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Happy Birthday, AC: 100 Years of Playing It Cool

When the mercury rises, air-conditioning spells major relief. Yet it was invented for paper, not people.

July 16, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man you should be thanking today, and tomorrow and pretty much every day from now until sometime in October, is Willis Carrier. He's the reason beach traffic isn't worse than it is and the urban death toll rises less dramatically during summer months. He's why computers can exist, why the Sistine Chapel should last a few more centuries, why there are bananas for breakfast and chocolate bars after lunch, why there's such a thing as a summer blockbuster.

He made summer school possible and the summer workweek longer, but we won't hold that against him because 100 years ago today, Carrier invented air-conditioning, and if that seems like a small thing, just imagine life without it.

"He's right up there with Salk and Edison and Henry Ford," says Jon Shaw, senior manager of communications for the Carrier company, named for its founder and still the country's largest air-conditioning manufacturer. "But most people don't know who he is or what he's done. Everyone just takes air-conditioning for granted."

Certainly by mid-July, most Americans take air-conditioning for granted. As the temperature rises in June, everyone notices the AC. It's hard not to. Folks entering malls and corporate towers and movie theaters are met with a sudden glacial back-draft. Women wander through the office place in search of sweaters, blowing on their hands. "It's not that hot," they mutter, scurrying outside for a few minutes just to warm up.

But by mid-July, in almost every region of the country, it is indeed that hot, and the heat's settling back on its haunches, planning to stay awhile. During these dog days, air-conditioning becomes just another utility, like water and electricity--necessary and constant, a forgotten blessing (until the power goes).

So it seems fitting that the 100th anniversary of the invention of air-conditioning is July 17, a day in which temperatures in Southern California are expected to reach the upper 80s and as high as the upper 90s elsewhere in the nation. To mark this birthday, no doubt, most of the more than 80% of American homes and 90% of businesses that have some form of air-conditioning will set the dials somewhere between high and arctic blast. And if people complain that it's too cold inside, well, they can go sit on the front stoop like folks did in the old days.

"I know work got done back then," says Shaw, from Carrier's Syracuse offices, "but it's 90 degrees out there, and right now I'd rather be sitting here comfortable than literally sweating over my desk."

Air-conditioning was, in fact, invented to solve the detrimental effects of heat in the workplace, but not for the benefit of humans. In 1902, a Brooklyn printing company was having trouble keeping paper stable during the summer--the heat and humidity changed its dimensions, so the images printed fuzzy and out of whack. Carrier, then a 25-year-old mechanical engineer, designed a system to control the temperature and humidity around the printing press.

Four years later, engineers used Carrier's system to "condition" the air at a cotton mill in North Carolina. Although the name "air-conditioning" stuck, it wasn't until 1914 that anyone tried to use the technique to make people, rather than paper or fiber, more comfortable; Minneapolis millionaire Charles Gates commissioned the first home system.

In 1922, Carrier developed the centrifugal refrigeration system, and two years later, J.L. Hudson, a Detroit department store, installed it in the bargain basement so sales could continue through the summer. Then, in 1925, Grauman's Chinese Theatre in L.A. and the Rivoli Theater in New York decided to cool down that flickering dark, and the rest is history.

History in the literal sense. Last month, the Smithsonian Press published the first cultural history of air-conditioning: "Cool Comfort: America's Romance With Air-Conditioning," by Marsha Ackermann, a lecturer in history at East Michigan University. Ackerman, who grew up in Carrier's hometown of Buffalo, is interested in things that Americans take for granted. "I wanted to show that air-conditioning wasn't this miraculous technology that was invented and then everyone had it."

In the beginning, she discovered, AC was a hard sell. It was expensive and it was newfangled. Business owners would invest in equipment if it improved the productivity of their machinery; they were not at all interested in the comfort of their workers. Air-conditioning was often used to increase the heat. The term, and the technology, Ackermann explains, was not originally synonymous with cool; it was simply a way of controlling temperature and humidity.

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