It isn’t as much of a concern right now, but late in the summer as I sat in my hotbox of a car, I gave thanks for the cooling air coming from my vents. Tiny beads of perspiration clung to my head, and it still felt like I was in the seventh dimension of hell, but that cool air saved me from insanity. I got me to wonder, how did people back in the day handle excessive heat? It was a burning question I had never really thought about, and it was one I knew I must answer.
The last thing many of you are thinking about right now is air conditioning (unless you live in Arizona or Australia). But remember back to the summer when you were in your car, like I was, experiencing a blast furnace of heat. Turning that knob on the AC and blasting cold air so you wouldn’t melt took some amazing discoveries, and a whole bunch of ingenuity. It’s been over 110 years since Willis Carrier created the modern version of air conditioning. How did people stay cool before this invention?
Humans have been able to handle the heat for hundreds of thousands of years; nomads lived in the desert, people were able to thrive in the tropics and jungles. They did okay, since as a human species we are still here alive and kicking. The first documented attempts at staying cool came from the Romans and their system to circulate cool aqueduct water through the walls of their homes. The Emperor Elagabalus even transported snow from the mountains to store next to his villa during the summer in order to stay cool. I’m not sure what he expected to happen other than creating a lovely pool. People in desert areas made villages with tall buildings that provided shaded paths between the buildings and had small windows that faced away from the sun. In addition, the buildings were set up to catch the best cooling tool—the wind.
|Wind Tower and Qanat for Cooling|
|More Windcatchers Mahdi Kalhor/Wikimedia|
|An Anasazi Dwelling Lorax/Wikimedia|
In addition to those ways to stay cool, hand fans have been a method of choice for thousands of years. In the 16th century they even became a fashion fad, and the Chinese were the first to develop on overhead fan powered by a person. People that traveled west during the late 19thcentury found that houses carved into a hillside, built underground, or made from sod, were excellent insulators from the heat and even worked in the winter to stay warm.
Modern Cooling (Kind of)
In the early 1900’s, the first electric fans began to appear in homes, which provided an easier way to stay cool. In 1902, Willis Carrier, a 25 year old engineer, invented the modern air conditioner. He didn’t do it to cool off people; he did it to cool the humidity where he worked in a printing plant. In 1922, he invented the centrifugal chiller and a central compressor. The public got their first look at this new amazing device in 1925. This invention probably shaped the rest of America, even today. Cities in the desert were able to become habitable, it was used in rail cars, people were able to work comfortably in the summer, and people were finally able to cool off in their own homes. But the spread of residential air conditioning came slowly. In 1965, only 10 percent of U.S. homes had an air conditioner. Many still used “swamp coolers” that used the principle of evaporative cooling along with a fan. While they did provide a cooling effect, they were no where near as efficient as Carrier’s invention. By 2007, 87% of homes had some type of air conditioning. There are still areas in the world where it is scarce. The Europeans don’t have it as much as Americans, and most of Africa, India, and Asia somehow continue to stay cool without it.
It is safe to say that air conditioning is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. There have been any number of other breakthroughs in staying cool with improved refrigerants and efficiency, but they would too involved to mention, let alone list. Even reading this post requires air conditioning since the servers that transmits the data on the internet must stay incredibly cool because of the buildup of heat. The space program would never have existed, and Google wouldn’t be a company without it. It has moved our society in innumerable ways. So when you go to twist that knob on your car’s air conditioner because you don’t want to break out in a little sweat, just remember what it took to get us there.