|Brooklyn, NY. Now an artist co-op. In 1902 it housed|
the printing presses of Sackett & Wilhelms--ground zero of
modern air conditioning.
July 17 is the day we celebrate the invention of modern air conditioning, courtesy of entrepreneur Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950). His first installation was at a Sackett & Wilhelms printing facility in Brooklyn, New York, in 1902.
Our story of this seminal event and the extraordinary impact of modern air conditioning appeared in 2012’s Weathermakers to the World, part of the 110th anniversary celebration of modern air conditioning. See Amazon for the book, or here for an interesting timeline and samples from the book. I also wrote blog posts called Behind the Scenes, Visiting Ground Zero, and Taking Weathermakers to Basel. And this is the video we did with CBS This Morning back in 2012.
It’s hard for most of us navigating through air-conditioned homes, cars and offices to comprehend just how miserable life was before a/c, even in temperate regions of the world. And it’s also a measure of the pigheadedness of our ancestral grandparents that they were perfectly willing to cool a textile mill or bakery--but a front office or their home? Never. After all, what was life without a little suffering?
On July 6, 1900 thermometers in New York City read over 90°F while humidity rose to 95 percent. Weapons of choice that day were the straw hat, mint julep and palm-leaf fan. Nearly 20 people were rescued senseless from NYC streets. Overcome by heat, clerks closed their shops and headed home. Those unfortunates living in the steamy tenements gathered up their children and found what relief they could on roofs, in nearby parks and on the waterfront. The weather-forecaster could only report that “This hot spell was regular in every respect. It had a right to be here at this time of year, and must simply be allowed to take its course.”
The following year, on July 22, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals spent the day caring for horses that had succumbed to the elements, a number of the beasts simply dropping in their tracks. Anyone in the tenements able to sleep outdoors did so. “Mothers could be seen by the hundreds nursing infants on the sidewalk, while others with parched throats tried to sleep on pavements where policemen would not interfere.
Of course, deadly heat and humidity were hardly confined to New York City. Washington, D.C. was shunned by foreign diplomats during the peak summer months. American politicians needed little prompting, either. When asked if he intended to spend the warm-weather months in the nation’s capital, newly-elected president Thomas Jefferson remarked that he had avoided the area for 40 years and had no intention of changing his habits. (For the late Lew Kuan Yew’s love affair with air conditioning in Singapore, see here.)
Before modern air conditioning, everyone adapted as best he or she could in warm weather months. The preferred solution for those with money and transportation was escape, either to the mountains or the shore. Those left behind had developed over time a litany of creative architectural and cultural solutions. These included “shotgun” and “dog-trot” houses to optimize air flow, high ceilings, open porches, transoms, dormers and the use of trees to shield the southern exposure. Neighbors across America came to congregate on front porches in a summertime ritual which took full advantage of community and any available breeze to provide comfort.
|An old "air-conditioned" dog-trot homestead.|
In the end, there was a degree of tough resignation practiced by those who suffered the heat and humidity of summer. The resiliency of our forebearers was suggested by the rule-of-thumb that only when the temperature plus 20 percent of the humidity reached 100 were workers allowed to give up and go home. Think about working in an office at 80F and 80 percent humidity.
Do the math on that one. 80F + 20% X 80% humidity = 96.
Get back to work.
And here’s a reminder of how primitive the technology was just 20 years before Carrier’s invention.
On July 2, 1881, while entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station, James Garfield (1831-1881) became the second American president to be shot by an assassin. For the next 80 days, Americans were held spellbound as doctors worked to save the president’s life. In parallel, some of the nation’s finest Naval engineers attempted to relieve the president’s suffering in the brutal Washington heat. By July 7, long, v-shaped zinc troughs had been filled with shaved ice, salt and water and placed under the windows of the president’s room. A clothesline was strung seven feet from the floor, and over this, in front of the windows, woolen sheets were hung so that their ends lay soaking in the troughs. As the water seeped into the sheets, any outdoor breeze was forced through the cool material. This brine-and-breeze system cooled the room marginally but raised humidity to intolerable levels and had to be removed after only a brief trial.
As Alexander Graham Bell said, “We go up to the Arctic regions and heat our houses and live. We go down to the Tropics and die.”
From 1902 until the 1920s air conditioning was largely an item to be found in confectionery plants and bakeries, textile factories and, frankly, any setting but those where people needed it most to be comfortable.
|Here modern a/c is cooling bread dough. For the first 20 years, air conditioning was all about maintaining|
humidity in production environments. Only later did folks decide it might OK to cool people as well.
|If you happened to be doing QC for a cotton buyer, working conditions were perfect.|
|Here, modern a/c is being used to help dry negatives and film stock to speed getting newsreels to the theater.|
Nobody was too worried about theater patrons--yet.
A 1911 report on the “Condition of Moving Picture Show Places in New York” found that of 50 theaters surveyed, the majority offered wretched ventilation. A theater on Third Avenue was reported to be so vile smelling that an attendant with a giant pump-atomizer sprayed “perfumery to allay the odor.” At the Pitkin Avenue Theater in Brooklyn, auditors reported that “a critical inspection of this place was impossible” thanks to the crowd “pushing and shoving for vantage points of view. Quarrels were frequent. The air was fetid and stifling. The place is without one single redeeming feature.” 
The air was fetid and stifling.
The place is without one single redeeming feature.
Now spring ahead to 1925. Houston, Texas. Almost Hades in summertime. The owner of The Texan movie theater, Will Horwitz, Jr., was so pleased with his first installation of modern air conditioning that he telegraphed Willis Carrier and his team:
TWO PM OUTSIDE. TEMPERATURE NINETY ONE HUMIDITY SEVENTY SIX. INSIDE TEMPERATURE SEVENTY SIX HUMIDITY SIXTY SIX. THE PEOPLE OF HOUSTON ARE SO FAR SOUTH AND THEIR BLOOD SO THIN THEY ARE UNABLE TO STAND TOO LOW INSIDE TEMPERATURE. STARTING AT SEVENTY FIVE DEGREES WE RAISE ONE DEGREE WEEKY UNTIL THEY QUIT HOLLERING TOO COLD. NOW WE MAINTAIN OUR INSIDE TEMPERATURE AT SEVENTY SIX ALL THE TIME. OUR PLANT IS HARDLY WORKING. THE HOUSE FEELS AND SMELLS LIKE A SPRING DAY. REGARDS FROM A PERFECTLY PLEASED CUSTOMER.
This was a miracle to folks who had sweated their entire lives--and expected to just keep on sweating.
|At the Irvin, the a/c marquee is more prominent than that for the movie.|
|Carrier's classic victory was on Broadway, Memorial Day 1925. We feature the story in Weathermakers to the World.|
About that same time, department stores and trains also began to adopt modern air conditioning. By 1930 few people had a/c in the their homes, but many had at least experienced it enough to understand that it might be something more than a luxury.
|Macy's used a/c as a marketing tool.|
But it was at the New York World's Fair in 1939/40 that literally millions of people had their first real taste of modern a/c.
Now spring ahead again, this time to the present. If you want an example of another, more recent miracle connected to modern air conditioning, see the video below. This time it's less about comfort and efficiency and all about preservation--in the Sistine Chapel.
So, happy 113th! Yes, there are folks who hate a/c. That's ok; haters gonna hate (hate hate hate hate hate). But the bakers gonna bake (bake fry roast sweat bake)--and if you're one of those baking this summer who just wants a decent night's sleep, it's a modern miracle. Turn it down or off when you're not around. Get outside and enjoy the heat; it's kind of nice if you know you can cool off later. And know that there are increasingly sustainable technologies (see here) advancing air conditioning as it moves solidly into the 21st century.
For now, though--stay cool. And thank you, Dr. Carrier.
 “Day of Oppressive Heat,” New York Times, July 7, 1900.
 “Heat and Humidity Drive Many From City,” New York Times, July 23, 1901.
 William B Meyer., Americans and Their Weather, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 27.
 Gail Cooper, Air-Conditioning America, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 159.
 “The President Fights For Life,” New York Times, July 7, 1881.
 lexander Graham Bell, “Some of the Problems Awaiting Solution,” National Geographic Magazine, Volume 31, Number 2, February 1917.
 Transactions of The American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers, Vol XIX, Nineteenth Annual Meeting, New York, January 21-23, 1913, Summer Meeting, Buffalo, N.Y., July 17-19, 1913, 1914, 172.
 Theatre Cooling: A Restful Refuge, Summer & Winter, Carrier Marketing, Carrier Archives, box 92675, 1925, 10.