How Air Conditioning Changed America

Here in 2018, it seems like air conditioning is something that’s always been with us. It comes standard in our cars, is fully integrated into newer homes, and makes public buildings from schools to hospitals to movie theatres comfortable places to spend our time without a second thought. But modern air conditioning has only existed since the early 20th century. And it actually hasn’t been widespread for very long at all, as central air conditioning systems for homes were not introduced until the 1970s.

Since those first days of AC, as we lovingly nickname it now, America was fundamentally changed. The ability to keep our interior spaces comfortably temperature controlled has been revolutionary, though it may not seem like it on the surface.

Air conditioning: a cool history

The year was 1902, and inventor Willis H. Carrier had solved a tricky problem for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, NY – high room temperatures and humidity made paper wrinkle and ink difficult to set, which was bad for business. That summer, Carrier fired up the world’s first modern air conditioning system and shifted the course of American history in a very cool way. His “Apparatus for Treating Air” was later patented in 1906 when it became clear that other factories and healthcare buildings especially were interested in adopting the technology. The Carrier® Air Conditioning Company of America he established around that time still exists as an industry leader in manufacturing air conditioning equipment today.

Though Carrier remained the vanguard in the air conditioning world through much of the early 20th century for reasons like installing the first residential air conditioning system in the Charles Gates mansion in Minneapolis in 1914 and hiring the first female AC engineer, Margaret Ingels, in 1917, competitors began to spring up. By 1931, an individual room air conditioner that sits on a window ledge – much like those many apartment dwellers and owners of older homes still rely on – was invented by H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman. And engineering teams from major companies like Frigidaire and General Electric had been working on prototypes of other room AC unit styles for years, though they were prohibitively expensive for the average American to add to their home.

Air conditioning won the West…and brought us Hollywood

Some of the earliest adopters of air conditioning prototypes created by Carrier and others were public buildings in sunny California, all the way across the country from where much of the air conditioning innovation was taking place in New York and the Northeast. In fact, the first multi-story installation for Carrier took place in the T.W. Patterson Building in 1926 in Fresno, California. Decades later, other hot Western US states like Arizona and New Mexico experienced ongoing above-average growth because the desert no longer proved such an obstacle to human comfort.

Public theatres were some of the very first applications for integrated cooling systems as they began to refine, and Los Angeles’s Metropolitan Theatre was an early adopter in 1922. By the mid-‘20s, people across the US were flocking to movie theatres all summer every summer to relax in cool comfort and enjoy a flick while they were at it. Hollywood responded to the increased demand for more movies, and the summer blockbuster, as well as our modern domestic film industry, was born!

Air conditioning created countless jobs and economic growth

As the US came out of World War II and millions of Americans settled into work and life that had been dramatically disrupted for years, the corresponding economic boom led to people wanting to upgrade the comfort of their homes. While central air conditioning systems that require ongoing maintenance to remain at peak operating performance did not yet exist, manufacturing demand for room air conditioning rose quickly, which created many jobs. (And it’s true that air conditioning had long been profitable for actors and theatre owners!) Additionally, productivity in many other industries rose, as office and healthcare workers, among others, were no longer burdened by sweltering working conditions for months each year when their employers added cooling systems to their buildings.

Air conditioning drastically improved quality of life

Before air conditioning, people used to go to great lengths to stay cool during hot summers. Swimming in every available body of water (no matter how dirty or polluted it may have been) was almost a necessity. And houses were designed to attempt to harness the power of cross-ventilation and general air movement. High ceilings and porches weren’t just for aesthetic purposes, they were practically required for human survival, especially in hot, humid climates like those in the South. People planned their days around keeping cool and spent much time just trying to beat the heat.

As air conditioning caught on in the 1950s, manufacturers worked to make units affordable for home use, and the technology quickly became a must-have. Sleeping on hot, muggy summer nights was no longer an uncomfortable proposition, and people were rested and refreshed for the next day’s work. Cooking and other daily living tasks became easier to handle, as well. And with indoor climate control solved, our homes became places we enjoyed spending time all year long. Americans were happier, healthier, and more productive all because of AC. And when central air conditioning came along in the 1970s, it quickly became, and has remained, a standard feature in all new homes being built.

Air conditioning sparked innovation for the future

Since air conditioning has now been with us as a staple of daily life for many years, manufacturers have switched gears from merely producing units to meet the demand to devising better equipment that’s more environmentally friendly and efficient. In the 1990’s, it was discovered that Freon, the standard refrigerant used in AC units, was extremely bad for the environment. Major brands like Carrier, Honeywell, and others developed less harmful coolants to meet strict government standards, and this new focus on “healthier” air conditioning systems sparked competition to bring better systems to consumers. Today, manufacturers are harnessing the power of home automation and other high-tech innovations to make air conditioning not just cool, but smart, too.

Interested in learning what the newest AC technology can do for your home? Or need help choosing a system for your older home that was built in the days before central air? Our expert team here at Ressler & Mateer knows air conditioning (and heating and plumbing, too) and is happy to work with you to find the most efficient and dependable equipment to solve all your home comfort needs. Give us a call to find out how we can help.