– How air conditioning created the United States
Like many revolutionary inventions, the creators of the modern electric air conditioner did not fully grasp the potential of their machines.
In 1902, a young engineer by the name of Willis H. Carrier was working at the Buffalo Forge Company in upstate New York trying to figure out a way to improve the air quality of Brooklyn printer. Early 20th Century lithographers needed a consistent environment to operate their machines reliably and with a consistent output. Paper and ink changed density and weight depending of the temperature and humidity; finding out a way to keep them stable would make printing more efficient. Carrier and their team were asked to find a solution.
Buffalo in 1902 was a lucky place to design advanced machinery. The world’s first large-scale power plant had opened in nearby Niagara Falls seven years before; Buffalo was one of the earliest cities in the world with access to abundant, cheap electricity. This meant that Carrier was not limited to bulky, noisy steam or internal combustion engines, but could rely on lightweight, compact electric motors. This enabled Carrier and his team to design, test, and build a machine that could control the temperature, humidity, ventilation, and filter air particles efficiently and could be installed and optimized for industrial production. In other words, to build the first modern air conditioner.
The Buffalo Forge Company saw Carrier’s invention as a side project, a product that they could offer other companies that were seeing specialized industrial use. By late 1914 they were fairly bored with the whole project and let Carrier and six other engineers to abandon the company taking the patents for their invention with then. They pooled all their live savings to form the Carrier Engineering Corporation.
The company slowly improved on its designs during the 1920s, focusing at first on selling installations to industrial (tobacco factories, textiles, and printers, mostly). It wasn’t until 1925 when the first public building with modern air cooling opened, the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. Movie theaters were quick to recognize the potential of the invention, and air-conditioned theaters quickly spread across the US. Some film historians have directly linked the dawn of the studio system and Hollywood’s golden age with the mass adoption of this new technology. Audiences adored having a cool place to spend hot summer days, and movie studios worked hard to keep them entertained.
The depression dramatically slowed growth and almost killed Carrier; the invention of the first reliable window unit in 1931 was a case of wrong place, wrong time for a new invention; it was hard to try to pitch an expensive new item to cool down homes. By the end of the decade, some very wealthy Americans could afford the $10,000 ($120,000, inflation adjusted) to install an air conditioner, but any hope of mass adoption and falling prices ended with the war.
It was not until the GI Bill and the massive construction boom following the war that air conditioning started to take off. America had been building homes at a glacial pace for close to two decades; returning GIs were back and eager to form families, so new housing had to catch up quickly. Developers quickly learned, specially in the South, that offering these new-fangled air conditioners was a sure-fire way to attract wealth home buyers. By 1953, one million American homes had air conditioning, and with mass production, the technology quickly became more affordable.
The impact of this trend what was not immediately appreciable. The first hint that something was changing was a subtle shift on how houses looked like in much of the South and Southwest. Pre-war architecture in much of the region relied in traditional methods to keep dwellings cool during the long, summers, using heavier construction materials as insulation, storm windows, screens and window sashes to keep the hot air out, and high ceilings, ventilation, attic fans, and large eaves to keep air moving. Gone were the shotgun houses and sleeping porches. Post-war housing traded design features adapted to high temperatures for cheap materials and constructions methods, and heavy reliance on air conditioning.
Air conditioning changed routines across the country; now families did not have to leave the house to cool down during the summer. The same way that air-conditioned movie theaters were partly to blame for the golden age of movie making, television saw its fortunes rise with air-conditioned homes. Americans now had a reason to stay indoors, and television offered an alternative to the summer heat.
Changes extended beyond how housing looks and how people pass their free time. Southern states had traditionally been poor and largely forgotten, as they were too warm to live in for large parts of the year. Air conditioning, however, suddenly turned oppressively warm desert regions into places that were comfortable during the summer months and delightfully pleasant the rest of the year. Soon many northerners started trading the frigid New England or Midwest winters for comfortable retirement homes in Florida or Arizona, chasing mild temperatures and abundant, cheap housing. Jobs soon followed, and the population map of the United States shifted dramatically South and West. The Sunbelt grew from 28 percent of the population of the country to 40 percent in 2000, and 45 percent in 2016.
This dramatic population shift has had some interesting consequences, especially regarding energy consumption. Despite the often-careless building techniques used in much of post-war housing, it is easier to cool a building than it is to warm it, so the move to the Sunbelt actually made carbon emissions for housing go down. Air conditioning has the added virtue of being completely electrified, so it is easy to make that cooling carbon-free. Energy use can also be dramatically cut back by readopting many of the traditional building techniques (better insulation, high ceilings, forced ventilation…) that were mostly abandoned during the boom years, so it can be further reduced at a reasonable cost.
There are not many technologies that have physically reshaped nations, but air conditioning certainly has been one of them. Many regions of the United States would not be economically viable right now without climate-controlled buildings and public spaces. Carrier’s invention had a much larger impact than the printing presses and tobacco factories where it was first implemented.