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In praise of air conditioning

While on Jekyll Island in early June at the annual Georgia Press Association convention, a colleague asked a group whether we would prefer to be a member of the 21st century middle-class or among the upper class of the 19th century when Jekyll Island was in its heyday. Seeing the restored “cottages” as they called them that the likes of William Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer and Richard Crane Jr. built on the island, one might have chosen to be in the upper-class of the late 1800s. While they may have had servants to wait on them hand and foot, yachts and mansions (their “cottages”), we all voted solidly to be in today’s middle class. 

The reasoning? Air conditioning. Regardless of how many people you could afford to pay to bring you lemonade to cool you down or wave hand-held fans around you all day, it doesn’t beat the ability to sit comfortably in our temperature-controlled homes and offices during August.

The man who invented modern day air conditioning, Willis Carrier, is a genius. While most people may not know his name, it is one to remember and applaud. 

As we head into August with what feels like constant 100 percent humidity coupled with 90 degree days, you can see why some historians have argued that the air conditioner was an essential pre-requisite for development in the South. 

Carrier, a young engineer in the summer of 1902, was sitting in a foggy Pittsburgh train platform when he realized he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog. Doing so, according to Carrier.com, would make it possible to manufacture air with specific amounts of moisture in it.

Within a year, he completed his invention to control humidity – the fundamental building block for modern air conditioning.

Brilliant.

Early on his invention was called a “weathermaker” and it changed the world, especially for those of us in the American South. That one invention morphed into something that allowed us, mere humans, to control the weather – at least the weather inside - by simply pushing a button or adjusting a dial. Talk about far-reaching and unexpected effects. While we’ve always been able to handle frigid north Georgia winters by warming ourselves by the wood fire, cooling down wasn’t so easy until Carrier’s invention took off.

Back in the day it was only flour mills and places like the Gillette corporation, where excessive moisture rusted the razor blades, that used Carrier’s invention. Later on, movie theatre owners figured out they could install air conditioning and it was as much of a selling point as the movies themselves. Imagine sitting in a windowless, hot, body-filled room in the summer months prior to air conditioning. Not happening and not surprisingly, most theatres shut down in the summer. Today, it’s almost essential to take a light sweater when temps inside a cinema are near-Arctic.

Thankfully for us in the South, today most everybody gets to enjoy chilled, humidity-free air inside their homes, offices and cars. It’s a luxury tycoons in the early 1900s never even imagined.

Lots of people say prolonged exposure to A/C erodes our natural ability to deal with the heat and that may be the case, especially if you talk to anyone over the age of 85 who may not have had A/C their entire lives.

    Being without cool air from a vent makes us temperamental and edgy, not to mention it takes the fun out of sleeping, forcing us to toss and turn all night.  

So J.P Morgan can have his yacht and mansions. We’ll take air conditioning any day because it’s the best since thing since BEFORE sliced bread. 

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