With the Heat Around the Country....
Note: With this week’s heatwave , I thought I’d pull up a column I did in this space literally 15 years ago. [7/20/01]
While the weather on the East and West coasts hasn’t been unbearable this summer, yet, certainly the Midwest and Southwest have had their share of 100-degree temps. Which means that whether you’re sweating bullets outside, or luxuriating in office cool, you undoubtedly will ponder at one point or another, what the heck would we all do without air
In Gorton Carruth’s “The Encyclopedia of American Facts,” I came across what has to be about the earliest mention of primitive AC, June 27, 1848.
“Air conditioning for a theater was offered by the Broadway Theater in New York City, perhaps for the first time. The theater issued this notice in its bill: ‘The public is respectfully informed that an Extensive Apparatus for the Perfect Ventilation of the Entire Building is now in operation. The Steam Power by which it is impelled, being capable of conveying to the Audience part along, 3000 Feet of Cool Air per minute, thus rendering the Establishment during the hottest and most crowded nights in all respects comfortable. The machinery patented by Mr. J.E. Coffee.’”
Now this “Extensive Apparatus” evidently didn’t amount to a heck of a lot, because the next mention I found was from 1880, when engineers tried blowing air through a cheesecloth over 4 tons of ice in New York’s Madison Square Theater. Then the following year, at the time of President James Garfield’s assassinatio, the president’s room was air conditioned as he lay dying. Of course back then transporting the ice proved to be rather cumbersome and the whole process, whatever it really was, met limited success.
Meanwhile, on November 26, 1876, in the town of Angola, New York, Willis Carrier was born. Carrier would go on to Cornell University (which means he was a pretty bright guy), but upon his graduation he was making a whopping $10 a week for the Buffalo Forge Co. (a fan and heater manufacturer). Then in 1902 Carrier received his big break.
Buffalo Forge was contacted by the Sackett-Wilhelms Publishing Co. of Brooklyn. Printing was becoming increasingly difficult in the excessive heat and humidity that Sackett was operating in so Carrier was put on the case to come up with a solution.
What Willis did was development a contraption that sucked the humid air through a filter, passed it over coils containing chilled brine (saltwater), then redirected it back into the room. Carrier’s invention provided the same cooling effect as melting 54 tons of ice per day, plus the air was dry and clean. He dubbed the device the “apparatus for treating air.” Very catchy. [A rival, Stuart Cramer, was giving a presentation at a trade show a few years later when he coined the term “air conditioning.”]
Carrier had developed a “centrifugal refrigeration machine” and you can just imagine the excitement in industry. Think about the Deep South, for example, where the only air conditioning was to blow air on a block of ice. Of course there were skeptics. Once Willis had to prove that the air conditioner wouldn’t explode in order to obtain a permit for his contraption at a Manhattan theater, so he struck a match and dropped it into the liquid refrigerant.
In 1915 with $32,600 in capital, Carrier split from Buffalo Forge and co-founded Carrier Engineering Corp., where the slogan was “Every Day a Good Day.” Carrier’s air conditioners began to find their way into hospitals, movie theaters, and restaurants. Detroit’s J.L. Hudson became the first air-conditioned department store in 1924 and also in the 20s, C&C Kelvinator outfitted a Cadillac with a unit about the size of a steamer trunk. [Though other sources say the Packard was the first air-conditioned car in 1939.]
For his part, Willis Carrier realized that the big profits still wouldn’t come until they could crack the home market, which wouldn’t occur for a few decades. The first units were bulky and prone to breakdowns, though the competition wasn’t any better. Frigidaire’s initial “room cooler,” for example, weighed 200 lbs. G.E.’s first “portable” room air-conditioner weighed 1200 lbs. Which means that men around the country began to take up the game of golf, because it kept them from being around the house when it was time to move the AC.
In July 1929, the Milam Building in San Antonio gained historical significance when it became the first modern office tower of its kind to also have air-conditioning throughout the entire building. And by the 1930s office buildings were being cooled by 100,000 lb. units. Today, the same devices weigh 28,000 lbs.
As you can imagine productivity in America soared. A 1938 study revealed that there was a 51% increase during the summer months.
But Willis Carrier’s long-awaited growth into the housing market didn’t come until after World War II. Carrier died in 1950.and the company’s profits took off in 1951. By then AC was becoming standard in new housing developments. For example, Levitt, the big building concern, added central air into a 700-unit development in Levittown, PA. And by the middle of the decade, all homebuilders discovered that they could turn a bigger profit if they included central air as part of the overall package. [It also soon became clear that used homes were being deemed not as desirable if they didn’t have AC.] For example, houses at the Levitt development in Pennsylvania were being priced at $17,500 without AC, $18,990 with it.
Home sales doubled in 1956 over 1955 to 200,000 units, and around this time exports began to grow at 35% a year. Everyone had to have this distinctly American ad-on and the U.S. controlled 90% of the early market. Just another instance of American ingenuity coming to the rescue. We eagerly await another product innovation to get us out of our current doldrums.
[Ed. again, I initially wrote this in 2001, so you can think of a few product innovations since then.]
“The Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates,” Gorton Carruth
“New York Times Century of Business,” Norris and Bockelmann
John Bradley / New York Times
Brendan Jones / New York Times
James Barron / New York Times
U.S. News and World Report