so did all sorts of other industries, from candy makers (chocolate no longer turned gray) to razor manufacturers (blades no longer rusted) to theaters.

In the earliest days of cinema, theaters would often close during the summer as their cramped, crowded spaces became suffocating sweatboxes. Thanks to air conditioning, not only could they stay open, they became bastions of comfort. In 1925, the Rivoli Theater in Times Square became the first movie theater to install the new technology. A decade later, summer had become the biggest time of year for movies, and the summer blockbuster was born.

Air conditioning changed more than just our film viewership. Cooler air had basically been the holy grail of sizzling civilizations since the dawn of history. In ancient Egypt, porous urns were filled with water that slowly seeped out and evaporated, providing a modicum of relief. (Though not as much relief as those slaves with the palm fronds, I'd guess.) In ancient Rome, an emperor named Elagabalus had ice harvested from the mountains and spread around his garden, so the breeze would waft cool air inside.

The rest of us spent eons fanning ourselves and drinking lots of liquids. Meanwhile, homes were built to deflect oppressive heat as best they could. Shaded front porches were wide enough for socializing and even sleeping on. Windows were positioned to facilitate cross drafts. High ceilings drew the heat up and away from the humans panting below.

After World War II, A/C finally came to the average home, and when it did, life changed. For starters, builders could use thinner and thus cheaper materials. They could ditch the porches, scrap the shutters, and lower the ceilings. All this made the American Dream less expensive, luring the masses to the 'burbs—and to the South. The share of Americans living in the Sun Belt rose from 28 percent before the war to 40 percent afterward.

Central air has gotten a bad rap as a community killer: By keeping neighbors sealed inside their arctic homes, it creates existential anomie (and artificially high viewership for CNN). As a gal who's always cold, I have done a ton of A/C bashing myself, and I didn't install so much as a window unit for many a sweltering summer for fear that my kids would never leave their climate-controlled rooms. Yet as annoying as that constant stream of cold indoor air is to those of us forced to keep space heaters under our desks in July, A/C has made life better for a lot of people—including the downtrodden.

Climbing temperatures can be a killer. For one thing, people are more likely to commit suicide when it's very hot outside. For another, when a heat wave hits, the poor are more likely to die. Nowadays, high temperatures cause about 600 deaths a year in America, according to the Foundation for Economic Education. In 1936, that number was 5,000.

You may be fretting: But what about the Earth? Well, as Slate's Daniel Engber reports, it actually takes less energy to cool a home in the broiling heat than to heat it in the bitter cold. And few environmentalists begrudge people their furnaces in wintertime.

Jimmy Moyen, owner of First Choice Mechanical, an HVAC company in Queens, New York, tells me his customers are increasingly purchasing "smart" air conditioners, where "the thermostat is connected to your smart phone, and the closer you get to home, the closer it gets to the temperature you want." That means your A/C doesn't waste juice while you're out during the day, yet it welcomes you home to cold comfort at night.

Maybe that's too much comfort, but it's better than the alternative.

Advertisement

NEXT: Brickbat: Strange Brew

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Smart” thermostats are becoming more common, but that seems to mostly be a factor of novelty and technology making it viable. Programmable stats have been a thing for a while and already essentially do the same job (though without the remote capabilities.) When it’s hot here in humid Virginia, not having ac is misery.

    1. As you may have guessed from the original problem of damp paper, Carrier invented a dehumidifier, which as a happy by-product of the laws of physics also cools. As we explain to people, an air-conditioner isn’t designed to cool your house, it’s designed to keep your house cool. Running the thermostat up by more than a few degrees – or worse, turning it off – when you leave the house allows the house to warm up and re-moisturize and then the A/C has to work like hell to get rid of all that moisture when you come back home. You’re not really saving much money on your electric bill, there’s a certain amount of moisture the A/C has to get rid of and whether it does that by periodically switching on for a few minutes throughout the day or all at once by switching on for a long period in the evening, it needs to do the same amount of work. We’re not big fans of the smart t-stats – don’t be fiddling with the thermostat, just set it and leave it alone. (Why yes, I do work for Grumpy Old Man Heating and Air, why do you ask?)

      1. This is mitigated somewhat if you’re living in a new modern home, new modern homes largely being air-tight plastic boxes so there’s little outside air coming in and nothing to absorb the moisture from what does come in. Older homes aren’t so air-tight and there’s lots of wood that can soak up moisture your A/C is then going to have to get rid of. Of course, living in an air-tight plastic box presents a whole different set of problems, namely that you’re constantly breathing and re-breathing all the fumes and chemicals and month-old farts trapped in the air-tight plastic box and you gotta open the damn windows once in a while to get some fresh air in here or you’re gonna die.

        1. Yeah I can’t stand modern hotels for this reason – at least high-rises. They don’t let you open a damn window. I could never stand that for more than one night.

      2. Carrier invented a dehumidifier

        True, and that’s the basis for those ads for Carrier Barry Farber used to read when he said Willis (correct name, I think) Carrier invented the air conditioner. However, if you look at hx of air conditioning he gets little or no mention, because prior (and some later) advances in the art are thought more important.

      3. Running the thermostat up by more than a few degrees – or worse, turning it off – when you leave the house allows the house to warm up and re-moisturize and then the A/C has to work like hell to get rid of all that moisture when you come back home. You’re not really saving much money on your electric bill, there’s a certain amount of moisture the A/C has to get rid of and whether it does that by periodically switching on for a few minutes throughout the day or all at once by switching on for a long period in the evening, it needs to do the same amount of work.

        I’ve often wondered the same about heating. Why turn down the furnace at night when it just has to burn that much longer in the morning? Now if you leave so soon after getting up that daytime sunlight will do the heating, maybe there’s a point to it.
        But one answer I’ve gotten may apply to A/C too; I don’t know. The idea is that a house close to the outside temperature doesn’t lose as much heat as a house very warmer than the outside. If the outside is 10F, a 70F house cools faster in F/min than a 50F house. That seems plausible, but I haven’t gotten anyone who can actually detail what the loss difference is, whether it’s significant to actually matter.
        My hunch is that the only thing which really matters is that if the daytime sun will heat the house up naturally, then letting it cool overnight saves a lot of fuel.

      4. I am learning this with my learning thermostat. I set it to 78 when I’m gone. It takes 2+ hrs to get to 76 after I get home at night, so turning on when I get to the end of the street doesn’t help much. And I suspect doesn’t do much for my bills.

  2. The really big thing this articles misses is the population shift it allowed from the northern portion of the country to the southern. Texas & Florida wouldn’t be nearly as livable now without A/C.

    1. The really big thing this articles misses is the population shift it allowed from the northern portion of the country to the southern.

      No it doesn’t:

      All this made the American Dream less expensive, luring the masses to the ‘burbs?and to the South. The share of Americans living in the Sun Belt rose from 28 percent before the war to 40 percent afterward.

    2. ?

      All this made the American Dream less expensive, luring the masses to the ‘burbs?and to the South. The share of Americans living in the Sun Belt rose from 28 percent before the war to 40 percent afterward.

      FWIW nowhere along the east coast from at least NYC south is livable without A/C either.

    3. Nor Taiwan. I couldn’t possibly live here without it. When I go back to the USSA in the summer everyone says it’s so humid. I say that it’s very comfortable.

      1. One thing I miss about living in Colorado was the lack of humidity. When you sweat it actually evaporates instead of soaking your clothes! It’s amazing!

      2. Japan is like that.
        If you want a quiet air conditioner, the Japanese are really good at noise reduction.

  3. Yesterday the AC in my car died halfway into a two hour journey in 85 degree heat with high humidity and a child in the back. There’s something you never truly appreciate until you don’t have it.

    1. My first car didn’t have air conditioning. Imagine driving on a hot day after the car had been sitting in the sun a few hours.

      1. I grew up in the 70s when AC was a luxury. So I know how that goes.

    2. My AC quit in my car and when I got home, my GF asked if I pissed my pants. Taiwan is incredibly hot and humid.

  4. No news worth reading happens in the summer anyway.

    1. Except for the homicide rate in August.

  5. work at home!

    I’ve made 3000usd so far this year working 0nline. I’m utilizing an online business opportunity. My beautiful companion demonstrated me and I’ve made parcel of preferred standpoint of this site. It’s truly easy to use and I’m simply so glad that I got some answers concerning it.. .. go to this site home tab for more subtle elements… https://howtoearn.club

    1. …and in air-cooled comfort!

  6. For an interesting tidbit, Elegabalus was the common name of the emperor because he was the high priest of a Syrian god, Elegabal. The emperor was crazy and did Rome no favors with his scandals and his attempt to replace Jupiter with Elegabal. In the great Roman tradition of cultural appropriation Elegabal was identified with Sol Invictus during all other reigns.

    You might recognize the name Sol Invictus because it’s part of the name of Augustus Sol Invictus, the crazy LP Floridian who drank goat blood, argued for eugenics, was generally fascistic, and disappeared into a forest promising ruin upon his return.

  7. This article is chilling.

  8. “I’m with the Culinary Workers Union, and I represent the noble palm frond wavers. I’d like to have a word with you…”

  9. Skimpy outfits, that’s what’s cool about summer.

    1. There is no sight fairer on this earth than an Arizona university downtown in July. Just wisps of clothes on barely legals of both gender, as far as the eye can see…

  10. Unfortunately AC also allowed Congress and the rest of Government to keep “working” all year.

  11. His first name was Willis, not William.

  12. Yet as annoying as that constant stream of cold indoor air is to those of us forced to keep space heaters under our desks in July

    *Turns heater up to high in solidarity with Lenore.

  13. The best solution is probably community geothermal. The economy of scale really comes into play.

  14. Summers can be properly enjoyed with a properly maintained air conditioning system. Before the summers arrive, it is important to inspect your AC unit and get it serviced by the professionals. Choose the emergency AC service Morris County NJ that offers system installation and maintenance. Accessing the best general air conditioning services is important in prolonging the life of your unit. Always look out for the best-qualified professionals that can handle the entire unit without much fuss.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.