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The Man Who Beat the Heat

July 27, 2002

A Midwestern father who loved midsummer's heat and, worse, humidity, once suggested that bed pillows had two sides just so overheated would-be sleepers like his son could turn them over once a night and have a dry place for their lazy, whining heads.

Willis Carrier wouldn't approve. A hundred years ago this month Carrier finished inventing conditioned air, not to make anyone more comfortable but to protect printing paper from the elements in urban Brooklyn, which didn't invent summer heat but moved it closer to perfection.

The rest is largely unrecognized history. The reason Maryland donated the District of Columbia to the United States was not altruism or because the property was perfect for grandiose granite buildings and a monument surfeit. The place is a swamp--of at least the water kind. Without air conditioning, those feuding factions of politicians and commentators who now populate Washington year-round would have to evacuate the place for the summer, returning to real homes to sip lemonade without an expense account. Then how would cable-TV talk shows find hyperbolic guests to argue preprinted points in the heat?

Without air conditioning, the desert tow truck business would wither as motorists zipped up those Mojave hills in windy bliss without gambling on overheated engines.

Without air conditioning, sweater companies would go bankrupt each summer because female office workers could survive in blouses and office windows would do weird things like open. Same for cold medicine makers; who'd buy their stuff without the chills and sniffles caused by plunging a sweating body into an indoor Arctic? Without air conditioning's precise climate controls, our computers would crash at unpredictable times, losing hours of valuable work and overheating angry workers.

Without air conditioning, Houston could not have a pro baseball team. By all rights, St. Louis shouldn't either, but it makes do as Budweiser's home. Without air conditioning, people would still sit on their front porches, talking to each other across the hedges. Imagine that racket! Without air conditioning, there would be no brownouts, no Stage 3 alerts, no governors in shirt sleeves to show their devotion to energy conservation.

Without air conditioning, service stations wouldn't get to sell so much gas to fuel our mobile family refrigeration units. Without air conditioning, folks in Needles, Barstow, New Orleans and Memphis might live elsewhere, maybe, heaven forbid, along the Hollywood Freeway or Interstate 5. So thanks a lot to that Carrier fellow for his grand invention of air conditioning. It's been a blessing.

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