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An Air Conditioner? No, a Lightning Rod.

17th July 2014

Those who love celebrations, note—July 17 marks the birthday of air conditioning.  To recap the story, it was 112 years ago that young engineer Willis Carrier unveiled the plans for his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” a contraption that was designed to lower the humidity in a Brooklyn printing plant.  There was a bonus; with some tinkering, it could cool the air, too.  “Wonderful invention,” says a perpetually overheated acquaintance.  “Too bad that it’s become so controversial nowadays.”

          Nowadays?  Nah.  A/C has always been controversial.

          Even in the 1840s, when a Florida physician and amateur engineer built a machine that actually produced cold air—and for his pains, was publicly labeled a “crank” and his machine “a cock-and-bull story,” and died in frustrated misery—the mere notion of monkeying around with the indoor atmosphere was enough to drive some people frantic with rage.  Part of it is the fact that no one wants to be told what constitutes comfort.  The other part is that, as Americans, we love a good fight.  And no Americans love a fight more than politicians.  So it’s only logical that our national history is strewn with tales of public servants who have seized upon air conditioning, or anything like it, as a political tool. 

          Just before the Civil War, the U.S. Capitol underwent remodeling, including brand-new houses of Congress.  In a radical move for the time, the Senate Chamber and House of Representatives were windowless, the only ventilation coming from steam-driven fans that pushed air up through floor registers.  The result was so suffocatingly unsuccessful that one journal called it “the worst that human ingenuity could devise,” congressmen took to using the registers as spittoons, and for the rest of the century the floors were repeatedly ripped up as engineers tried for more airflow.  In the 1880s the electric fan appeared; at the time it was an exorbitant item that cost nearly $500 in modern money, was picked up enthusiastically by the era’s Early Adopters, sneered at by newspaper writers who felt it was high-falutin’, and used as a political club to beat those unfortunate officials who might purchase one (one Arkansas candidate thunderously accused another of buying a fan “at the State’s expense, to fan himself with, not being content to use a palm leaf like ordinary people”). 

          William Howard Taft loathed Washington’s heat, but with the national press looking on, the best cooling device he could get consisted of fans blowing over racks of ice in the White House attic.  It did so little that he wound up hosting one state dinner on the roof of the West Wing.  When Woodrow Wilson attempted to use the same system, an article ran describing Wilson as “enjoying himself in his cool office while members of Congress and other officials, to say nothing of common citizens, who paid the taxes, had to take pot-luck with the thermometer standing above 100 degrees”—and a humiliated Wilson had the equipment torn out.  It wasn’t till the late 1920s, when A/C hit movie theaters and swept the country, that an image-conscious Congress allowed its Houses to be air conditioned.  Nonetheless, when Herbert Hoover had a system installed in the Oval Office there were accusatory screams that he might go so far as to cool the White House.  (He didn’t.)  Later, there was LBJ’s office, which by his request was so thoroughly chilled that he could “freeze oranges on his desk”; Richard Nixon’s study, cool enough in midsummer that he could have a nightly roaring fire . . .

          By the 1970s, A/C was commonplace, so worldwide energy shortages and rising costs guaranteed that the narrative would turn from its fat-cat indulgence to its expense.  Jimmy Carter tried to set an example of conservation, ordering Federal buildings to set thermostats to 80 degrees; in response, one Federal judge set his own courtroom ten degrees lower, and made sure reporters knew it.  Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof.  They were removed by Ronald Reagan.  Replaced by George W. Bush.  Added to by Barack Obama. 

          Nowadays, we’ve finally arrived at the point that “green” is—for most people—a compliment.  And air conditioning itself is criticized, even in Washington, as a wasteful technology that gobbles energy and depletes the atmosphere. 

          Some commentators insist the solution is to severely curtail, even end, its use.  A rash judgment, even if it makes for good copy.  Aside from the fact that most buildings don’t have working windows (the Houses of Congress among them), and would become decidedly stuffy in the summer, there is the inescapable fact that temperatures are climbing each year.  Something is needed against heat. 

          That original machinery of 1902 unquestionably needs reworking to fit today’s environment.  But even now, there are alternative systems being perfected; some of them are usable today.  One of these, or more than one, will show up in large-size commercial form, then will shrink in size and price for home use.  After that, the air conditioner as we know it will be an outmoded curio.

          Mr. Carrier, a forward-thinking man, would likely approve.

SALVATORE BASILE was educated at the Boston Conservatory and The Juilliard School and began his career as a professional musician. After penning various music-related articles, he entered the field of social commentary with his history Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Fordham). His forthcoming book, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything (Fordham).