Posted on July 2, 2010There is a lot of hot air blowing in Washington DC, but most of it is happening in the cold, cold air inside the well air-conditioned House and Senate chambers.
While modern air-conditioning didn’t come to the Capitol building until 1950 or so, both chambers had earlier versions by the 1930’s.
Air-conditioning has been one of the most remarkable sociological developments in history.
Without air-conditioning, it is hard to see how Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada could have grown so rapidly over the last three decades. Sure, it can get hot in the summer, but in most of those places, people wear sweaters most of the day. They wear sweaters because they spend most of their time inside.
In the old days, Congress used to take the summer off because it was too hot in D.C. Just imagine how much better off we would all be if they continued that tradition today. How many fewer laws would we all have to deal with? How many fewer wasteful government programs would have been authorized and appropriated for?
When I was growing up, we didn’t have central air in our house. On really hot days, we could sleep in our parent’s room, because, of course, they had the one air conditioning unit in their bedroom. But on just hot days, we were stuck with the fan. I hated that.
The irony is that my mother still doesn’t like to use the air conditioner that much. She likes fresh air and usually sleeps with the window open and the air conditioner off. Her generation didn’t grow up in a climate-controlled universe. Things were not always 71 degrees. Sometimes it was hot, and sometimes it was cold. They had to improvise.
It was the Chinese who first tinkered with the concept of climate control, back in the second century. Ding Huan of the Han Dynasty invented a manually powered rotary fan.
But the Chinese weren’t the only ones worried about the heat. The Romans developed an elaborate aqueduct system that would bring cool water through buildings. The cool water would help keep things cool in Rome.
I once toured the famous Alhambra, the palace and fortress complex constructed during the mid 14th century by the Moorish rulers of the Emirate of Granada on the southeastern border of the city of Granada. Granada is hot, but Alhambra was very cool, mostly because of the amazing innovations built by the Muslim architects. They built air conditioning into the very soul of the place, without using an ounce of electricity.
This should come as no surprise, but it was Benjamin Franklin who was the first American to dabble in air conditioning. He conducted an experiment to explore the principle of evaporation as a means to rapidly cool an object. He confirmed that evaporation of highly volatile liquids such as alcohol and ether could be used to drive down the temperature of an object past the freezing point of water.
Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington strategically placed their homes to take maximum advantage of any breezes that could cool them off for the summer. They were pretty smart about that, although their slaves weren’t as lucky.
The first electrical air conditioning unit was invented by Willis Haviland Carrier in Buffalo, New York. I have a Carrier air conditioner in my house, and frankly, it might have been one of the first ones built by Mr. Carrier. It works, usually, unless it gets really, really hot. Then, it breaks down.
The first air conditioners and refrigerators employed toxic or flammable gases like ammonia, methyl chloride, and propane which could result in fatal accidents when they leaked. Thomas Midgley, Jr. created the first chlorofluorocarbon gas, Freon, in 1928.
Air conditioning has been very, very good for the South.
Air conditioning makes working in Southern manufacturing plants more bearable. It makes sleeping in Southern homes more restful. It makes working the Southern days more productive.
Air conditioning means that one of key advantages of working in the North is now gone. And that means that Southern states, which by and large don’t have labor unions, have a competitive advantage to attract manufacturing over their Northern neighbors. The Rust belt is going to keep rusting and the Bible Belt is going to keep growing thanks to air conditioning.
In the 1950’s, air conditioners were in about twenty percent of homes and businesses in the South. Today, air conditioners are in about 98 percent of homes and businesses there.
As a result, more snow birds are migrating to the South and then staying there. Florida became the first place that became a whole lot less Southern as New Yorkers and Chicagoans moved to Miami and Sarasota. But other Southern states are losing some of their old Southern identity because Yankees and Midwesterners are moving to places like Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. That has an impact on the politics of these states.
Movie theaters used to be the only place that had air conditioning, so movies became very popular places to hang out. John Dillinger was trying to escape the heat when he decided to check out a movie at the Biograph theater, a life-ending decision for him.
John Dillinger probably would have stayed home these days. Now, theaters have to offer some pretty tasty popcorn to entice people to leave their air-conditioned homes and their home theater systems to check out the newest movies.
Like cable television and indoor plumbing, air conditioning has passed from being a luxury to being an essential part of life.
I remember several years ago when Representatives from Northern states demanded financial help from the Federal government to pay for home heating oil for economically distressed families. Southern states countered that they need financial help from the Feds to pay for air conditioning for the poor.
Six decades ago, few had access to air conditioning. Now, it has become a fundamental right.
I hope your air conditioner works during the July 4 weekend. Without it, it won’t be much of a holiday.