Birth of the Coolth
COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything. Salvatore Basile. x + 278 pp. Fordham University Press, 2014. $29.95.
Imagine opening the newspaper to find headlines for a daily summertime tally: “Manhattan and Bronx—Dead. Brooklyn—Dead.” History writer Salvatore Basile reminds us that 19th-century papers “impassively listed each day’s heat prostrations and fatalities, arranged in neat columns.” Moreover, the accounts “would carefully note the precise location at which people had collapsed (in New York, the large stone plaza in front of City Hall was considered a particularly lethal spot; in Philadelphia, the Navy Yard).”
Basile’s book Cool tells the surprisingly suspenseful story of the development and gradual adoption of air conditioning in the United States. Technological developments comprise a major part of this tale, and Basile does a yeoman’s job of concisely describing a wide variety of cooling systems that emerged over time. Early ice-and-fan contraptions worked by—you guessed it—blowing air over ice and circulating the cooled currents through vents. Playhouses, which might rely on 1,000 gas jets for lighting, were early adopters, with primitive systems debuting in the 1850s. (New technology called for new, or at least refurbished, words: The 16th-century coinage coolth resurfaced to refer to air currents emitted from cooling systems.) In 1902 Willis Carrier revolutionized the process of air cooling by devising a way to wring out the moisture. Basile describes how Carrier rigged up steam coils, filled them with cold water, and blew air over them with an industrial fan, discovering that “with the air at just the right speed and the water at just the right temperature, the excess humidity obediently condensed on the coils and the air came out cooler . . . and, theoretically, as dry as any printer would need it to be.” Carrier, an engineer, had created the system for a printing company plagued by humidity, which plumped up its paper stock, causing successive printing passes to blur images. He continually improved his invention, and within a decade an array of other businesses came to rely on it, primarily ones requiring tight temperature and humidity tolerances, such as candy makers, textile manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies. It took longer for the retail and entertainment sectors to join the air-conditioned era: Chicago’s Central Park Theater premiered the first truly successful movie-house system in 1917, and retail giant Hudson introduced customers to its first reliable cooling system in 1924.
Americans delighted in the mechanically cooled air they found while out on the town. So why did they delay bringing it into their own homes? By 1940, fewer than one household in a hundred had air conditioned even a single room. In addressing this question, Cool really delivers. Indeed, Basile’s deepest interest is in the cultural history of air conditioning, which turns out to be fascinating. As he explains, 19th-century social norms and (erroneous) medical advice slowed widespread interest in air-cooling technologies; accordingly, consumer apathy about home cooling slowed its technological development, keeping prices high. Hence, the complete story of air conditioning extends beyond technology to include economics, politics, commerce, industry, and sociology. The puckish Basile is more than up to the task, and his copious research pays off: Not only is Cool an informative read, each chapter is strewn with more anecdotes than there are sprinkles on an ice cream cone. Some are hilarious; others, jaw-dropping. Best of all, each chapter leaves you wanting more.
Dianne Timblin is book review editor for American Scientist. Find her on Twitter: @diannetimblin.
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