Air Conditioning: New York's Coolest Invention
These days, it'd be tough to imagine a hot summer day in crowded New York City without a chance to cool off in some air conditioning. But before Willis Carrier invented the first AC unit in 1902, most New Yorkers had no choice but to take the heat.
The world before cool had a lot of hot, humid people in it trying to get cool.
That's according to historian Eric Schultz. He's author of the book Weathermakers to the World. It's about the invention of air conditioning. Schultz says for New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th century, summer was downright dangerous.
"The summer of 1853, 300 people died because of a heat wave," he said. "Shops and theaters and factories closed. People would sleep on their roofs and the firescapes, and on sidewalks. Sometimes New York would even open up Central Park for sleeping. And the technology you had available was really a hand fan."
Schultz says everything changed when Buffalo engineer Willis Carrier invented air conditioning in 1902. He was commissioned by a printing company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Summer humidity was warping their paper, which caused expensive production delays.
Schultz says the first air conditioner was a great success for the printing company. But he says it took a little longer to get the public on board.
"It took a little bit of time and some energy to teach people that there was a real return from air conditioning," he said. "It made you more efficient, it made you more productive, it made employees more productive; so that was a hurdle. It was an 'invisible product,' if you will."
Schultz says Carrier dedicated most of his life to developing his invention into a global phenomenon. Air conditioning spread from movie theaters in Manhattan, to protecting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, to the deepest mines in South America. But Schultz says it wasn't until the 1950s baby boom that AC units became the staple in American homes they are today.