Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything

Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything

Salvatore Basile
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything
    Book Description:

    It's July and it's 94 degrees Fahrenheit. What do you do? Blast the air conditioning. It's a modern miracle of convenience and cooling. How did it happen? Sal Basile's narrative history traces the origins one of the machines we take for granted. It's a contraption that makes the lists of "Greatest Inventions Ever"; at the same time, it's accused of causing global disaster. It has changed everything from architecture to people's food habits to their voting patterns, to even the way big business washes its windows. It has saved countless lives . . . while causing countless deaths. Most of us are glad it's there. But we don't know how, or when, it got there. It's air conditioning. For thousands of years, humankind attempted to do something about the slow torture of hot weather. Everything was tried: water power, slave power, electric power, ice made from steam engines and cold air made from deadly chemicals, "zephyrifers," refrigerated beds, ventilation amateurs and professional air-sniffers. It wasn't until 1902 when an engineer barely out of college developed the "Apparatus for Treating Air" a machine that could actually cool the indoors and everyone assumed it would instantly change the world. That wasn't the case. There was a time when people "ignored" hot weather while reading each day's list of heat-related deaths, women wore furs in the summertime, heatstroke victims were treated with bloodletting . . . and the notion of a machine to cool the air was considered preposterous, even sinful. The story of air conditioning is actually two stories: the struggle to perfect a cooling device, and the effort to convince people that they actually needed such a thing. With a cast of characters ranging from Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Nixon to Felix the Cat, Cool showcases the myriad reactions to air conditioning some of them dramatic, many others comical and wonderfully inconsistent as it was developed and presented to the world. Here is a unique perspective on air conditioning's fascinating history: how we rely so completely on it today, and how it might change radically tomorrow.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-6179-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    The first air conditioner I ever thought about was a unit that failed to keep Lois Nettleton cool in a 1961Twilight Zoneepisode. (I was six years old, I shouldn’t have been up that late, and as punishment I had nightmares.) In the episode, the Earth was moving toward the sun and heating up to deadly levels, electricity was being rationed, and to emphasize the single hour each day that Miss Nettleton’s air conditioner worked, ribbons were attached to its output grille. When they suddenly drooped, everyone on camera became alarmed, and more moist, and the music took an...

  5. 1 Ice, Air, and Crowd Poison
    (pp. 5-40)

    It didn’t matter that it was a gala performance of a hit show. The weather wasn’t going to cooperate.

    The newly renovated Madison Square Theatre had opened in February 1880 with the melodramaHazel Kirke. A tearjerker and a particularly slushy one, it somehow had captured the fancy of the theatergoing public and was heading for a record run. But in late May, as the Madison Square’s management was busy advertising the play’s upcoming one-hundredth performance, the Northeast was gripped by a freak hot spell, with several days of temperatures topping out in the mid-’90s. Slang-crazy New York had only...

  6. 2 The Wondrous Comfort of Ammonia
    (pp. 41-87)

    As the 1880s progressed, the idea of artificial cooling, once mightily scoffed at, was gaining ground—in print, if not in fact. Magazines such asScientific American, The Technologist,andThe American Architect and Building Newsappealed to the era’s technophiles by endlessly glorifying the process of manufacturing ice by machine. The public’s imagination was caught, too. Machines themselves, which most people had known only as noisy and dangerous presences in factories, were slowly losing their terrifying air. And even though it was caustic as well as flammable, the ammonia that powered ice-makers (about which the general population knew little,...

  7. 3 For Paper, Not People
    (pp. 88-103)

    In the first years of the twentieth century, mechanical air cooling had reached a very strange crossroads in its development. In theory, it was seen as the most modern example of scientific progress, a flashy machine that could conquer the weather. But it was almost too modern for its surroundings. For instance, at the same time that venturesome heating-and-ventilation men might be attempting “refrigerated rooms,” they were being cautioned to take into account the extra heat in those rooms that would be generated by … gaslight.

    There was another, more serious problem; it rarely worked. Yes, chilling milk in a...

  8. 4 Coolth: Everybody’s Doing It
    (pp. 104-142)

    It had been fifteen years or so since the term “air conditioning” had been born. And, enthusiastically or reluctantly, a whole range of businesses had accepted the fact that it was essential equipment for smooth year-round operations. But to the average person, air conditioning was a strictly-business proposition. Logical enough: Unless they worked in airconditioned factories, or happened to visit the World’s Fair or the New York Stock Exchange, or entered one of the handful of air-cooled hotels or banking houses, it was unlikely that most citizens would have encountered comfort cooling at all, much less looked for it in...

  9. 5 Big Ideas. Bold Concepts. Bad Timing.
    (pp. 143-180)

    Most movie houses. Some Broadway theaters. Luxury hotels. A big handful of department stores. High-visibility tie-ins with the new entertainment media. Even a bank here and there. It seemed that air conditioning had finally won some broad-based public acceptance. Even better, it had expanded into a few areas of daily life as an absolute necessity. Now it was gearing up to ride the crest of 1920s consumerism.

    The attempt couldn’t have come at a better time: A boom economy, with extra fuel from the income provided by fat stock dividends. Mechanized production that lowered prices and made even big-ticket items...

  10. 6 From Home Front to Each Home
    (pp. 181-221)

    At the beginning of 1940, Willis Carrier gave a speech in which he predicted a bright future for custom-built homes, equipped with centrally conditioned air. (He might have felt that a pep talk was needed. A recent survey had discovered that fewer than one in 400 Americans had air conditioning in even a single room.) In the midst of his enthusiasm, there was a moment in which he admitted that the public awareness of air conditioning “has been brought about only by a long, slow process of consumer education.”Slowwas no understatement. From its first sputtering beginnings, comfort cooling...

  11. 7 The Unnecessary, Unhealthy Luxury (That No One Would Give Up)
    (pp. 222-250)

    The U.S. government gave an unintended endorsement of air conditioning in 1959 when the U.S. Weather Bureau announced the creation of its Discomfort Index, a calculation of heat-and-humidity that was meant to provide an easy guide to the climates of various American cities. In response, Chambers of Commerce in a number of locations objected strenuously to the term “Discomfort”; that word could scare off tourists. Almost immediately, it was renamed the Temperature-Humidity Index. As that was too long a name for the public tongue, it soon abbreviated itself to the pure-and-simple Heat Index. Whatever it was called, members of the...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 251-256)

    By the year 2014, we’ve learned that more than 87 percent of American homes have air conditioning “in one or more rooms.” Some estimates are closer to 90 percent. Cars have an even higher percentage, more than 98 percent.

    But if the United States had always been the air conditioning leader, the world had recently begun to catch up with a vengeance. In 2008,Forbesreported that an astounding 20,000,000 air conditioners were being sold in China each year; by 2010,American Scientistnoted that the number had climbed to 50,000,000. At the same time, in the searing desert climate...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 257-258)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 259-266)
  15. Index
    (pp. 267-278)