A/C: The Coolest Invention Ever
I hate the heat. I’m just not a hot weather kind of guy. I hail from the northern midwest where much of the time, the landscape is indistinguishable from Siberian tundra — just with more outlet malls. Heat is my weakness. But when it does get hot, I have one unbeatable deterrent — air conditioning.
It’s a good thing too. A heatwave has been striking much of the world. Local temperature records are being broken from Europe to the Middle East to the Far East. Fueled by hot, dry conditions, wildfires are raging from California to Oregon and from Scandinavia to Siberia. Asphalt is melting in the Netherlands. Plastic lattes are melting in Japan. Nuclear reactors are being shut down in France because of the heat.
And without air conditioning, it would be much more intolerable.
But AC keeps us more than cool. It keeps us alive in heatwaves like the one that is happening right now and it allows our civilization to function as well as it does. Without it, the modern world just wouldn’t be as cool — so to speak.
And it also might be killing us.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about Benjamin Franklin.
Some of the first experiments with chemical air conditioning were conducted by none other than American patriot and extreme kite flyer, Benjamin Franklin. In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, he explored using the evaporation of ether as a method of cooling. He would apply liquid ether to a thermometer and blow air on it to speed its evaporation. This drove the temperature of the thermometer well below freezing, even causing a thin layer of ice to accumulate on the bulb — thus, confirming one of the basic principles of modern day air conditioning. Franklin predicted — rather unnervingly — that through this method:
“One may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”
But Benjamin Franklin would never realize his dream of making a human popsicle. Modern air conditioning was still over a century away — and it wouldn’t be used to keep people cool at all. It was for printing presses.
At the turn of the 20th century, the hot, muggy summer months of Brooklyn, New York, wreaked havoc on the publishing industry. The humidity inside the printing presses warped the paper and made it so ink wouldn’t dry, causing it to smear and ruining the final product. In order to institute some sort of quality control, there needed to be way to remove the moisture from the air.
And that was the breakthrough Willis Carrier developed.
In what has been recognized as the first modern air conditioning system, Carrier’s design not only cooled the temperature of the room, it controlled the humidity, drying out the air and making it possible for the ink and paper to dry faster.
And anybody who’s spent the summer in the American midwest knows, it’s not necessarily the heat that can make a hot day unbearable — it’s the humidity.
To this day, Carrier’s name can be found emblazoned on air conditioners across the world.
AC’s potential for human application quickly became apparent.
Movie theaters were one of the earliest institutions to adopt it specifically to cool people. Before air conditioning, movie theaters saw a drop in attendance during the summer. Without windows or much ventilation, watching a movie in a stuffy theater on a hot day was out of the question — especially in the deep south. So in 1917, it’s no wonder the first theater to install air conditioning was in Montgomery, Alabama. Attendance spiked in the summer as people began to go to the movies to escape the heat. That’s right — you can thank air conditioning for the birth of the summer blockbuster.
The first residential air conditioning units were installed in the 1920s, but because of the exorbitant expense, they remained a luxury of the wealthy until the 1950s. As air conditioning units became smaller, cheaper, and more efficient, they became more and more a fixture of modern living.
And this has had huge impacts on society.
Before air conditioning, factories and work places often had to shutdown production during hot days. With the advent of air conditioning, these slowdowns could be avoided. Workers — now able to work in a more comfortable environment — became more efficient, and output increased. Because of air conditioning, industry across the board became more industrious.
Even the government had to shutdown during the summer. Air conditioning even made our democracy more productive.
And many of today’s most iconic buildings would not exist without air conditioning.
Before AC, buildings had to be built to cool themselves. Houses had porches and large buildings had to be designed with high ceilings, open courts, shade, and cross-ventilation in mind. As buildings grew taller, it became more and more of a struggle to keep their occupants cool. Despite increasingly complicated and ingenious methods of ventilation, many of these new skyscrapers were still stuffy and uncomfortable in the summer.
But once reliable air conditioning became widespread, keeping the occupants of these office buildings comfortable (and productive) was only a matter of adjusting a thermostat. Architects were now free to design the massive spires of glass and steel that are so much apart of our city skylines these days. Office buildings became essentially hermetically sealed glass boxes, with their own climate control system completely separate from the outside world.
Porches disappeared. Courtyards and atriums became merely decorative or disappeared entirely. The windows of most modern skyscrapers are now permanently shut.
Air conditioning allowed these buildings to be larger and fit more people, giving rise to expansive floor plans, crowded with cubicles and bathed in fluorescent light.
That’s right — you can thank air conditioning for your dull, soul-sucking office job.
Air conditioning is everywhere now. It’s in our cars. It’s in our malls and convenience stores. It keeps our food cold and allows for medical and scientific advances that just wouldn’t have been possible before its invention. It’s not only made life more comfortable, it has saved countless lives.
But we’ve paid a huge price for it.
We’ve committed ourselves to a 1.5 degree C temperature rise because of the release of greenhouse gases. Right now, over 80% of the world’s power is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels. Air conditioning uses a lot of electricity. By 2050, the global electricity use for AC could triple. More fossil fuels will be burned to power all those new AC units, releasing even more CO2 into the atmosphere and warming the planet further. That means more heatwaves which means more air conditioning, which leads to more electricity use. You can see how this can create an air conditioning snowball — so to speak.
But our increasing reliance on AC in a warming world could have another deadly consequence.
Burning fossil fuels creates air pollution. This will increase the incidence of lung and circulatory diseases and aggravate conditions like asthma, and lead to more deaths as a result.
We can reduce our dependency on air conditioning by building more energy efficient buildings, ones that use natural ventilation and eco-friendly architectural techniques to help keep the people inside of them cool and comfortable. That will mean breaking the hermetic seal we’ve had on all these glass box buildings for the last half century or so.
I don’t want to give up my precious air conditioning any more than you do. Nobody does. In fact, AC has become so embedded in our civilization that I don’t think we could abolish it entirely. But we don’t have to get rid of it. We just have to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. That is the only way we will truly beat the heat.
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