WASHINGTON _ Goose pimples rush to the skin’s surface. It’s chilly, about 60 degrees. Huge fans whir and cool air swirls in all directions.
Naturally. You’re standing in an air conditioner.
It’s an over-sized mock-up of one of the 20th century’s most important inventions. “The air conditioner has done as much for our lives as the car, plane or TV,” says Chysanthe Broikos, curator at the National Building Museum. “It’s just not as sexy.”
The walk-in air conditioner is part of an exhibit called “Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America,” at the National Building Museum. The exhibit, which runs until January 2000, documents the air conditioner’s influence on modern life.
Since its invention in 1842, air conditioning has changed our work lives, our architecture and our leisure time. It opened the Sunbelt states – especially steamy Florida – to year-round tourism and a population boom. It’s given us color film, candy bars and the Information Age.
Without air conditioners cooling computers, Bill Gates would not be a billionaire. It is also quite simply a life saver.
A dangerous heat wave recently has claimed more than 200 lives so far. In cities across the country, communities have set up cooling centers, public air-conditioned sanctuaries for the homeless, the poor and the elderly.
“The elderly are susceptible,” said Ellen Ellick, from the St. Louis city health department. “They grew up without air conditioning and they think they can survive without it.”
Saving lives was the inspiration for inventing the air conditioner. A history of air conditioning, culled from the museum’s exhibit:
In 1842, John Gorrie received the first patent for an air-conditioning system. Gorrie was a doctor fighting malaria in Apalachicola, Fla., then a mosquito infested town in the state’s panhandle. He hung buckets of ice to lower his house’s temperature and cool his fever-stricken patients.
Historians argue whether Gorrie developed a full-blown air-conditioning system with ducts and fans to circulate chilled air. But he is considered the godfather of air conditioning. Florida has honored that and his fight against malaria by putting his statue in National Statuary Hall in the nation’s Capitol.
Air conditioning’s first practical use came in tobacco and cotton factories because summer humidity jammed the machines. The climate-control machine used fans and ducts to channel cool air through factories. Humidity disappeared. Machines, and employees could now work around the clock.
For the first time, the work place was sealed off from the outside world. With windows shut, and street dust eliminated, work places became cleaner and yielded new products: toothpaste, pharmaceuticals and color printing.
Next came air-conditioned theaters, department stores and office buildings. But homes didn’t get air conditioners until the post-World War II housing boom, says technology historian Gail Cooper.
“Construction shifted to tract homes with simpler, one-story layouts designed around mechanical cooling,” Cooper says. That also helped spawn suburbia. Homeowners no longer needed trees and wide expanses for cool breezes. Homes were smaller, easier to cool and built in clusters.
The city also got a facelift. Office buildings no longer needed windows that opened. Architects could use glass and aluminum and build to the sky. The skyscraper signaled the air conditioner’s coming of age, because now it was a major influence on design and construction, Cooper says.
For the Sunbelt, air conditioning meant new economic opportunities.
In the early part of the century, for example, the affluent spent summer vacations in the North, Cooper says. Now, Florida and hot-weather states — with air-conditioned hotels, rental cars and amusement parks – have joined the mountains and northern lake shores as summertime vacation spots for just about everyone.
Air conditioning changed other habits, too. “We spend a lot more time inside rather than going outside to entertain ourselves,” says Cooper, who was a consultant for the building museum’s exhibit.
And the hot drive to the beach changed shortly after homes were climate-controlled. By 1965, air conditioning was installed in 54 percent of all new cars.
Some other amenities air conditioning makes possible:
- Color film processing, which needs a cool, dry processing plant.
- Candy bars.
Chocolate bars were gray, greasy and unappetizing lumps before factories adopted air conditioning.
- Domed sport stadiums.
- Air and space travel.
Planes and space crafts need air conditioners to stabilize cabin pressure and circulate fresh air.
Processors and computer guts would melt if they were not constantly cooled.
In the National Building Museum’s exhibit, the air conditioner’s story is told through photos, diagrams and the three-room, walk-in model of an air conditioner. It also features some pre-air conditioner artifacts: Hand-held fans; General Electric oscillating fans. In one vivid sign of how much life has changed, the exhibit displays pictures of summertime slumber parties in public parks.
In one corner, a living room shows how a lucky family in the early days of air conditioning might have watched “The Honeymooners.” A vinyl covered couch and a plastic molded seat – sticky places to plop without air conditioning – face a small television screen. From a window, a armoire-sized air conditioner hums loudly as it blasts cool air into the room.
Even that recently, air conditioning was still something of a novelty or luxury, says Bernard Nagengast, an engineer whose hobby is writing about the air conditioner’s history as a hobby and also a consultant for the building museum. Now, he says, it’s become “a bare necessity.”
“Air conditioning,” says Nagengast, ” is so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted.”