Keep it cool

Air conditioning
How Air conditioning affected people's habits in the Printing press (Context in the article below)

Recently, I went to a movie theatre to watch the long-awaited movie Dune after a long time. I wanted to watch it for the longest time, and it was a great experience. Between the stunning visuals on the big IMAX screen, the particular focus on the scorching heat and the ways people were cooling themselves on Arrakis got me thinking about how we humans have been cooling ourselves in the present day. From there, to the sight of the air conditioning vents just above me, I thought, let's read and learn about the history and science of this magnificent work of engineering art.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention; in this case, the necessity was something else, and the invention was a byproduct. The story of air conditioning contains innovative marketing, impact on architecture, its influences on the US elections, the origin of summer blockbusters, and much more. Let's get into it.


Print it!

Air conditioning

It is the summers of 1902 in New York, and it is hot, but moreover, it is humid. The humidity is brutal to live by; trust me, I was in Mumbai for 2 years. The difficulty goes off the roof if you work in a printing press in this climate. Bad for business, as the paper would warp in the humid environment, and the ink won't settle on it. This is the problem that Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography Printing company faced for their popular humour magazine "Judge." To solve the issue, the company hired an engineer called Willis Carrier.

Air conditioning
One of the first schematics of the AC system (Courtesy:

Carrier, an inventor, developed a system that would pump the humid air over cold pipes (containing ammonia) to decrease the moisture content of the air. This solved the issue for the company, and the press ran smoothly again, except for a tiny change. The people working in the press started having their lunch in the same room where the printing press was. Why? Because the side effect of the machine was that it also cooled the air significantly, which was great for human comfort.

Air conditioning
Air conditioner patent


The Summer Blockbuster!

Seeing the reception he got at the printing press, Carrier saw the commercial value of the feat he achieved. The first place he could think where the air conditioner could be valuable was the movie theatres. Before this, a hot and crowded theatre was the last place anyone would go. So Carrier approached theatre owners to pitch them his technological masterpiece.

He made it painfully apparent that this setup won't be cheap, but higher ticket sales will make it profitable. And he was right. Soon, movie theatres put advertisements for the chilled air inside the hall, which drew huge crowds. This is how the "Summer Blockbuster" was born and became a phenomenon.

Luxury to mainstream

It took some time for the revolution to reach every household and become a necessity for living. Before World War II, only a few wealthy elites had the air conditioning system set up in their homes. Having a mechanically chilled air-conditioned system at one's house was still a luxury.

In a 1929 speech, Carrier said: "air conditioning and cooling for summer may become a necessity rather than a luxury, and we will look upon present times as marking the end of that 'dark age' in which there was but relatively little cooling for human comfort." And he was correct.

By the late 1940s, Carrier and other companies were selling ACs that were small enough to fit in one's window. The majority of the companies advertised the product targeting women. They emphasised the ability of the AC to completely control the indoor climate. And people were all in for it. The air conditioning went from luxury to a need in a few decades. Just as Carrier had predicted.

AC made it possible for people to live in areas like Arizona and Florida. People migrated to the so-called "Sunbelt", changing the political map as electoral college seats moved with these citizens. Since the majority of the southward migrants were conservative retirees, they voted Republican, forming a critical demographic in Reagan's election in 1980. (There were various factors, but this is considered one of them.)

Traditional vs Conditioned spaces

The places with average temperatures are 30+° C have developed some innovative architectural methods to beat the heat. For example, houses were traditionally built with heavy materials like adobe and stones. The plus point of these was their more thermal mass. The high specific heat capacity leads to these materials absorbing heat over the day and slowly giving out at night.

Air conditioning
The ruins of Vasai fort shows how the huge walls with openings were made for natural airflow.

An on-demand cold climate freed architects from the challenging design aspects to build for a specific environment around it. AC systems were expensive but partly cut by removing passive cooling architectural features. In addition to this, the mass production of tract homes for suburbs helped reduce costs.

Before AC, offices had high ceilings for better ventilation and many windows that people could open. All changed after AC became more accessible.

The electricity consumption due to the increase in the usage of AC systems is an enormous consequence of this. It is an article for another day. You can read more about that in the book "Loosing our cool."


Now it's your turn

Writing this piece was a massive task, and I definitely took a lot of time. I would like to apologise first about my absence in the last year. A lot has happened in this time which we can go into sometime later. I will try to be more frequent with my articles from now.

I would like to hear back from you about how you felt about the article. If you had a good time going through it, consider visiting my social media links below. I am more active there and will be responsive. Let me know what you want to learn about next time. I would love to learn about it and compile the information on it.

See you next time. Have a good one!

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