Air conditioning "revolution" hits a milestone

(CBS News)  Exactly 110 years ago today,  a five-story brick factory in Brooklyn, N.Y.,  became the world's first air conditioned building.

Historian Eric Schultz says it was "the start of a revolution." According to Schultz, engineer Willis Carrier struck upon the idea of a central air cooling system to help improve production at an on site publishing company.

"The paper was curling at the edges," Schultz said. "It wasn't going into the feeder properly. Sometimes they had to shut down machines for a couple of days."

The Brooklyn building sat above a natural spring. Carrier's system of blowing air over the cold water piped into the basement of the printing press became a basic building block of modern air conditioning.

Twenty years later and at a cost of $100,000, Carrier brought his weather-maker to the movie house. Schultz said modern air conditioning was launched in 1925 in the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway. It was, he said, "a sensation."

From skyscrapers in Manhattan, to four-family homes in suburbs like Levittown, Long Island - a whole new world of cool opened up as residential air conditioning hit the mainstream. In 1955 one in every 22 American homes had air conditioning. By 1960 that number had jumped to one in five.

The National Academy of Engineering named air conditioning among the Top 10 inventions of the 20th century. 

But what happens when we can't keep our cool? In June, record-breaking temperatures contributed to the hottest twelve-month period our nation has experienced since 1895. With well over 100 million air conditioned households tapping into the grid in the U.S. alone, experts warn that our addiction to cool and the short term comfort it provides may not always be sustainable. This was the case in 2003, when the entire Northeast went dark.

"People who considered it a luxury, now consider it a necessity," Schultz said.