1930s Bring A/C Into the Mainstream

April 24, 2001
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Thirty Tons of Universal Cooler air conditioning equipment kept Detroit's Trans-Lux theatre cool in 1933.


Reeling from the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the American economy of the early 30s plunged into the Great Depression. A new technology emerged from Amer-ica’s obsession with refrigeration. That new technology was called air conditioning.

All of a sudden Americans had something to look forward to, thanks to the cooling relief from conditioned air.

Movie theatres were packing in record crowds, restaurants were enjoying double-digit increases in patrons, bakeries were staying open longer and cooking fresh baked goods for record numbers of people, libraries and museums saw increased patronage as visitors sought relief from oppressive summer temperatures, workers enjoyed going to work in cool comfort, and wealthier homeowners could now close their windows to the outside air, keeping harmful dust and odors at bay.

Even the Harvard School of Public Health jumped on the air conditioning bandwagon, citing in 1936 that air conditioning used in place of baby incubators (for the care of premature babies) was credited with a 26% increase in saved lives. The school’s report showed that incubation provided one thing, warmth, while air conditioning provided three things: regulated humidity, temperature, and air drafts.

In 1937, L.R. Boulware, Carrier Corp. vice president and general manager, associated air conditioning with world peace. He said that international tension would be reduced through widespread use of air conditioning in tapping untouched supplies of raw materials necessary for maintaining the “balance of power” between nations, e.g., the air conditioning of gold and copper mines.

While refrigeration still made the headlines during the 30s and major manufacturers like Kelvinator, General Electric, and Frigidaire engaged in price wars to get a larger slice of the multi-million dollar refrigerator business, air conditioning technology quietly took hold. The new technology arose out of the realization that if equipment could be produced to cool a small unit such as a refrigerator or grocery case, or keep food fresh in a large walk-in refrigerator, why couldn’t that same technology be applied to cooling (and dehumidifying) large rooms or whole buildings?

It was truly a boom time for everyone who installed and maintained air conditioning equipment. Something as basic as creature comfort was now driving sales of air conditioning products and The News continually reported on the importance of this new technology. As early as September 30, 1931, one forward-thinking businessman could see the value of air conditioning — what it was and what it could be.

Gordon C. Corbaley, director of the American Institute of Food Distribution, Inc., said, “We are awakening to the controlling of temperature because an increasing number of men are realizing that this offers opportunity for profitable employment. A few theatres and other public interiors are being cooled to attract patronage. In these cases the major interest is to demonstrate a chilly atmosphere rather than to make the patrons comfortable.

“But out of these efforts an expansion of an idea is shaping. Both ice companies and manufacturers of mechanical refrigerators are developing an export service on the control of interior temperatures. The time is not far distant when our homes, apartments, stores, factories, public meeting places, and trains will have the temperature and purity of their air controlled in a common-sense way.”

Seven years later, in its June 29, 1938 edition, The News reported on a survey taken by a newly air conditioned business to see just how “common-sense” air conditioning was working.

“General satisfaction with working conditions in an air conditioned office building, appreciation of relief from the cumulative effects of hot weather, and a minimizing of many adverse factors often attributed to the effects of an air conditioning system on human comfort, were discovered from a questionnaire sent to 274 employees working in air conditioned offices in Minneapolis, MN, during 1937.

It was reported that “66% had a generally good reaction to air conditioning as opposed to 32% who did not (citing it was too drafty or too warm). One person replied, “It is a great help to non-smokers who must work between inveterate smokers all day.”



Room air conditioning in hospitals became a "necessity," as shown in this example from the Walker-Welborn hospital in Evansville, IN, which was cooled by a Servel air conditioner.

Utilties Have a Say in the Trade

There is no greater resource to News’ editors than The News itself. Each edition over the past 75 years tells a story from its era, when ice was still used to protect perishables to the modern day where an invisible media is transmitting images of hvac technicians, telling others of unique air conditioning installations — the Internet.

Let’s take a moment to look back at the 30s. Each date in this chronological look is the publication date of The News.

One of earliest examples of air conditioning for businesses came out of Chicago. On May 7, 1930, the Peerless Ice Machine Co. announced the marketing of “four general types of cooling fans; pedestal mounted, wall bracket mounted, ceiling suspension, and wall bracket mounting designed to fit any application in drug stores, candy stores, offices, clubs, and many other similar businesses.

“The pedestal type of cooling fan delivers a cool, dry breeze 20 to 30 feet. Water extracted from air is carried through a special drainpipe in the pedestal. Refrigeration is furnished by a one-ton ice machine.”

The Unicool air conditioning system was installed in The Sally Frock Shop in Kansas City during the hot summer days of 1930. On August 27, 1930, a story about the new system and how it kept 700 store visitors comfortable while the temperature climbed to 104°F outside appeared in The News. Betz Unit Air Cooler Co. installed the unit, which kept the 20- by 30-ft room at a desired temperature of about 82°.

On April 8, 1931, Carrier-York introduced a conditioning unit in a one-piece cabinet. Horizontal steam coils were included for heating in the winter, another bank of finned coils provided cooling by methyl chloride or cold water in the summer, and a centrifugal fan in the lower portion of the cabinet circulated air into the room. Later that year, a unique experiment was devised to form a model for spring and summer cooling.

On July 1, 1931, research engineers of the Westinghouse Electric & Mfg. Co. designed and built a windowless house in which temperature, humidity, and ventilation were combined to approximate what they termed “perpetual spring.” The next step after this was to make a summer cooling plant out of similar equipment.

At the same time, another engineer was touting his own theory. On July 15, 1931, S.M. Anderson, research engineer for B.F. Sturtevant Co., said, “The solution to the household cooling problem will be found in the form of a basement type of central system with forced circulation of air about the house, combining in one apparatus the heating and humidifying winter equipment with the summer cooling and dehumidifying apparatus.”

Not to be outdone by Carrier-York, Frigidaire Corp. teamed up with General Iron Works Co. (July 29, 1931) and introduced the Hot-Kold, a plant to heat in winter and cool in summer, designed for a smaller home with six to eight rooms. The unit consisted of an automatic gas-fired air conditioning system of the forced-air type, an evaporator, and a compressor. The Frigidaire room-cooling unit was installed in the central return air duct, and a special bypass carried cooled air past the heating unit through an air-circulating fan.

Edwin A. Jones, chief engineer for the L.J. Mueller Furnace Co., whose company had announced a domestic air conditioning system which heated, washed, and humidified air for the home, had definite ideas on how refrigeration equipment could be used for household cooling. On November 4, 1931, he was quoted as saying that refrigerating equipment should have a high-side operating at less than 100 lbs pressure, while the low side should run at atmospheric pressure or less.

He believed that direct expansion was the most suitable, with an evaporator temperature high enough to avoid freezing difficulties. He added that cooling equipment should have a capacity of approximately 5 tons and should have a non-toxic, non-flammable refrigerant.

As 1931 came to a close, The News reported on the optimism surrounding the air conditioning industry. The lead story in the December 16, 1931 issue stated, “eventual air conditioning for a majority of America’s 25 million homes and the creation of a five billion dollar market for the industry by the perfection of low-cost residential conditioning equipment was predicted and emphasized before delegates to the 19th annual convention of the National Warm Air Heating Association.

“Convinced that artificial cooling and humidity control of air would be the next industry to rise to the heights of the electric refrigerator, automobile, and radio, various speakers urged that the warm air heating industry grasp the existing opportunity and lead the way in development of mechanical equipment for household air conditioning.”

Frigidaire made headlines in the new year as it announced a line of individual unit-type air conditioners suitable for commercial establishments, offices, restaurants, shops, private residences, apartments, and hospitals. On January 27, 1932, the company reported that its first public showing was made to members of the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers and the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers meeting in Cleveland, OH.

Frigidaire said its air conditioner could be installed in place of the conventional hot water, steam, or vapor radiator. The model consisted of a refrigerant-laden cooling coil, fans for deflection and diffusion of the air without creating a draft, moisture-controlling features, and a heating coil connected with the customer’s own hot water, steam, or vapor heating plant.

Over the next year, researchers and engineers looked for an ingredient that would be the “life-blood” of the refrigeration system. A familiar name was introduced to the American public — Freon.

On February 1, 1933, The News carried an article about the growing debate over the use of “F-12” (Freon) as the new refrigerant, although actually described as an array of chlorofluorocarbons.

“Adoption of the F-12 would make it necessary for all manufacturers to redesign their machines. Hermetically sealed compressors, in particular, could be adapted to this new refrigerant only with difficulty.”

On April 12, 1933, Westing-house announced the introduction of its 1-ton-capacity air conditioners, which “provided for cooling, dehumidifying, heating, humidification, cleaning, and circulation of air.” F-12 was to be used for the air conditioning operation.

With installations of air conditioning systems slowly becoming more commonplace, there became a need for service technicians to service these “new contraptions.” On February 8, 1933, Frigidaire announced the opening of its first-ever commercial and domestic air conditioning school in Dayton, OH. The week-long “school” was for air conditioning engineers and sales managers, students, and representatives of leading public utilities and furnace companies.



Mid-30s Bring Advances, Increased Competition

“Developments in the field were of wide scope and variety and more and more electric refrigeration dealers turned to the sale of air conditioning equipment as an added source of income. Hotels, restaurants, hospitals, office buildings, and private homes installed the systems — stressing the value of air conditioning as an aid to comfort and health.”

During one of the hottest times of the year, The Trane Company came out with some chilling news. On July 3, 1935, the company introduced a new propeller-type suspended air conditioner for summer cooling or winter heating. A fan, located in the middle of the unit, drew air over the cooling or heating coil and then blew it out through the grille in the front. Moisture removed from the air drained from the cooling coil into a pan at the bottom of the unit.

Later that year on November 11, 1935, Airtemp Inc., a Chrysler Corp. subsidiary, introduced a self-contained air conditioning unit in which all machinery, including compressor, motor, condenser, and cooling coils, was contained in one cabinet. It had a 3-hp capacity, occupied “only” 20 by 33 in. of floor space, and stood 7 ft, 6 in. high.

Despite the fact that air conditioning equipment manufacturers spent a lot of time on research and development for products to cool off U.S. consumers, they weren’t likely to find an anxious market for their products north of the border, at least according to one official. U.S. Consul Damon Woods said the Canadian demand for air conditioning apparatus is “likely to be along the lines of humidification and purification rather than cooling,” due to the relatively short summers and long winters.

It wasn’t the Canadian market that was on the mind of News editors in early 1936. In a February 26, 1936 editorial, the editorial staff voiced its concern over the lack of direction in the air conditioning industry.

Air conditioning “has all the makings of a major industry. Right now the air conditioning industry needs leadership. The public is confused, hesitant, and unconvinced. The great buying movement will wait until the industry makes up its collective mind as to what it wants to do and how it proposes to do it.”

If the industry was lacking leadership, the Carrier Corp was not. On April 22, 1936, the company was highlighted for its “introduction of a new self-contained portable summer air conditioner, which marks one of the first steps made by Carrier Engineering Corp. to enter the lower-priced field of air conditioning equipment. It will operate with an air-cooled condensing unit and a capacity of approximately three-quarters of a ton of refrigeration.”



Employees of W.F. Hann & Sons (Cleveland, OH, now a member of BlueDot Services, Inc.) pose in front of their business, circa 1932. (Courtesy of W.F. Hann & Sons)

A Few Snags Along The Way

While some consumers “cooled their heels” in air conditioned comfort, others argued about the real definition of air conditioning, whether the process actually cooled the air or if it just “conditioned” it by dehumidifying. The New York Times took specific steps to ensure that the public was not fooled by the definition of cooled comfort.

On April 21, 1937, an article appeared which described how the Times was limiting the use of “air conditioning” in accepting advertisements from businesses that touted “air conditioned” comfort. The Times said “a place of business must possess equipment which (1) warms or cools the air, (2) humidifies or dehumidifies the air, and (3) circulates the air.

“The terms ‘air-cooled’ or ‘air conditioned’ may only be used in advertising when the equipment dehumidifies the air and is capable of maintaining a temperature of 70° or 75°.”

False claims of cooled air were also the subject of a landmark court case in early 1939. On February 1, 1939, it was reported that the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that an air conditioning dealer could be held liable if the equipment he sold did not do the job specified. The Magee Laundry & Cleaners, Inc., won judgment for breach of implied warranty against the Harwell Appliance Co. on an air conditioner which was alleged to have been inadequate to cool the area as represented.

Only a few months later, May 31, 1939, another litigation story hit the industry — but the results were different. “A sweeping victory for the air conditioning dealer in one of the first tests in the courts of a customer’s ‘dissatisfaction’ with his air conditioning system, is the verdict delivered last Friday night by a jury which declared that the owner of a bar and grill here [Newark, NJ] had ‘no cause of action’ in his $150,000 damage suit against the Krich-Radisco Co., Kelvinator distributor, and in turn awarded Krich-Radisco the sum of $7,537 in its counterclaim for the unpaid balance of a contract for a 70-ton system which the distributor had installed in May 1938.

“The court battle, which lasted nearly two weeks, is seen as perhaps an important ‘test case’ in the matter of possible litigation over the installation and performance of air conditioning equipment.”

If court battles weren’t bad enough, dealers were having a hard time finding qualified workers and an equally hard time getting permits to do their work. For example, a May 19, 1937 column by F.O. Jordan stated, “There is but little competition for the many good jobs available in the air conditioning industry, simply because there are more good jobs open than there are good men available.

“Anyone whom you may ask [will] declare that the training of men for air conditioning is lagging far behind the pace set by the progress of the industry itself.”

The permit flap arose in September 15, 1937 when the plumbing board of Orlando, FL ruled that a master plumber “must install air conditioning, and that air conditioning distributors and dealers in the city must obtain permits on installations in which water used in the system passes into a waste connection.

“According to the ruling, air conditioning equipment is classified as a plumbing fixture and the rule was made as protection against the possible contamination of water coming from air conditioning units.”

Lack of workers? Lack of adequate information on permits? What else could open up some potholes on air conditioning’s road to success? How about profitability? Here’s what a Sioux City, IA dealer said around September 1, 1937. “There is no profit in this cut-price market. We’re waiting for prices to get where they belong.”

Yet at the same time, Paul Renaud, head of the Helburn Co. air conditioning department, said, “The day for the air conditioning dealer has definitely arrived, now that most of the big installations, handled by factories, are out of the way. Now the smaller installations and package jobs can be sold by dealers.”



Quotable Quotes and Association News

As the 30s came to a close, the air conditioning industry was becoming more mainstream. A mortuary proprietor on June 9, 1937 made a telling prediction. He recently had had an air conditioning system installed in his business and said, “Air conditioning is following the course of the radio, the automobile, and mechanical refrigeration. And like these, it is long past the experimental stage. It is no longer a luxury.”

On February 23, 1938, Edward Kuhlman, president of the Greater Detroit Homebuilders Assoc-iation, said that “People are getting a better constructed house today with such added features as air conditioning, although this varies widely as to type, efficiency, and desirability.”

The News responded to Kuhlman by writing, “The above comment on air conditioning suggests that something is sadly wrong with either (1) air conditioning equipment, (2) present method of selling it, or (3) the public’s understanding of air conditioning.

“If the trouble is due to the public’s understanding of air conditioning, then it means that the industry is doing a poor job of educating the public.”

William H. Price Jr., vice president in charge of sales for Carrier, said on May 24, 1939, that there were three phases of air conditioning. First, it was “conceived in necessity, among those first few industrial applications wherein proper control of temperature and relative humidity were absolute requisites to the fabrication or processing of a product. Here there was almost no competition at all.

“The second phase of air conditioning was purely commercial in aspect. Air conditioning was now directed at people instead of a product; comfort being the predominant note. Not purely personal selfish comfort, but rather, commercialized comfort.

“In phase number three, we see no such necessity, nor urge to buy as in the first two phases — and furthermore our competition has changed — for we often sit directly across the table from our most serious competitor, the prospect himself. Sales resistance, as evidenced by the prospect’s lack of willingness (not of desire) to buy, is the biggest hurdle to overcome in this phase.”

The industry recognized the need for an organization that could bring air conditioning contractors, manufacturers, and distributors together in an effort to educate and move the industry forward. On January 25, 1939, the formation of a national association of air conditioning dealers and contractors was ensured when attendees of the First All-Industry Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Exhibition in Chicago, IL voted the formation of a national council to handle details in the establishment of the new association.

This news came after the Heat-ing, Piping, and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association and the Chicago Master Steamfit-ters’ Association, in a November 30, 1939 article, opposed the formation of this new association. A member of the Steamfitters said that “Air cooling equipment should be sold as a part of a larger contract and the country should follow our Chicago system where there is no such thing as a ‘closed franchise’ on air conditioning equipment.”

One can draw parallels to the industry in 2001. Association news, lack of qualified help, concerns about profits, training, lack of understanding about the industry, utility company involvement, and the important quality of life issues — one can close his or her eyes and imagine very similar scenarios in both decades.

What’s that adage? The more things change, the more they stay the same.



Sidebar: Hollywood Catches the Air Conditioning Bug

Thank goodness for air conditioning. Without it we might not have had Mickey Mouse and his pals or Greta Garbo’s on-screen sexiness.

In late 1938, Walt Disney announced that he was giving the OK to air condition the new studios of Walt Disney Enterprises, Inc. In addition to the comfort of the 800 workers in the 20-plus buildings, the control of humidity was “highly important” in the processes of inking and painting on celluloid — the method of creating cartoons.

A few months later, in February 1939, it was reported that air conditioned “love scenes” were the newest boon to better motion pictures. Edwin Marin, a film director, tried to find the best air conditioned sets for his stars, to make them more comfortable under the hot lights.

For example, Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell had a stage temperature of 67°F while filming their funny, romantic scenes from “Fast and Loose.” Greta Garbo liked a stage temperature of 65°, while Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy usually preferred 70° temps.



Sidebar: Ladies’ Skirts Hinder A/C Operation

Just when you think you’ve heard it all — clogged ductwork, malfunctioning air handlers, dead birds in the stack pipe — comes another story of obstruction. Only this one comes to us from early 1936.

The Erie, PA Lodge No. 66 of the Loyal Order of the Moose opened up its new air conditioned grill room with a banquet and a dance for 300 people. The event took place between 6:30 and 11:00 p.m., after which the doors were thrown open to all remaining members and friends.

The new system had some impressive specifications. Installed by the Frick Co., the distinctive feature was the use of separate blower units for fresh air and recirculated air. The unit handling the fresh air was equipped with eight rows of tubes of direct-expansion coils and delivered the cooled air along one side of the room, directly under the ceiling. The unit handling the return air had six rows of tubes in the cooling coils, and delivered air into the opposite side of the room. The fresh air unit handled 2,500 cfm while 3,500 cfm of recirculated air passed through the return unit.

Mr. Trubshaw of the Frick Co. said, “After the banquet had been in progress about two hours, the room became filled with smoke. It dawned on me that the tables had been so arranged that the ladies skirts were preventing the return air from going into the ducts. I had the tables in front of the ducts moved, and the air cleared in ten minutes. The system worked in a queen’s haste.”



Sidebar: Hoover Dam Project Spawns Unique Cooling Methods

One of the largest U.S. engineering projects of the entire century occurred between 1931 and 1936 — the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

This monumental feat, designed and constructed under the guise of the Department of Reclamation, employed over 5,200 workers, spawned the growth of nearby cities such as Boulder City, and forever reshaped the hydroelectric power grid in the U.S. Southwest — all from a desire to harness the awesome power of the Colorado River and control flooding downstream of it.

The project had a definite refrigeration theme to it, too.

KEEPING THE CEMENT COOL

The pattern to pouring the structural cement was in a series of individual blocks, no more than 5-ft thick, and honeycomb each block with 1-in.-dia pipe for the purpose of running cool river water and ice-cold refrigerated water through. Why?

In his book, Hoover Dam, An American Adventure, author Joseph E. Stevens cited the reason for this cooling method.

“The reason for this piecemeal, block-by-block approach was not convenience or insufficient mixing capacity, but rather, the need to dissipate the tremendous chemical heat generated by the setting concrete.

“Bureau of Reclamation engineers had calculated that if the dam were fashioned in a single, continuous pour, its internal temperature would rise 40°F while it was hardening, it would take 125 years to cool, and the tremendous stresses created by the setting process would fracture its body so severely that it would be rendered useless.”

In the January 25, 1933 edition of The News, a report on the project was published. Howard Walters of the Ingersoll Rand Co. gave a presentation to the American Society of Refrigerating Engineers. Walters said, “The amount of refrigeration necessary [to cool the cement] has been computed at over 600 tons.” The report added that the cement “setting would require 200 years to be dissipated by natural methods” and that “specifications called for the removal of all heat above 72°F by circulation of cold water after setting six days.”

HOW IT WORKED

According to a U.S. Dept. of Interior bulletin (titled Concrete Manufacture, Handling, and Control), the Hoover Dam required the following stages of concrete cooling.

“The removal of heat was accomplished in two stages; first, by the circulation of air-cooled water through a pipe system; and second by the circulation of refrigerated water through the same pipe system.

“The [seven-story] cooling tower, refrigeration plant [capable of producing 1,000 tons of ice every 24 hours], and pumps were located at the downstream cofferdam, about 800 feet from the dam. Cooling water was pumped through 14-inch, cork-insulated pipe headers, to the downstream face of the dam, and into the central slot [and eventually connecting with headers on the upstream side].

“Cooling pipes were 14-gauge tubing, 1-in. outside diameter, spaced at 5-ft centers vertically. [The] pipes were laid on top of each 5-ft lift, after the concrete hardened, and were anchored by wire loops.

“The pipe extended in a circumferential direction from the slot, horizontally to the canyon wall, then through a 180-degree bend and back to the central slot. The loops varied in length from 220 to 1,340 ft, with an average length of 513 ft, for the total of 5,880 coils. Approximately 592 miles of cooling pipe were embedded in the dam.”

The temperature of the cement was constantly monitored. More than 400 electrical resistance thermometers were embedded in the concrete between the cooling pipes, with the purpose of providing a record of concrete temperature conditions.

The bulletin described the cooling procedure: “Water was pumped through the cooling pipe at an average rate of approximately four gallons per minute. During the first stage of cooling, in which air-cooled water was used, the average temperature difference for the water entering and leaving the concrete was 7.3°, the variation being 4 to 12°.

“During the second stage of cooling, in which refrigerated water was used, the average temperature difference was 11.1°, with a variation of from 6.5 to 18.3°.

“The refrigeration plant had a rated capacity of 825 tons.”

Bottom line? A magnificent feat — especially by 1930s standards.



Sidebar: I Hate to Say I Told You So

If there were any “doubting Thomases” about the impact of air conditioning, certainly many fears were put to rest during a Detroit heat wave in July 1936.

“Nothing ever like it before” was the way air conditioning dealers described the flood of inquiries about air conditioning equipment after they were “swamped” during a week in which the temperatures climbed above 100°F every day.

C.H. Lewis, sales manager for the air conditioning department of R.L. Spitzley Heating Co., said the company had sold 40 self-contained units for homes and offices, with a “preponderance of them for bedroom installation.” Lewis said between 300 and 400 inquiries had been made during that same period. He predicted the effect of the heat wave would even be felt on the following year’s sales.

Meanwhile, W.G. Nagel, vice president of Air Conditioning Corp., said, “We’ve never had anything like this. We even have our bookkeeper working on sales.”

Nagel said that price [of the air conditioners] was no factor with the “public desperate for relief.” His dealership was 36 hrs behind on installations.

However, two dealers said that some customers remained stubborn about the usefulness of air conditioning. Frank T. Schreiner, engineer for the Kelvinator Corp., said that despite the fact that many calls were going unanswered, due to the sheer volume of inquiries, those customers being handled were objecting to price.

He named price as the greatest handicap in actually closing the sales. “Homeowners especially think they should get something for around $10,” he added.

Meanwhile, D.A. Newton of Conditioned Air Corp. said that most inquirers were not familiar with what air conditioning could do, and added, “They weren’t prepared for this weather siege. But after it’s passed, they will decide that as long as they got through that they will wait until next year.”

Or the next heat wave.

Publication date: 04/30/2001

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