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American Scientist: Birth of the Coolth

17th April 2015

Birth of the Coolth

Dianne Timblin

2015-05NightstandTimblinF1.jpgImagine opening the newspaper to find headlines for a daily summertime tally: “Manhattan and Bronx—Dead. Brooklyn—Dead.” History writer Salvatore Basile reminds us that 19th-century papers “impassively listed each day’s heat prostrations and fatalities, arranged in neat columns.” Moreover, the accounts “would carefully note the precise location at which people had collapsed (in New York, the large stone plaza in front of City Hall was considered a particularly lethal spot; in Philadelphia, the Navy Yard).”
Basile’s book Cool tells the surprisingly suspenseful story of the development and gradual adoption of air conditioning in the United States. Technological developments comprise a major part of this tale, and Basile does a yeoman’s job of concisely describing a wide variety of cooling systems that emerged over time. Early ice-and-fan contraptions worked by—you guessed it—blowing air over ice and circulating the cooled currents through vents. Playhouses, which might rely on 1,000 gas jets for lighting, were early adopters, with primitive systems debuting in the 1850s. (New technology called for new, or at least refurbished, words: The 16th-century coinage coolth resurfaced to refer to air currents emitted from cooling systems.) In 1902…read full review


COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything. Salvatore Basile. x + 278 pp. Fordham University Press, 2014. $29.95.

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