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113th Anniversary of Modern Air Conditioning

16th July 2015

By Salvatore Basile, author of Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything

Have you ever gone to a birthday celebration that disintegrated into a fight? Well, there’s one starting up now.

July 17, for you party-prone types, marks an important anniversary—specifically, it marks the day in 1902 that youthful engineer Willis Carrier unveiled the plans for his latest invention. He called it the “Apparatus for Treating Air.” Now it’s called air conditioning. And for the last 113 years, all of us have been rejoicing over it.

Or perhaps not all of us.

On July 4, the New York Times ran the Kate Murphy article, “Enduring Summer’s Deep Freeze,” a piece that asks the question, “Why is America so over air-conditioned?” Three days later, Slate ran a response: Daniel Engber’s “Hot and Bothered,” expressing annoyance at “members of the brrr-geoisie” (that’s a good one) and stating, “These people love to hate AC, and they drive me nuts.”

Before anyone starts throwing cake, let’s look more closely. First off, has anyone noticed that these articles are complaining about different things? Ms. Murphy’s piece is critical of the air conditioning found in commercial buildings; while Mr. Engber’s rebuttal isn’t one; it centers on the attitudes surrounding home cooling. (Frozen) apples to (frozen) oranges.

Regarding that first complaint, consider: We all love fiddling with our home thermostats, so why wouldn’t we go a little ballistic when we’re freezing in public and helpless to do anything about it? Of course Ms. Murphy’s point is completely justified. A whole lot of commercial spaces are needlessly frigid in July, and without a doubt that is off-putting. But remember that people have been complaining about air-conditioned public spaces ever since there were air-conditioned public spaces to complain about, so neither she nor anyone else should be surprised by this. (Especially as Ms. Murphy lives in Houston, proudly called “one of the most air-conditioned cities in the world.” Its downtown district is honeycombed with nearly seven miles of pedestrian tunnels, so thoroughly chilled that coffee shops offer hot cocoa, in midsummer, “for those cold days.” If anyone would be familiar with too much coolth, she would.)

As for Mr. Engber, he seems to run into a lot of people who “proudly say they’d rather use electric fans” and hold up air conditioning as “self-indulgent.” To which my recommendation would be: find new companions. There has always been a fascinating amount of emotional baggage attached to the idea of summer cooling as opposed to wintertime heating—“God made hot weather so you should put up with it,” went one version in the 1950s—and if someone wants to be righteous or conservationist or Green by going without cooling, congratulations. But when it comes to pontificating about what temperatures others should and shouldn’t find livable in the hot season—that’s a dangerous game, one that should never be played among friends. (Or strangers.) In my own experience, one friend prefers summertime temperatures no higher than 68°, while my grandmother usually turned on her bedroom heat in August. Would I presume to comment on either choice? Not on your tintype.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go check out the dessert table. I love birthdays.