Air conditioning you might be surprised to learn, marks its 100th anniversary this year. At a Brooklyn printing plant in 1902, Willis H. Carrier designed a system to control humidity, temperature, and air quality and, in the process, changed the world forever.
Before the widespread availability of air conditioning, families cooled off on porches, talking with neighbors as the children played, all sweltering together in a community. The community evolved when consumers gathered in air-conditioned theaters and restaurants. While today’s ubiquitous use of air conditioning—and its first cousin, refrigeration—has made our lives more comfortable and convenient, it has also made us more isolated. Giant refrigerated meat-packing plants have replaced neighborhood butchers. Large refrigerated trucks move food to air-conditioned supermarkets to be bought by consumers who drive air-conditioned SUVs and taken home to families basking in central air. Affluence now means being hermetically sealed in air-conditioned environments; upscale gift shops even offer personal air-conditioning systems for those times when you have to go outside.
Nowhere has air conditioning had a greater impact than in the South, where car trips used to be postponed until the cool of the evening. The U.S. Department of Energy says that half of all housing units in America are air conditioned; in the South, the figure is 93 percent. Southern highways are clogged with air-conditioned vehicles carrying commuters to air-conditioned offices from ever more far-flung air-conditioned suburbs. We barely notice those less-fortunate urban dwellers who still sit on porches with their neighbors.
America is the most climate-controlled country on earth, yet there are vast areas of our land without air conditioning, according to the experts in the the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry. Eastern Michigan University historian Marsha Ackermann argues, in her book Cold Comfort: America’s Romance with Air Conditioning, that air conditioning may become the next entitlement, as inner-city heat waves still claim lives and cause brownouts.
Before air conditioning came to the nation’s capital, all legislators and most of the Washington bureaucracy left town in summer for cooler, healthier climates. Air conditioning made year-round sessions of Congress and a larger permanent bureaucracy possible, imperiling our pocketbooks and liberties. Dispersing an endless supply of hot air is truly an air-conditioning marvel.