Just look at the size of that thing. This 1925 residential heater/chiller climate-control unit, with its exposed electric motor and piping, looks dangerous to children and pets. If they’d had zip codes in 1925, this ancient heating and cooling unit would rightly have gotten one. But don’t think air conditioning was invented just so you could, in 2007, sit in front of your 60-inch high-definition television enjoying your favorite sports or movies. No! Air conditioning was invented to solve a real day-to-day problem in manufacturing. Willis Carrier, at the time a 25-year-old employee at the Buffalo Forge Co., happened upon a solution for the problem of misalignments in color process printing. Misalignments were caused by the uncontrollable changes that heat and humidity produced in printing-paper dimensions. Simply put, Carrier’s air conditioning system stabilized printing-paper dimensions by controlling the temperature and humidity in the surrounding air.
Of course, it didn’t take long for Carrier to realize just how extensive the market for this product might be. If it could be used in a manufacturing plant, then why not in a public space or residence? By Memorial Day 1925, the invention of a refrigerant safer than ammonia allowed the Rivoli Theatre, on Broadway in Times Square, to be one of the first public buildings to turn on A/C. Macy’s department store at Herald Square had turned on its air conditioning by 1929. And by 1930, 300 theaters across the United States were able to seduce movie-lovers by offering air conditioning.
There is a price to pay for all this comfort. Though today’s air-conditioning units are many magnitudes smaller, and far more efficient, than the early models, running them inexorably hastens the depletion of Earth’s fossil fuels. But they sure look better than they used to. TME
—Michael Allan Torre