The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Mich. (Photo courtesy of The Henry Ford.)
An online poll conducted by The Henry Ford historical institution and America Online (AOL) has revealed that the most influential innovation in the past 75 years is residential air conditioning. More than 2.5 million votes were cast during the two-week survey in early October.

"The outcome of this poll offers us tremendous insight into what Americans most admire in innovation," said Steve Hamp, president of The Henry Ford, a nonprofit educational institution and museum in Dearborn, Mich.

"Above all else, we want to be comfortable and healthy. While some might find the top vote getter, residential air conditioning, surprising, the fact is that it changed history. Home air conditioning, which became available in 1929, spurred growth in the U.S. Sunbelt, where it was previously too hot for people to live comfortably without it."

Contractors Speak Out

The Newsasked some contractors for their reaction to the poll.

"Certainly air conditioning has contributed greatly to society," said Bobby Ring, executive vice president of Meyer & Depew Co., Kenilworth, N.J. "People enjoy healthier homes and generally live longer due in great part to the inclusion of central air conditioning in many homes.

Window air conditioners helped bring residential air conditioning to the masses. (Photo courtesy of The Henry Ford.)
"The development of Florida and Arizona, as well as many other areas of the country, has only been made possible by the ability to air condition the home there. It seems here in New Jersey that people are more tolerant of being without a working heating system than without a working air conditioning system."

Mitchell Cropp, president of Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning-Heating-Security, Fairfax, Va., was encouraged by the poll results.

"I think this is outstanding," he said. "It's great for our industry. The message is finally getting to people that the [HVAC] industry has made their lives better, healthier, and more productive through the innovation of air conditioning.

"This just may be the stepping stone that we need to encourage more people to want to join our industry. We need to take reports like this and share it with the school systems to let them know that there is an industry that has made the world a better place to live, and it is about to come of age, and they should encourage their students to look at this industry for their future."

One contractor, John Saucier, president of Temperature Air, Memphis, Tenn., listed the ways that air conditioning has changed the U.S. culture.

A white-gloved model demonstrates the features of a White-Rodgers “PushButton” thermostat. (Photo courtesy of White-Rodgers.)
"Here are a few," he said. "Drive-in movies have all but disappeared because people don't want to turn off their car A/C and swelter in a hot car. Drive-in restaurants, once a common sight, have mostly become a thing of the past for the same reason.

"Until the advent of A/C, office buildings typically were wide open with radiators around the outside wall. Until A/C, it was unheard of to have a completely interior office with no outside walls."

News' Contractor Consultant Aaron York, owner of Aaron York's Quality Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Indianapolis, said the health effects of air conditioning cannot be measured in monetary terms.

"We can create in-home environments that will give us longer life with a better quality of life than has ever been available to mankind," York stated.

"And you tell me, how much will we pay to have a long, healthy, comfortable life?

"We have changed the environment in homes where children were near death with respiratory ailments such as asthma and have seen those children recover to the point that today they are no longer plagued by this scourge. And this is not one isolated incident but many. How much is this worth? Ask that mother and father!"

A Bard Manufacturing Co. employee spot welds a blower housing in 1951. (Photo courtesy of Bard Manufacturing Co.)
"It doesn't surprise me - the outcome of the 75-year research," said Roger Goertz, owner of Mr. Rooter of the Greater Houston Area and former president of Aire Serv, a national HVAC franchise company.

"If a human being is only given two choices in life, what better two answers could you imagine - health and comfort!"

John McCarthy, owner of McCarthy's One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning, Omaha, Neb., said it is difficult to convince homeowners of the importance of A/C systems, despite the poll results.

"I find it very interesting that it was the No. 1 vote getter, yet it is very hard to get people to spend the money they need to improve the complete system that will improve their lives," he said.

"They look at it as a machine in their house that they need, but most people will not give it the proper scheduled service that they give a car. They think that one system is just like any other one, and do not think that the way it is installed is very important to the life of the system.

"[Homeowners] usually look for the least expensive system or part of system that they can get."

But one contractor suggested rephrasing the question. "What if the survey asked this question, ‘Of these 10 inventions, which one would you least like to do without?'" asked Robert Wilkos, business leader for Peaden Air Conditioning, Panama City, Fla. "I would assume that the responses would overwhelmingly favor the same top choice."

Sidebar: The Top Ten

Here is the top ten list of the most important innovations of the last 75 years, as determined by the online poll conducted by The Henry Ford and America Online:

1. Air conditioning

2. Penicillin

3. Personal computer

4. Global positioning satellites

5. Cell phones

6. Broadcast television

7. Social Security Act

8. Internet

9. Frozen food

10. Polio vaccine

Publication date: 12/06/2004