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Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) Paperback – August 1, 2002
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It sounds like a technical history, and indeed it is, but along the way Cooper shows how ideology, social relations, and economics affect the technology, and how it affects them. In this way, we can learn much from such books―'cultural studies' seeming so much livelier when borne up by material culture than by the unsteady scaffold of abstract theory.(Giles Foden Times Literary Supplement)
Gail Cooper's study is a welcome addition to the history of technology and urban history. Its strength lies in mapping out fundamental engineering and marketing issues about a technology that has had a profound impact on the very nature of inside environments.(Martin V. Melosi American Historical Review)
A groundbreaking study in the early business development of a technology that many Americans now take for granted.(APT Bulletin)
Professor Cooper's insistence that we consider engineering and technological change in its broadest context not only allows her to make the stories of the invention of air conditioning and how America came to be air-conditioned lively ones. It also helps her explain, more generally, some of the ways that new technologies become part of our lives.(Steven Lubar, chair and curator of the Division of the History of Technology, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
About the Author
Gail Cooper is an associate professor of history at Lehigh University.
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Air conditioning evolved from mechanical refrigeration technology that made ice, usually powered by a steam engine. In some cities, by 1889 chilled brine was circulated from a central refrigeration plant usually for use in cold storage/cold rooms. Alfred R. Wolf of New York was an early advocate of air conditioning. Beginning in 1888, he installed systems for many prominent clients including the New York Stock Exchange, Cornell Medical College (1899), Hanover National Bank, College of the City of New York (1905), Mutual Benefit Insurance Co (1906), Cleveland Trust Co (1907), and the residences of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and JJ Astor.
Another pioneer was Stuart Cramer whose Cramer Air Conditioning built equipment to control humidity in textile mills of the Carolinas at about the same time. Willis Carrier was a Cornell University graduate who worked for Buffalo Forge Co., of Buffalo, NY, who made ventilation fans. Carrier Air Conditioning was founded as a subsidiary. He favored an “air washer” that sprayed the air with water of controlled temperature to regulate humidity and then heated the air. They too had some success supplying the textile industry. In 1915, Buffalo Forge grew uncomfortable with the AC business, which competed with customers. When they proposed to shut it down, Carrier and a partner created Carrier Engineering Co. Wolfe died in 1909; Cramer retired in 1918, leaving Carrier as the leader.
In this era the focus was industrial customers who found their process affected by changing weather, often by humidity. In addition to textile spinners and weavers, macaroni factories, candy factories, chocolate processors, millers, tobacco driers, bakers, arsenals processing black powder, fuse loaders, and printers were often clients. Estimating equipment requirements accurately enough to meet guarantee requirements and still be cost competitive was the goal. Methods evolved but tended to be proprietary. Conflicts arose with the employees of clients who had their own views and would react by opening windows or resetting controls.
Motion picture theaters sought cooling to encourage summer attendance. Otherwise, warm weather made theaters uncomfortable and attendance fell. Movie theaters began as small local operations in about 1896, but were not widespread until 1906. As they continued to grow, major players built opulent movie theaters. Various ventilation systems were tried, but refrigerated air began in 1911 at New York's Folies Bergere Theater, later named the Fulton. Cooling became common by 1917, but no technology dominated.
Where central cooling plants were not available, refrigeration equipment could be located in the theater basement, but the toxicity of refrigerants, usually ammonia, was a risk in a crowded theater. Carbon dioxide was a safe alternative, but it required higher pressures and heavier, more costly equipment. In Chicago, Wittenmeier Machine Co. supplied the equipment for the Central Park Theater in 1917. Owners Balaban and Katz subsequently installed systems in all their theaters in Chicago. Orpheum adopted a similar system for its theaters.
Conflict arose between engineers who wanted to control humidity for comfort and theater owners who viewed low temperature as a selling point worth advertizing. Wittenmeier cooling gave high humidity. The result was a cold, clammy feeling. In 1919, Carrier had the chance to correct the problem. They blended recirculated air with conditioned air to control temperature and humidity. This method proved economical, and when patented secured Carrier a barrier against competitors. The system was first installed in the Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles, one of the largest and most opulent.
Residential room air conditioning became a target to grow sales during the '30s--adapting home refrigerator technology. The first home refrigerators had a compressor in the basement. They were patented in 1895, and became available with improvements in 1904-8. GE acquired the US patent rights and manufactured the equipment at Ft. Wayne, IN. Production began in 1911, and continued at the rate of 150-200 units per year until 1928. They were supplied in 1/5, ½, 1 and 2 ton models and were not automatic. Toxic sulfur dioxide was the refrigerant. Equipment and installation costs were high.
GE improved designs adopting an air cooled condenser to eliminate plumbing connections and a compact motor/compressor unit. The result was the popular monitor top refrigerator in 1927. Sales grew to 1 MM units in 1930. Kelvinator of Detroit was an early competitor. Their sulfur dioxide split unit became available in 1918; a self contained unit followed in 1925. The success of the refrigerator was demonstrated by stats. Ice production peaked in 1932; by 1936, half of St. Louis utility customers had refrigerators.
The first room air conditioner was a split unit offered by Frigidaire in 1929. The room unit weighed in at 200 lb; the basement unit at 400 lb. GE offered a similar split unit in 1930 weighing in at 560 lb. Carrier and Westinghouse soon followed. In 1930, General Motors invented Freon, a non-toxic, non-flammable refrigerant.
Speculation that air conditioning would grow like the home refrigerator attracted intense competition in the Great Depression. By 1935, 81 firms sold air conditioners. Several companies experimented with ice based air conditioning systems because ice required less equipment and cooling was only needed a few months of the year. Calculations indicated ice production was competitive, but home delivery made the cost prohibitive.
After World War II, air conditioning began to be accepted. Cooper believes the housing shortage following the war was a major factor. Veterans home loans favored small, low cost homes. Many were mass produced in vast developments to minimize costs. Layouts favored large windows, picture windows, and sliding glass doors. They let in light and made the space seem larger. Developers often removed trees to make optimal use of the land. Shade trees were rare. Thus suburban homes were hot in summer and ideally suited for air conditioning. Production of window air conditioners climbed to 1.3 MM units in 1956. Attention then turned to central air conditioning. After about 1960, central air became accepted.
Another factor in the acceptance of air conditioning was the modern glass box office building. Buildings with no windows that could be opened were favored by building designers. They avoided the need for light wells and similar window features. Air conditioning allowed complete control of the environment. Similarly broad adoption of air conditioning at work made home air conditioning a necessity for comfort.
Cooper notes that evaporative cooling is still in use in dry western states. They are especially popular in Phoenix and are used as far west as Fresno. Also called “swamp coolers,” water is sprayed on a pad and allowed to evaporate. The units are relatively simple; numerous home made units are in use.
Surprisingly the author makes no mention of the role played by natural gas in the acceptance of air conditioning. Once natural gas pipelines arrived in northern cities after World War II, gas forced air became the preferred way to heat a home. Their air ducts made central air convenient to install.
This is a detailed and thorough study of the domestic air conditioning industry. The book includes copious references and an annotated bibliography for further study. At last the story of air conditioning is collected in one place. Photos. Index. References. Bibliography.