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Count a/c among the century's top technologies

May 12, 2000
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As I sat down to write this final message for 1999, I wondered if an editor would be using a computer to compose his/her thoughts at the conclusion of the 21st century.

Then again, what was I thinking? By 2099, computers will be ruling the universe (or at least Earth).

Don’t fret, though, contractors. One hundred years from now, business will be booming — on Mars, that is. (I’m guessing that climate control will be in hot demand there.)

As I sat down to write this final message before the start of the new millennium, it dawned on me that a computer did not exist at the start of this century. Now, as the 20th century comes to a close, all that is being talked about are computers and how they may collectively fail at the stroke of midnight December 31. And, who knows what is going to happen thereafter?

The birth of cool

While computers look to be a dominant force in the next century, there’s no doubt in my mind that air conditioning, as a new technology, helped transform 20th century America. It just amazes me the impact air conditioning has had — and continues to have — on this country and the world.

Did you know that since 1940, eight of the 10 fastest growing states are located in the Southeast and Southwest portions of the country? And, according to sociologists, cities like Atlanta GA, Houston TX, and Miami FL would not have experienced their rapid growth were it not for air conditioning.

A defining technology of modern times, mechanical cooling has launched new forms of architecture and altered the ways we live, work, and play. From suburban tract houses to glass skyscrapers, indoor entertainment centers, high-tech manufacturers’ cleanrooms, and pressurized modules for space exploration, many of the nation’s modern structures and products would not exist without the invention of air conditioning.

In truth, the technology of “engineered air” has changed our relationship with nature itself by creating indoor artificial climates, shifting seasonal patterns of work.

Air conditioning in America has followed two tracks: process air conditioning for manufacturing and comfort air conditioning for people. Although factories installed mechanical cooling systems as early as 1888, it wasn’t until 1911 that air conditioning proved to be of great economic value in the printing industry, in the manufacture of explosives and photographic films, and in food processing, such as for the drying of tobacco and preparation of candy, bread, and macaroni.

Lights, cameras, air conditioning

Did you know that most Americans’ first exposure to “man-made weather” was in movie houses and theaters during the 1920s and 30s? Without air conditioning, most theaters closed during the summer months.

Air conditioning proved to be an economic boom. Theater operators found that they could recover the cost of their air conditioning equipment in just one summer. Many theaters would leave their doors wide open to entice passersby into their establishments.

Before air conditioning, American life followed seasonal cycles determined by weather. Worker productivity declined in direct proportion to the heat and humidity outside. On the hottest days, employees left work early and businesses shut their doors.

Stores and theaters also closed down, unable to comfortably accommodate large groups of people in stifling interiors. Cities emptied in summer as people fled for mountain and seaside resorts.

Not until after World War II did air conditioning enter the home of the average American. Engineered air was marketed to the public as an essential component of modern living. Manufacturers claimed that it promoted better sleeping and eating, healthier air quality, cleaner interiors free from pollen and dust, and the enjoyment of nature through glass window walls without the discomfort of summer heat and humidity. With its steadily decreasing costs, air conditioning was touted as a technology “for the millions, not just the millionaires.”

$40 billion market

After World War II, mechanical cooling allowed the development of the modern glass-walled skyscraper — the symbol of freedom from traditional construction systems, as well as heating and cooling methods.

In fact, the technology of air conditioning developed concurrently with the invention of more sophisticated products that required increasingly precise temperature, humidity, and filtration controls. Today, many consumer products such as computer chips and CDs must be manufactured in cleanrooms.

The United States produces now 11 million air conditioning units annually, according to the World Market for Air Conditioning Summary, a global survey by the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, according to an ASHRAE report, the worldwide air conditioning market is about $40 billion.

Face it: a remarkable transformation of American culture has been made possible by air conditioning.

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