Advice and News •
When the mercury breaches 40°C, and sweat pours forth from every gland, walking into an air-conditioned room is like passing through St.Peter’s pearly gates. It’s a divine technology that has raised our level of comfort like no other, quickly spreading across the planet and permeating every modern culture. In this article, we’ll explore how air conditioning changed the world.
Before air conditioning became common in the 1960s, people tried to cool themselves in all sorts of ways. The ancient Egyptians hung reeds over their windows, which became soaked with evaporated water and helped to cool air being blown into the room1. Sweltering Persians alleviated the desert heat by constructing windcatchers, which “caught” wind and redirected it into their homes2. A few thousand miles away in 2nd-century China, prisoners powered 3-meter wide rotary fans, and 600 years later, water-powered fans were invented. Our species has spent a lot of time and effort trying to keep ourselves cool.
In the midst of the Age of Enlightment, with the scientific method well established, Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley conducted the first scientific experiment to test evaporation as a cooling method. By evaporating volatile liquids such as alcohol and ether, Franklin and Hadley were able to achieve sub-zero temperatures, and Franklin concluded that “from this experiment one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”1 Further experiments by other scientists and inventors followed, leading to ice-making machines, refrigeration systems, and eventually, the first modern air conditioning unit.
While the main purpose of modern air conditioning is to cool us down, the first machine wasn’t created for this reason. Willis H. Carrier is the man responsible for the first electrical air conditioning system. At the turn of the 20th century, Carrier was working for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company, who were plagued by the vacillating humidity levels of New York, which shrank and swelled their precious paper products.
Carrier began experimenting with the possibility of using air conditioning as a way to regulate humidity levels in the company’s printing plant, eventually creating a machine that passed air over coils filled with cold water, cooling it enough to achieve the desired effect. In July 1902, the world’s first electrical air conditioner sprang into action, allowing the company to print consistenly-sized paper with better-aligned ink. It wasn’t long before air conditioning was adopted by other printing companies with humidity problems, allowing them to print more accurately, and improving the quality of newspapers, books, and other printed material across the globe.
But air conditioning technology was still new and expensive, and only the wealthy could afford it. The first time it was installed with the purpose of cooling people was in 1903, when an air conditioner was installed at the newly-opened New York Stock Exchange, helping to refresh its rowdy traders and presumably making them a little richer. Other early air conditioners could be found in the residences of New York’s most prestigious families—the Vanderblits, Carnegies, and Astors3.
It wasn’t until after the second world war that air conditioning technology became small enough and cheap enough to become viable for regular people. Henry Galson had invented the first window air conditioner in the 30s, but it was too expensive for the average Joe, who had to glare green-eyed at the upper classes until prices fell about a decade later.
When air conditioning finally became affordable, huge swathes of land were suddenly more attractive places to live, from the oppressive, alligator-filled marshes of Florida, to the scorching heat of Australia’s Northern Territory. The stifling and torrid land that stretched from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn was made tolerable, widening the world for us, and leading to increased migration and population growth for those areas1. Migrating to somewhere like Cairns was possible before air conditioning became common, but you would have needed to make peace with being damp for the rest of your life. With air conditioning, this was no longer a problem. You could work in a cool office by day, sleep peacefully at night, and snorkel the barrier reef on the weekend. The huge expanse of land made attractive by air conditioning gave people much more choice over where they wanted to live, and surely improved their quality of life in the process.
Home design changed too. Warmer climates tended to build houses with high ceilings and deep eaves, as a way to trap cool air and allow hot air to escape. The famous stilted Queenslander design was created as a way to encourage air circulation through the building. Turning the underside of a Queenslander into another room was rare before air conditioning came along in the 50s, as the entire house would have become warmer, and the room itself too hot to appreciate.
Air conditioning also had a drastic effect on holiday destinations. Who would travel to the soupy climate of somewhere like Hong Kong, without being able to recuperate from the day’s sight-seeing in a crisp hotel room? What self-respecting nomad would traverse the chilly mountain roads of New Zealand’s Arthur’s Pass, in a van without a heater? And it wasn’t just the destinations themselves that were made more comfortable—commercial flights had air conditioning that created enjoyable temperatures inside the cabin, making flying much more pleasant. The simple but powerful ability to regulate air temperature has opened up thousands of holiday destinations, broadened the horizons of holidaymakers, and supported economies across the world.
On the topic of leisure, air conditioning helped to improve one of our favourite past-times—sports. Gone are the days of watching gladiators slaughter each other in the baking Roman sun. Today, we can sit in air-conditioned awe as Stephen Curry sinks another ball from outside the 3-point line. We can roar in prehistoric rage as our favourite ice hockey goon throws down his gloves and pummels his opponent. Or we can cheer on the Brisbane Lions from the blissful comfort of a corporate box, beer firmly in hand.
While leisure time was being enhanced by air conditioning, work saw similar improvements. With commercial buildings such as offices, shops, and restaurants suddenly made comfortable, workers were not only happier, but more productive4. It was possible to regulate the temperature of chemical and biological laboratories, accelerating scientific advancement. Infection risk was reduced by controlling the humidity in hospital operating theatres, and surgeons were able to perform open heart surgery at the required low temperature, helping to save lives.For industrial workers, it was possible to go to work without fear of dying from heat stroke, and for those working in the transport industry, cars, boats, and aircraft were much more tolerable places to work.
On the subject of transportation, air conditioning has widened our food choices. Before it came into play, it was difficult to transport fresh produce such as tomatoes, bananas, and potatoes, which would spoil before arriving at their destination. With affordable and efficient refrigeration, a country can ship its produce across the entire globe, from creamy dates that melt in your mouth, to glistening, crunchy green beans. Our culinary possibilities used to be restricted to local produce. Now, we can follow recipes that include ingredients from every corner of the globe, something unheard of before air conditioning came along.
Air conditioning has even affected life and death. Up until 1970, pregnancy conception rates usually dropped during hotter summer months, with people preferring to get jiggy when it was a little cooler, leading to fewer babies being born in spring. Mortality rates were affected too, with air conditioning helping to save the lives of vulnerable people during heatwaves1.
There aren’t many areas of life that air conditioning hasn’t affected. The technology has had a profound impact on where we live, how we live, and our quality of life. So the next time you step into an air-conditioned building, whether your home, office, or local restaurant, take a moment to appreciate the miracle of the technology, and how lucky you are to have it.
- Air conditioning, Wikipedia
- Windcatcher, Wikipedia
- Matt Buchanan, 2013, An Apparatus for Treating Air: The Modern Air Conditioner, The New Yorker
- Can Air Conditioning Really Improve Workplace Productivity?vcecc, Moore Heating