Bits of Books - Books by Title
How air conditioning changed everything
It was a fight between vested interests and institutional boneheadedness, but as Cool: How air conditioning changed everything explains, common sense won out.
"AN ATTACK dog of a tycoon" looms large in Salvatore Basile's charming history of a new technology and its struggles with vested interests. Frank Tudor, the Ice King, made a fortune in the 1830s cutting ice from New England rivers and lakes, only to be bested - eventually, and not without a fight - by a technology that promised to chill rooms using, of all things, steam power.
Needless to say, Cool is also about popular scepticism. "When it came to a contraption that could 'cool the air'," Basile writes, "not only did many people not understand why it was necessary, but plenty of them scoffed at the notion that such a thing could even exist."
Above all, Cool is about institutional boneheadedness. Basile's targets are predictable, but they only have themselves to blame. Just what were late 19th-century doctors thinking when they doled out advice on tolerating heat and cold?
Theatregoers, overheated by the crowds, found themselves struggling to breathe as hundreds of gas-jet lights gobbled up what little oxygen was left in the auditorium. Nonetheless, Basile recounts, "woolen and flannel undergarments were sternly recommended for the summertime, and the health profession advised perspiration-drenched people never to remedy the situation by removing any clothing since 'internal congestion of the abdominal organs and other evils' might result". According to US medical advice of the day, "the best way to endure heat is to drink as little as possible".
Much fun, too, is had at the expense of Washington's staffers and politicos, gasping for breath in grandiose, cast-iron, glass-roofed buildings in a city that was, according to legend, a hardship post for foreign diplomats because it was located "at the bottom of a topographical saucer where moist and motionless air settles with smothering compression".
Science and reason won out in the end, of course, even if the pioneering Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America was forced to market its machines as air "cleaners", rather than as air "coolers".
In the end, the sheer intensity of early 20th-century urban life made air-conditioning a necessity. The interiors of New York's skyscrapers, switchboard rooms and television studios could be literally blistering. Our sceptical and sweaty species was finally forced to accept that "a bunch of humans is entitled to treatment as good as that usually accorded a bunch of bananas", as the then Chicago Daily Tribune put it.
The technically minded reader might feel a little short-changed by Basile's short, sharp micro-history, but the essentials are all here: the problems of humidity, the risks posed by different refrigerants, and so on. And because 28 out of the 30 largest cities in the world today are in tropical climates, there will probably be a sequel soon.
More books on Inventions
Books by Title
Books by Author
Books by Topic
Bits of Books To Impress