by Janet Spencer

As we head into the summer heat, let’s appreciate the comfort of air conditioning!

In The Beginning

Willis Carrier was an engineer who worked for a publishing firm in New York City in 1902. In the summer, problems arose because the paper would absorb the humidity in the air and become wrinkled, jamming up the presses when it rolled through. The ink took a long time to dry. Paper had to be rolled through the press several times for full-color images, but the lines wouldn’t match up because the paper was warped. Carrier was tasked with fixing this problem.

Carrier thought about the fog that condensed on window panes and how water would trickle down the outside of a glass that contained a cold drink. His solution was to run cold water through pipes, with a fan blowing air over them. Humidity in the air condensed on the pipes, making the air cooler and dryer. This was the basic design from which all air conditioners sprang.

• Willis Carrier patented his idea and established his own company in 1915. Today, the Carrier Air Conditioner Company, based in Florida, employs around 53,000 people.

In 1906, North Carolina textile manufacturer Stuart Cramer modified Carrier’s design to add water vapor to the air instead of taking it away. Cool, humid air made the yarn easier to handle and less likely to break, improving the quality of his fabrics. Cramer was the first person to coin the term “air conditioning,” a far less bulky moniker than Carrier’s name of “Apparatus for Treating the Air.”

When air conditioning first began to gain a foothold in public places, movie theaters were among the first to exploit it. Citizens sweltering in urban heat waves escaped for a cool afternoon inside their local air-conditioned theater to watch a summer blockbuster with a cool drink and a bucket of hot popcorn. Hollywood catered to the fad, releasing their biggest flicks to coincide with the arrival of the first summer heat waves.

• The tradition of letting school out for summer vacation arose for several reasons. Children often needed to help on the family farm during growing season. Wealthy families preferred to leave their city homes and escape to their cooler summer abodes. And the heat of the sweltering un-air-conditioned schoolhouses made it difficult for children to concentrate on schoolwork.

• Who was the first U.S. president to enjoy the luxury of an air-conditioned White House? Herbert Hoover, when the first air conditioning was installed in the West Wing shortly after the stock market collapsed in 1929. The project, costing an estimated $30,000 of U.S. taxpayer money, was completed in 1930. That would be well over half a million dollars in today’s currency.

• By 1933, air conditioning had been added to the private quarters of the White House for the comfort of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

AC units first measured their output in “Ice Power” referring to how many blocks of ice it would take to produce the same cooling. Now it’s measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units) which estimate how much heat can be removed in one hour.

By 1932, the first window units were on the market, designed to sit right on top of the windowsill. Sales were slow because the country was in the middle of the Depression and the units were expensive. The average wage was $0.64 per hour ($15/hour today), and an air conditioner cost $416 ($9,820 today) requiring 650 hours to buy it. Today, at a wage of $15/hour and a low-end model costing around $150, a worker only needs about ten hours to afford one.

• Gradually the price dropped, and the units became more compact. After World War II ended, air conditioning became a status symbol. In 1953, a record 1 million were sold.

The first automobile company to build cars with “weather conditioners” built-in was Packard, in 1939. Several issues made it problematic. It was expensive. The evaporator and blower took up most of the space in the trunk. Dashboard controls hadn’t been invented yet, so to turn the AC on, the driver had to stop, pop the hood, and disconnect the compressor belt. The timing was wrong, as the Depression had just ended and World War II had just begun. Most people could not afford it, and it was considered a flop.

• The rising popularity of air conditioning resulted in a population explosion in southern states such as Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Between 1950 and 2000, the population of these areas jumped between 28% and 40%. Most of the nation’s industries were headquartered in the Northeast until it became possible to cool southern factories.

By 1960, an estimated 30% of homes in Texas were air-conditioned, a higher percentage than any other place in the nation. In 1965 the Houston Astrodome became the world’s first air-conditioned stadium.

Japan has the most air conditioners per capita, with 91% of households having AC. The U.S. comes in second with 80%. The only other country that comes close is South Korea with 86%.    Saudi Arabia comes in at 63%, China at 60%, and all other countries fall far below that threshold. Regarding which country uses the most energy to power its collective air conditioners, that would be China.

• Since 2000, over 95% of new homes in the U.S. come with air conditioning.

• The world’s largest HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) system is in the Holy Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, designed to cool a space that gets up to 1 million visitors each month, in a climate where temperatures often top 100°F. (37.8°C)

The largest and most powerful AC units in regular use in the U.S. are custom-built to ensure a steady, stable micro-climate in large greenhouse complexes where biologists are experimenting with growing new and experimental types of crops.

The smallest air conditioners are micro-units designed for use in prison cells, where they’re a perk given to VIP prisoners such as diplomats and international spies.

• Today the world’s largest producer of air conditioners is the Japanese-owned conglomerate Daikin, headquartered near Houston, Texas. It’s thought to be the third largest factory in the US, after Tesla in Austin and Boeing in Washington state.

• It’s estimated that there are over 1 billion single-room air conditioners worldwide.