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Friday, June 12, 2015

Air Conditioning: invention, historical reactions, Arthur Miller column on the days before air-conditioning, more

Want to know what people thought of “colderizing,” "air chilling," “mechanical weather,” and being “cooled by refrigeration” in its early days*. One of my favorite comments, on a system installed in the Capitol in 1928:

Though the air undoubtedly increased comfort in the chambers, some still complained that it was too cold. According to Cool Comfort, John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi lodged the first complaint on May 28, 1929, saying "the atmosphere is too cool in this room. On yesterday it was 75 by thermometer ... and 91 degrees on the outside. Fifteen or twenty degrees difference is too much ... This is regular Republican atmosphere, and it is enough to kill anybody if it continues." His declaration was met with applause.
Here's Ben Stein paying respect to the invention of the air conditioner:

And here's playwright Arthur Miller (wiki), writing in the June 1998 issue of New Yorker:
People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.

Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.
No surprises here for us older folks, and it's worth remembering that even if the technology existed in the 1930s it was certainly not widespread - I'm 66 years old, was raised in upstate New York, and I don't think I ever saw air conditioning in a private home until the 70's, after I moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I'd also never heard of the concept of an air-conditioned car. 

1959 advertisement
Here's Miller again:
My first direct contact with an air-conditioner came only in the sixties, when I was living in the Chelsea Hotel. The so-called management sent up a machine on casters which rather aimlessly cooled and sometimes heated the air, relying, as it did, on pitchers of water that one had to pour into it. On the initial filling, it would spray water all over the room, so one had to face it toward the bathroom rather than the bed.

Willis Carrier poses proudly in 1922 with the first chiller

The origin of air conditioning is disputed, (the first cooling of buildings was engineered by the Romans, who ran aqueducts through the houses of the upper class to cool them), but here's a Wired article on Willis Haviland Carrier's invention that forms the basis of the modern air conditioner - it was originally designed as a humidity controller for a printing company. 

Mental Floss has more contemporaneous sources on air conditioning in the early days.

10 Cool Engineering Tricks the Romans Taught Us.

Previous post:

How to Build a Homemade Air Conditioner for Just $8, and charge your phone using Gatorade and an onion.


  1. Life before air conditioning?! Nope. Not for me. No time traveling for me anytime soon! Lol

  2. I cannot for the life of me understand life without AC especially during the heatwaves in July & August. Must have been awful in the old days!

  3. This is because they use different kinds of glass.
    air cooled chillers