A Cool History ; Celebrate a Century of Air Conditioning by Reading about What Life Was like in Summers Past

By Dickinson, Rachel | The Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Cool History ; Celebrate a Century of Air Conditioning by Reading about What Life Was like in Summers Past


Dickinson, Rachel, The Christian Science Monitor


It's hot. Too hot to ride your bike or play outside. So hot it makes you tired. What do you do? Go in your house, go to the mall, or go to a movie where it's nice and cool - thanks to air conditioning.

Air conditioning celebrated its 100th birthday last month. On July 17, 1902, Willis Haviland Carrier installed the first air conditioner at a printing plant in Brooklyn, N.Y. It wasn't to help the workers at the factory, though. It was to keep the paper cool and dry so it wouldn't curl in the midsummer heat and humidity. That way, the printing presses could apply the ink evenly.

Mr. Carrier started a revolution. Air conditioning allowed cities to develop in deserts. It changed the design of houses and skyscrapers. It's what allows us to go to work - or to school - year- round.

How did people keep cool before AC?

Ancient Egyptians were probably the first to discover that hot, dry breezes became moist and cool as they blew through dampened mats or past porous clay pots full of water. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and people living in India also used this principle to cool their dwellings.

Roman emperors, meanwhile, commanded that snow be brought down from the mountains to cool their summer gardens. In the eighth century, Caliph Al-Mahdi of Baghdad (in modern-day Iraq) had slaves fan blocks of ice to create cool breezes. He also had snow packed into the space between the double walls of his summer house.

People in many warmer climes designed houses that promoted good air circulation. Their homes had high ceilings, deep porches, and large windows and doors positioned so that breezes could blow straight through. They planted trees for shade. Fountains and pools were also cooling. (Swimming pools didn't become popular until the mid-1800s.)

Carriage air conditioning

My favorite cooling-down invention was called the All-Weather Eye. It was invented by William Whiteley in 1884. He put blocks of ice in a holder under horse carriages and then attached a fan to the axle. As the wheels turned, the fan blew air across the ice and up into the passenger compartment.

Fans have been used for thousands of years to cool off. Slaves fanned Egyptian pharaohs with huge lotus leaves. The pleated (folded) fan was probably modeled after the way a bat folds its wings. It first appeared in Japan around AD 700. Handheld fans were ornamental as well as practical. (Have you ever made a fan by pleating a piece of paper? You can feel a lot cooler by moving the air around.)

The first electric fan - a two-bladed desk version - was produced commercially by the Crocker & Curtis Electric Motor Co. in 1882. The first oscillating (waving back and forth) electric fan, which could cool a larger area, was produced in 1908. Electric fans became important accessories in 20th-century office buildings.

Within 20 years of Carrier's first machine being installed in Brooklyn, movie theaters in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles began to install air conditioners. Remember, these were large buildings that had to be totally dark - no sunlight or streetlights - to show a movie. It's hard to let air in without letting in light, too. Before air conditioning, you couldn't show movies in the summer when it was too hot because the theaters would be stifling inside.

Department stores were quick to adopt the new cooling technology, too. Big stores advertised, "Come on in, it's cool inside." Office buildings were important laboratories for air-conditioning advances. The modern glass-walled skyscraper is possible only because the inside climate can be carefully controlled. With summer sunlight streaming through all that glass, the temperature inside would be unbearable otherwise.

An updated version of ancient Egypt's solution

In the late 1930s, the "swamp cooler" or evaporative cooler arrived. It works on the same principle that the wet mats of ancient Egypt did: As water evaporates, it absorbs heat. …

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