How air conditioning changed America

By The Old House Web

how air conditioning changed america
"Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America," sponsored by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers and the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, ran through January 2, 2000.

The National Building Museum is at 401 F Street NW; phone: (202) 272-2448; Internet: http://www.nbm.org. Directions: take the Metro's (subway's) Red Line to Judiciary Square; use the North (F St.) exit. Winter hours are: Mon.-Sat. 10-4, Sun. 12-4; in summer, the museum is open until 5.

The Museum itself is a marvel of pre-air conditioning design, built with a huge open central space to promote air circulation. The building originally housed the Pension Bureau and has hosted fourteen Inaugural Balls, beginning with Grover Cleveland's in 1885.

The air conditioner's widespread adoption spelled the demise of frontporches, wide eaves and high ceilings. And it fueled the explosive postwar growth ofSunbelt cities like Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Miami.

With the 20th century drawing to a close, a critically acclaimedexhibition in Washington, D.C., took visitors on a journey through the history of atechnology that helped to define this century.

The exhibition, Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America, was on view atthe National Building Museum through January 2, 2000. It featured photo murals, artifacts,television commercials and advertisements, air-conditioning equipment, and interactivedisplays to tell the history of air conditioning.

All these artifacts combined to tell a simple yet sweeping story: That airconditioning launched new forms of architecture and altered the ways Americans live, work,and play.

From suburban tract houses to glass skyscapers, indoor entertainment centers, high-techmanufacturers' clean rooms, and pressurized modules for space exploration, many ofthe nation's modern structures and products would not exist without the invention of"man-made weather."

Air conditioning also changed our relationship with nature itself by creating indoorartificial climates, shifting seasonal patterns of work and play, and makingAmerica's geographical differences environmentally insignificant. The engine of airconditioning largely fueled the explosive postwar growth of Sunbelt cities like Houston,Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Miami.

The early years

As early as 1888, manufacturers of products susceptible to heat andhumidity-tobacco, pasta, textiles, chocolate, and color printing-commissionedpioneering experiments in mechanical cooling.

Before air conditioning, cotton threads broke, cigarette machines jammed,bread grew mold, film attracted dust, pasta lost its shape, and chocolate turned gray whentemperatures and humidity fluctuated. By filtering air and stabilizing temperature andhumidity, mechanical systems improved the environment for products as well as workers.

As the technology of air conditioning developed, so did the invention of moresophisticated products that required increasingly precise temperature, humidity, andfiltration controls. Consumer products such as computer chips and CDs must be manufacturedin "clean rooms," which provide dust-free environments. By facilitatingdevelopments in high-tech manufacturing, science, medicine, and consumer products, airconditioning ushered in the Age of Information.

At the office

Beginning with the New York Stock Exchange in 1901, office buildings served as importantlaboratories for air conditioning advances. After World War II, mechanical cooling allowedthe development of the modern glass-walled skyscraper-the symbol of freedom fromtraditional construction systems as well as heating and cooling methods. Glass-walledskyscrapers such as the United Nations (1952) linked modern architecture with the newtechnology.

The general public began to encounter "man-made weather" in movie theaters. TheFolies Bergere Theater in New York City installed the first air-conditioning system in atheater in 1911, followed by the New Empire Theater, Montgomery, Alabama and the CentralPark Theater, Chicago, Illinois in 1917.

In the 1920s and 30s, pioneering experiments with mechanical coolingturned public attendance at movies, plays, and concerts into a summertime ritual. Airconditioning itself became an attraction, as people flocked to movie theaters toexperience the new way to stay cool.

And at home

Not until after World War II did air conditioning enter the home of the averageAmerican.

Engineered air was marketed to the public as an essential component of modern living.Manufacturers claimed that it promoted better sleeping and eating, healthier air quality,cleaner interiors free from pollen and dust, and the enjoyment of nature through glasswindow walls without the discomforts of summer heat and humidity.

With its steadily decreasing costs, air conditioning was touted as a technology"for the millions, not just for millionaires." The refrigerator provided themodel for early residential air conditioners. As domestic interest grew in the late 1920s,refrigerator manufacturers were among the first to develop air conditioners due to theirtechnical expertise with small-scale refrigeration units, automatic controls andmass-production.

During the Depression power companies, manufacturers, and retailers advocatedself-contained home units as industrial use waned. Residential units evolved from bulkycabinets in living areas with basement condensing units into small-scale central systemswith ductwork or the popular, economical window air conditioners.

Domestic air conditioning meant that traditional architectural features--wide eaves,deep porches, thick walls, high ceilings, attics, and cross ventilation--were no longerneeded to promote natural cooling. Also irrelevant was siting or landscaping a house thatmaximized summer shade and breezes, since mechanical equipment was able to maintainperfect indoor conditions independent of design.

Builders found they could pay for the costs of central cooling systems by deletingelements made unnecessary by the new technology. As air conditioning replaced traditionalfeatures, the design of the modern house became fully integrated with--and dependenton--air conditioning. It allowed postwar architects and builders to achieve a new"ranch house" aesthetic of glass picture windows, sliding doors, and rectangularforms.

The exhibit

The exhibition is organized by guest curator Donald Albrecht andChrysanthe B. Broikos, associate curator at the National Building Museum. Natalie Shiverswrote and edited the exhibition script. The exhibition's historical consultants areGail Cooper, author of Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the ControlledEnvironment, 1900-1960 (Johns Hopkins University Press) and Bernard Nagengast,co-author of Heat and Cold: Mastering the Great Indoors (published by the AmericanSociety of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc., 1994).

Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America is made possible by the support of the AmericanSociety of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and by theAir-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI).

The National Building Museum is a private nonprofit institution that examines andinterprets American achievements in building through exhibitions, education programs, andpublications. Located at 401 F Street, NW, at the entrance to the Judiciary Square Metrostation on the Red Line. Museum hours: Monday through Saturday 10 am to 4 pm and Sunday 12to 4 pm. Summer Hours: (June 1 through August 31) open daily until 5 pm. Admission isfree. Café© and gift shop. Public inquiries: (202) 272-2448 or www.nbm.org

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