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100 Years Of Playing It Cool

The time is 10:13 p.m., the temperature is 93 degrees, and the humidity is somewhere between rain forest and gumbo. But step out of the sultry Texas night and into the Circle K, and suddenly it's not summer.

The beer is cold, but so are the Twinkies. You can almost see your breath, though the young convenience-store clerk seems not to notice.

"Is it just me," she asks, "or is it warm in here?"

Of course, it's not just her. It's all of us who dart from our air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned malls or offices or homes, who pull up blankets on July nights or enjoy the summer game in domed stadiums where no one ever breaks a sweat.

For all that, we thank YOU, Willis Haviland Carrier.

A hundred years ago Wednesday, this young man - just a year out of Cornell University, paid $10 a week by Buffalo Forge Co. - invented air conditioning.

The idea of cooling air was nothing new. Roman emperors brought snow down from the mountains to cool their gardens; in the 19th century, Dr. John Gorrie invented a method to keep malaria patients comfortable by blowing air over buckets of ice suspended from the ceiling.

But until Carrier, no system cooled, cleaned and dried the air.

One of Buffalo Forge's clients, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographic and Publishing Co. in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, had a problem: The paper it used in its printing jobs, including the popular humor magazine Judge, was expanding and contracting in the heat and humidity. The printers were finding it impossible to align the ink.

So Carrier came up with a simple solution. If the plant was heated by blowing air through coils pumped full of steam, why not cool it by blowing air through coils full of cold water? Water in the air would condense on the coils, the way it does on a glass of iced tea in August; as a result, the air in the plant would be both cooler and drier.

On July 17, 1902, the printing plant was cooled for the first time, and the age of air conditioning began - though it wouldn't be called that for four years, and for decades it could be found in few workplaces, and even fewer homes.

But air conditioning found a place in the new movie palaces of the age. At first vents were placed on the floor, and the drafts could be unpleasant. Carrier put a new system with outlets in the ceiling of the Rivoli theater in New York in 1925; the marquee read, "The Rivoli Cooled By Refrigeration Always 69 Degrees."

Then came the department stores, especially the bargain basements where saleswomen and customers alike had sweated unmercifully in the summer heat. Planes (United Airlines, 1936) and cars (Packard, 1939) followed, though automotive air conditioning was not an instant hit - only 10,500 cars were sold with the option by 1953.

Congress was air-conditioned in 1928 - allowing politicians to remain in session and make mischief all year long, grumbled writer Gore Vidal. In 1929, the White House was cooled to Herbert Hoover's satisfaction, but Franklin D. Roosevelt hated the air conditioning and never turned it on.

It was only after World War II that great numbers of ordinary Americans began to live in air-conditioned homes. In 1955, developer William Levitt made air conditioning standard in the homes he was building north of Philadelphia.

In 1960, 12 percent of the nation's homes were air-conditioned; now, 80 percent are - and 96 percent in the South, where new, tightly sealed houses were built with smaller windows and without the traditional porches where generations had socialized and enjoyed the night air.

General Electric had a more devastating effect than General Sherman on the South's character, wrote historian Raymond O. Arsenault.

But air conditioning has changed us all. It has fostered the growth of the Sun Belt and cities like Phoenix and Houston, and the construction of immense, glass-sheathed skyscrapers. It has allowed astronauts to explore the moon, and families to cross the United States in comfort.

The chlorofluorocarbons that long ago replaced water as refrigerants were blamed for damage to the Earth's ozone layer, until the industry phased them out in the past decade. In California and other energy-depleted areas, air conditioning is seen as a drain on the power grid.

Marsha E. Ackermann, author of the new book "Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning," says for some people, air conditioning is like cars and television - a modern invention that can isolate us. In 1994, in Houston, some young people made news by turning off the air conditioning for just that reason, she says.

"I think that deserves the death penalty in Texas," Ackermann says.

In that way, Texans are like the rest of us, but more so. "They cannot imagine living without it," says James Estarza, owner of Keep It Cool Air-Conditioning and Heating in Corpus Christi.

He has had his share of urgent calls from customers whose air conditioning has failed, plunging them into a pre-1902 environment. "They are pretty rational and all," he says, but there is sometimes a please-rescue-me-from-the-fires-of-hell edge to their voice.

So business is good. "Ooooh, let's just say we're pretty busy," he says, and he knows just whom he owes a debt of gratitude.

"Mr. Carrier himself was the one who brought air conditioning to this great nation of ours," Estarza says, as he sets out to do the same, bringing the cool, dry air of the modern age to yet another deserving Texan.

By Jerry Schwartz

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