Air Conditioning Is a Technology That Transformed The World

Air Conditioning Is a Technology That Transformed The World

Like the aqueduct or the automobile, air conditioning is a technology that transformed the world. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of independent Singapore, called it “one of the signal inventions of history” that allowed the rapid modernisation of his tropical country. In 1998, the American academic Richard Nathan told the New York Times that, along with the “civil rights revolution”, air conditioning had been the biggest factor in changing American demography and politics over the previous three decades, enabling extensive residential development in the very hot, and very conservative, American south.

A century ago, few would have predicted this. For the first 50 years of its existence, air conditioning was mainly restricted to factories and a handful of public spaces. The initial invention is credited to Willis Carrier, an American engineer at a heating and ventilation company, who was tasked in 1902 with reducing humidity in a Brooklyn printing factory. Today we assume that the purpose of air conditioning is to reduce heat, but engineers at the time weren’t solely concerned with temperature. They wanted to create the most stable possible conditions for industrial production – and in a print factory, humidity curled sheets of paper and smudged ink quoted from the website article

Carrier realised that removing heat from the factory air would reduce humidity, and so he borrowed technology from the nascent refrigeration industry to create what was, and still is, essentially a jacked-up fridge. Then as now, air conditioning units work by breathing in warm air, passing it across a cold surface, and exhaling cool, dry air. The invention was an immediate success with industry – textile, ammunition, and pharmaceutical factories were among the first adopters – and then began to catch on elsewhere. The House of Representatives installed air conditioning in 1928, followed by the White House and the Senate in 1929. But during this period, most Americans encountered air conditioning only in places such as theatres or department stores, where it was seen as a delightful novelty.

When It Began To Enter People’s Homes

It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when it began to enter people’s homes, that the air conditioner really conquered the US. Before then, according to the historian Gail Cooper, the industry had struggled to convince the public that air conditioning was a necessity, rather than a luxury. In her definitive account of the early days of the industry, Air-Conditioning America, Cooper notes that magazines described air conditioning as a flop with consumers. Fortune called it “a prime public disappointment of the 1930s”. By 1938 only one out of every 400 American homes had an air conditioner; today it is closer to nine out of 10.

What fuelled the rise of the air conditioning was not a sudden explosion in consumer demand, but the influence of the industries behind the great postwar housing boom. Between 1946 and 1965, 31m new homes were constructed in the US, and for the people building those houses, air conditioning was a godsend. Architects and construction companies no longer had to worry much about differences in climate – they could sell the same style of home just as easily in New Mexico as in Delaware. The prevailing mentality was that just about any problems caused by hot climates, cheap building materials, shoddy design or poor city planning could be overcome, as the American Institute of Architects wrote in 1973, “by the brute application of more air conditioning”. As Cooper writes, “Architects, builders and bankers accepted air conditioning first, and consumers were faced with a fait accompli that they merely had to ratify.”

Equally essential to the rise of the air conditioner were electric utilities – the companies that operate power plants and sell electricity to consumers. Electric utilities benefit from every new house hooked up to their grid, but throughout the early 20th century they were also looking for ways to get these new customers to use even more electricity in their homes. This process was known as “load building”, after the industry term (load) for the amount of electricity used at any one time. “The cost of electricity was low, which was fine by the utilities. They simply increased demand, and encouraged customers to use more electricity so they could keep expanding and building new power plants,” says Richard Hirsh, a historian of technology at Virginia Tech.

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