Keep It Cool

(Image credit: Leszek Kozlowski)

A brief history of humans trying to chill out by any means necessary.

Life in the past was all about blood, sweat, and tears. But mostly sweat. Before the invention of air conditioning, summers felt like one big Bikram yoga studio: hot, sticky, and uncomfortable.

Consider the summer of 1896. It was too infernal for New Yorkers to sleep in their apartments, so many spent their nights snoozing on rooftops and fire escapes- with restless sleepers rolling off the roofs and falling to their deaths (the heat wave’s death toll in New York: 1,500). In an attempt to keep people cool -and alive- an obscure police commissioner named Teddy Roosevelt organized police stations to give out free blocks of ice.

Until the 1920s, much of America shut down entirely when things got too hot, including government: The capital would close its doors. Broadway theaters also went dark, giving birth to summer stock productions held outdoors. Across the pond, to keep babies cool, London moms bought the “baby cage,” a little box they’d attach outside the window of their apartment, dangling babies stories above the pavement.

(YouTube link)

In ancient India, homeowners used water as a weapon against heat, hanging wet grass mats in doors and windows to cool the air. In ancient Rome, the rich diverted cold water from the aqueducts into pipes behind their homes’ walls. Meanwhile, the superrich (read: emperors) simply got a thousand slaves to schlepp snow from the mountains to create white hills in their gardens. Wind was another method: Servants really did fan their masters with palm fronds and ostrich feathers in ancient Egypt.



Of course, Ben Franklin had a better idea. Well before wet T-shirt contests, clever Ben was experimenting with damp clothing. In the 1750s, he noticed his sweaty shirt was chillier than a dry one. This led him to delve into evaporative cooling- why objects get colder as water evaporates.

When President Garfield was shot in the summer of 1881 and lay dying in the White House, “inventors rushed forward with devices they hoped would aid the president’s recovery,” according to Cool Comfort: America’s Romance With Air-Conditioning, by Marsha Ackermann. The winner? A contraption that blew air over a box of ice into a series of tin pipes. A half-million pounds of ice were delivered to the White House to keep Garfield comfortable.

But it wasn’t until 1851 that an air conditioner prototype -then called a refrigerator- was patented by a Florida inventor. He drew up plans for a machine that could compress water into ice, using energy from horses on a treadmill. His device never made it to market; an engineer named Willis Carrier eventually came up with a more convenient solution. In 1902, he created a machine that prevented heat and moisture from wrinkling pages at a Brooklyn magazine plant. Movie theaters were some of the earliest adopters. One Newark theater owner was so proud of his frigid air, he took out a 1927 newspaper ad that consisted of complaint letters from patrons who found it too chilly. Talk about cool customers.


The article above by A.J. Jacobs appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by visiting Mental Floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today!


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Inventing air conditioning any earlier wouldn't have made much sense, as only few had electricity. Once it came along, so too did fans, swamp coolers and air conditioners. A city gas powered aircon would have been pretty absurd, though possible. But it's not as if options didn't exist before then... Windcatchers date back to ancient times, proper siting with shade trees, overhangs and lots of thermal mass can keep a building cool in Warner climes without power.
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