Mark Simpson on the rise and rise of ‘American air’
(London Times Magazine, 2003)
‘This is my home, this is America!’ a canned, generic male power-ballad singer, possibly on loan from those naff Gillette commercials, warbles over the P.A. The giant on-stage video screen flashes stirring images of the American flag, soaring eagles, the Statue of Liberty and Abraham Lincoln. Song and images reach a lugubrious climax. Lights flash. Disco music pounds. A middle-aged man in an expensive suit and a side-parting that appears to start just above his ear, takes the stage to wild applause. He reads uplifting words from a teleprompter: “This is the American Dream come true…’. ‘During this time of conflict I have never been more proud to be an American…we have something truly worth fighting for…”.
No, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican convention, or even a Coca Cola convention, but the annual convention of ACCA, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. The Secretary of the ACCA is addressing a packed audience of several hundred rather animated but perfectly sweat-less contractors in a hall in Palm Springs, California, which is magically cool, despite outside temperatures already well into the 90s this morning.
It may seem slightly laughable to British eyes and ears that so much patriotism and national significance should be attached to something as prosaic, as vulgar, as air conditioning, but then perhaps that’s why our country is in such a state and why for a Brit, visiting the US is like visiting a strange parallel Universe where things actually work. A place where, moreover, things actually appear designed to work for you. America may be the land where the consumer is king, but it is also the land where the engineer is Prime Minister. The US is mixer taps, automatic transmissions, alarming-but-so-hygienic auto-flush toilets and urinals, power-assisted steering, dishwashers-as-standard, garbage-disposal machines, right-turn on red, top-loading washing-machines and driers that actually dry, drive-thru banks, automatic garage doors, showers that actually shower instead of merely misting you, and eight-lane freeways without a traffic cone in sight. American ingenuity and efficiency is as thoughtful and as indiscriminate as the mint left on your motel pillow and the sanitary seal on the toilet seat. ‘No sweat’ is the real translation of ‘E pluribus Unum’.
And of all America’s consumer engineering triumphs, air conditioning is the greatest. It symbolises more than anything else, America’s resourceful triumph over Nature – Nature in its most elemental form: Weather. While we Brits talk endlessly, helplessly about the subject; Yanks like to do something about it. And there is rather a lot of weather in the US: during the long continental summers it is not unusual for temperatures to hit the 100s and squat humidly there for days or weeks on end. Air conditioning – man made weather – standardises temperatures and seasons across America, allowing Americans to work, shop, drive and sleep with as much disregard for the outside climate as a Martian colonist. Today more than 50% of American homes have aircon. In 1996, 81% of all new US homes constructed were equipped with central aircon. More than 98% of new cars in the US come equipped with aircon as standard. In America, aircon has become a standard luxury, as ubiquitous and essential as, well, air.
Air conditioning – or AC to give it it’s car dashboard abbreviation – is the essence of the USA, its atmosphere, its very breath. It’s what embraces you refreshingly when you arrive sticky and rumpled at one of her airports. It’s what caresses your feet soothingly in the rental car. It’s what greets you briskly when you step into a shop, office or restaurant. It’s the distant whirring and humming in the night, the reassuring sound of 24hr American thoughtfulness, ingenuity, luxury, comfort – busy and dutiful on our behalf while we are sleeping.
Air conditioning is also the sound of America growing. Since the end of the Second World War, when AC became affordable for domestic use, eight out of ten of the fastest growing cities in US are located in the (hot humid) Southeastern and (hot arid) Southwestern parts of the country. Without AC Florida would still be a sparsely populated orange grove instead of a booming retirement and tourist state. Without AC even the black gold of Dallas and Houston could not have made the steaming Southern Texas swamps attractive enough. Without AC, the desert dynamos of Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada would still be dusty two-horse towns. And without AC, Palm Springs, ‘the city that air conditioning helped build’ as the literature for the ACCA Convention dubs it, would probably still be just a Winter retreat in the Colorado Desert for a few Hollywood stars, instead of the year-round home for 45,000 people it has become. In other words, AC opened up another Frontier.
Air conditioning is the wind of American imperialism. The US Army took large numbers of portable AC units with it into Iraq’s desert heat, to make sure its warriors could at least enjoy American air while conquering/liberating a foreign land. There’s a certain inexorable logic to this: America’s dependence on imported oil from places such as the Gulf (and President Bush’s recent abrogation of the Kyoto protocols) is a result of AC as much as America’s love of automobiles – even as early as the 1960s, widespread use of AC meant that demand for electricity in places such as New York actually peaked in the Summer.
Mind, AC is the American lifestyle that most of the world wants to be conquered by. Even in the temperate UK, sybaritic AC is becoming commonplace in new cars, luxury flats and commercial premises. In 1995 only 100,000 commercial systems were sold in the UK, a figure which had grown to 400,000 by 2001. Developing countries want a breath of American air too: India and China are plugging in their AC units (and causing regular blackouts) . In Hong Kong, AC is such a coveted item that relatives of the recently deceased now burn their AC units: according to local custom burning possessions of the deceased mean that they have use of them in the afterlife. In some parts of the world it’s now not only impossible to live without AC, it’s also impossible to die without it.
A map of empire displayed by York, one of the major American AC manufacturers, on their stand at the ACCA Convention, tells the story: in addition to landmarks such as NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, the US sub fleet, the Capitol Building and the (former) World Trade Center, there are more surprising trophies, such as Britain’s Trafalgar Class Nuclear Submarines, Windsor Castle, the Chunnel (the high-speed trains generate much heat), the Kremlin, the Grand Mosque and the Taj Mahal. America is exporting even its air and the world is buying. Atmospheric imperialism anyone?
Today, in mid-March, the temperature is already well into the 90s. Palm Springs, California, ‘the city that AC helped build’, lies on the western edge of the Coachella Valley, within the Colorado Desert, a two-hour drive Southeast of Los Angeles. Winter temperatures average in the pleasant 70s with nights in the refreshing mid-40s. However, in the summer the temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees in the shade; surface temperatures reach a flesh-frying 195 degrees. The desert tortoise common to these parts burrows thirty-two feet underground to escape the heat (early settlers in the area also lived in tunnels). Palm Springs in the summer is a reminder that Southern California’s climate can be almost as hostile as Mars.
It’s easy to understand why Truman Capote who lived here in the 1960s, fell in love with the air conditioning man who came to fix his equipment one day and didn’t let him leave. Palm Springs today is utterly dependent on aircon. Not only are almost all homes, hotels and shops fitted with AC, Palm Springs even has outdoors comfort cooling – some hotel pool areas and many Downtown open-air restaurants and sidewalks deploy sprinkler systems which shower diners and pedestrians with cooling atomised water.
Americans were not the first people to find ways to build crafty comfort cooling devices to mitigate the summer heat. Recently a 6000-year-old settlement in Syria was excavated with double-walled living quarters, to encourage air-flow, in an attempt to deal with summer temps of more than 40 degrees C. An Eighth Century Baghdad caliph had snow packed between the walls of his villa for Summer cooling (Saddam Hussein though probably just relied on gold-plated AC units).
In 1902 the engineer Alfred Wolff fitted the New York Stock Exchange with a refrigerated ventilation system, inaugurating the first modern air conditioning system, an ammonia-refrigerated brine coil system equivalent to three hundred tons of melting ice. Filtered cooled air was gently diffused through an ornamental ceiling over the heads of the stock traders. Wolff also fitted three residential systems, though as the names of his latter-day caliph clients suggest – Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and J.J. Astor – domestic comfort cooling was a long way off being an affordable commodity and remained a symbol of prestige and wealth until the 1930s.
As Gail Cooper shows in her fascinating book ‘Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment 1900-1960’ (John Hopkins University Press), it was in the new mass-market industry of cinema that AC began to become a universal aspiration – part of the American Dream. If the motion picture houses were pleasure factories where the raw material were large numbers of people, the effect of all these huddled masses crammed together, especially in the Summer, was not always so pleasing. Health inspectors in NYC in 1911 reported that in one theatre on Third Avenue the smell was so rank that attendants walked up and down the aisles with an atomizers of perfume trying to blot out the pong of the punters. In fact, before AC movies were seasonal entertainment: many theatres closed for the Summer – as early as May in some parts of the country – and those that remained open experienced a dramatic drop in custom.
Difficult to imagine now, but in the Summer, Americans lived – and often slept – outdoors, seeking relief from the heat in breezes and cool water, heading to beaches, parks, swimming holes. The new large-scale theatres with their 2000-4000 seats required large investment in capital and could not afford the seasonal drop-off. Despite the cost of installation, it was estimated that a mere 2% increase in attendance would pay for the AC. In other words, air conditioning allowed Hollywood to abolish Summer – and affordably. Nowadays the biggest movies are released in the Summer and target precisely those people who in the pre-AC past would have been most likely to spend the longest days outdoors – young people.
One of the first cinemas to install refrigeration was the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, whose 1919 ad in the Chicago Tribune bragged: ‘Our Freezing Plant (Just installed) Removes the Temper from Temperature’ and went on to claim, ‘It provides fresh and exhilarating air, chilled to any degree of coolness necessary to our patron’s comfort.’ While many enjoyed the new, ‘exhilarating’ experience, some complained that forcibly proving the existence of an AC system rather than the patron’s comfort was the priority.
In the 1930s the launch of the self-contained plug-in AC appliance, the so-called ‘room’ or ‘window’ air conditioner by the De La Vergne Machine Co. transformed AC into a consumer appliance, and seemed to promise affordable domestic comfort cooling, opening up new markets during the Depression and causing great excitement, being dubbed the ‘new radio’. In 1935 GE proclaimed that the new market was worth an astounding $5BN, generating a scramble of new producers and investors, though his turned out to be little more than hot air.
In the war years, comfort cooling was stigmatised as a luxury at odds with wartime stoicism. In May 1942, the War Production Board prohibited the installation of new systems or the manufacture of new equipment solely for personal comfort. Plans were announced to remove existing AC in civilian and government buildings and install them in factories engaged in military production. New York’s Tiffany department store dutifully sent its AC to a factory in Texas, cooling machinists instead of Manhattan’s chic set. Oddly, the bureaucracy itself was very reluctant to give up its cool air in the way it encouraged others to do so. Much of Washington, built on a swamp, had already become ‘climate controlled’ (the Capitol and the White House had been fitted with AC in 1929). Bills that authorised the transfer of government owned equipment to war plants inexplicably usually died in committee.
After the war, perhaps because comfort was now back in vogue, there was an explosion in the AC industry. In 1945 just over 1000 room AC units were built. By the following year this had risen to 30,000. By 1956 it had reached 1.3M. GE’s overheated pre-war prediction began, belatedly, to look like cool calculation.
Central or built-in AC also boomed. It was seen as a way of saving money on home construction costs, eliminating the need for high ceilings, movable sashes and screens and wings that promoted ventilation. 1950s tract housing, with its sealed picture windows and low roof, was a ‘TV–equipped hotbox’ that was uninhabitable without AC. Central AC turned housing itself into a kind of appliance, a factory-made, plug-in white good. Builders also noted that built-in AC was a big selling point, second only to built-in kitchens. By the late 1950s AC was a vital part of new home construction.
As with cinemas, the use of AC in offices was initially sold on the basis of increased efficiency. Tests in 1946 suggested that typists were 24% more productive in an AC office. Before AC it was not unusual for firms to have to close their offices early in the summer. In 1957 a survey of 376 companies revealed that 88% rated AC the most important item for office efficiency (even today, where most offices are air conditioned, it is estimated that $20BN is lost through poor AC).
AC also allowed the construction of the modern office ‘block’. As urban land became scarcer, H, T and L-shaped buildings, designed to maximise natural ventilation and light became too expensive. The interior, dark and airless ‘deep space’ of block construction could be lit with the new, low-heat, low-cost fluorescent strip-lighting and ventilated with AC. Thus, office AC turned many city workers into troglodytes labouring inside huge mountains; or astronauts floating in ‘deep space’. The outside appearance of the modern skyscraper, with its profligate use of (greenhouse) glass, was also a product of the voodoo of AC – the use of ceiling to floor glass at the UN Headquarters in NY in 1953 required an increase in AC requirements of 50%.
The addition of AC to cars (Packard was first in 1938) meant that more and more Americans were ‘bubbling’ from AC offices to their AC automobiles, to their AC homes. By 1960 there were c.6.5M AC units of all kinds in use. By 1970 more than 24M. The pre-AC methods of staying cool, the outdoor life, eating and sitting on the porch, sipping iced lemonade, began to be forgotten as the seasons were homogenised as man-made weather decreed a coast to coast, north to south, perpetual, productive, Puritan Autumn.
This astonishing triumph of America over, well, America, did not come without a price attached – one that was not apparent, however, until the oil crisis of the 1970s. In an effort to wean the US off its dependency on imported oil, President Jimmy Carter banned business and Government offices from setting thermostats lower than 78 degrees on pain of a $10,000 fine. Although this was in fact the optimum setting for AC, most Americans were now so used to comfort cooling that they bridled at the thought that they might not have control over their own personal weather and ignored the ban. President Nixon a former occupant of the White House had apparently enjoyed turning the thermostat all the way down and then warming himself in front of a roaring log fire – Nixon was probably more in touch with American values than Carter, who was not re-elected, and no President ever tried to come between an American and her thermostat again.
Recent blackouts in California have been blamed partly on increased AC use, but the concern today, with much of the rest of the world wanting some of America’s comfort cooling, is that man made weather is affecting the natural variety. The vast amounts of energy used to run AC units produces CO2 emissions, contributing to the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’. Older models of AC units also use CFC refrigerants which are thought to attack the ozone layer. Of course, AC doesn’t get rid of heat, it merely pumps it (and the extra heat generated by the process) outside. The ambient temperature of Manhattan is estimated to be raised several degrees by AC in the summer, more if you’re waiting for a train on the subway (the trains are icily cooled, but the platforms are not, causing your sweaty shirt to give you a chilly shudder when you board your train). Paradoxically, AC makes things warmer.
The whole idea of ‘global warming’, which is still a controversial theory, is itself a product of air conditioning – the notion of man being able to control or affect the climate, for good or ill, at all is something that proceeds from the same place as the idea of man-made weather/climate control: human vanity and ingenuity. Undeniably however, AC can make you ill. At its most lethal, poorly maintained AC can give you Legionnaire’s Disease, so named after an outbreak at a convention for ex-service personnel in Philadelphia USA, in 1976 which killed 34 veterans. Some blame AC for the rise of so-called ‘Sick Building Syndrome’, where unfortunate workers are subject to regular headaches and dry throats and tiredness, though this is more likely to be the case if the system is not working properly.
On the other hand, it’s equally undeniable that AC saves and prolongs millions of lives: older people used to die in their thousands during heatwaves in the US; now their main worry when the mercury rises is a power cut or a malfunction, or, as happened to one unfortunate, befuddled and now very much expired American pensioner recently, turning on the heat instead of the AC.
In the UK, if aircon is installed at all, broken and inadequate systems are the norm. Some estimates put the figures at a luddite 90%. Vent ducts are not cleaned, dead pigeons frequently scent the air intakes, refrigerant is not recharged. The British are clearly conflicted about AC – they want it, but sabotage it; perhaps because the consistency of man-made weather would rob them of their principal topic of conversation and complaint. A friend of mine who works in a luxury supermarket in Central London tells me the AC has never worked properly there since the shop opened fifteen years ago. Despite yearly visits from engineers and expensive changes of equipment, staff and customers still sweat through the summer and the expensive imported chocolate on the checkout shelves sighs and wilts. But at least they’re not American.
Practically speaking, there simply isn’t the infrastructure and the culture here necessary to sustain AC (though this may change if we experience more heatwaves like the recent record busting one). Principally, there simply aren’t enough trained technicians; perhaps because of our attitude towards consumer engineering and perhaps because there isn’t the incentive. At the ACCA Convention in Palm Springs, I met several keen young air conditioning students from the Pennsylvania School of Technology. Maurice, a 7 ft tall black guy on a two-year AC course, was going to be a professional footballer, but opted instead for the AC business. “I helped out an uncle of mine one summer and got real excited by it.’ By the technology? ‘No, more the money side, actually! There’s a LOT of money to be made in aircon!”
Professor Lowell Catlett, a ‘futurologist’ from New Mexico State University who delivered the opening address at the Convention agrees. “The average American living below the official poverty line has more washing machines, dishwashers, TVs than middle class people did a generation ago.” He sees AC as a part of the rising expectations of an ageing society. “In 1900 life expectancy was just 42 years, now it’s 76. Engineering rather than medicine is responsible for that, in the form of sewerage, water and food preparation. And the older our population gets, the more it is going to expect – and require – air conditioning.” AC is, in other words, going to be part of the life-support system necessary to sustain our unnaturally prolonged lives. He also points to the growth in single-parent – i.e. single woman – households and suggests that this is something the AC industry, which is very male (there are few women at the Convention) should respond to.
Some already are. I ask Rick Roetken, Brand Manager for Carrier, the oldest and most prestigious AC manufacturer in the US, standing beneath a large, flowery poster advertising Puron, a new environmentally friendly Carrier-made coolant, if AC is no longer about ‘man-made weather’? No longer about conquering Nature but living with Her? “Yes, I think that’s right,” he says. “In the future AC has to be seen to be working more with the environment and more sensitive to people’s needs and concerns”.
Ironically, Rick himself is slightly nostalgic about a time before AC ruled the world. “When I was a kid growing up in Indiana in the 1970s, we’d only have the AC on 2-3 days a year. My dad would announce that we had to close up the house and then he’d switch it on. It was a big deal, and kinda cool. Now it’s on 24hrs a day and we never open the windows.”
Rick’s wistfulness for a time of open windows is shared by at least one other attendee at the ACCA Convention, Ted an AC contractor from the border Southern State of Maryland. “Aircon is much more common now in Maryland than when I was a boy,” he says. “Back then we used to sit out on the porch when we came home from school or work, chatting to the neighbours and watching the world go by. That doesn’t happen anymore. No one knows their neighbours anymore,” he says regretfully. Then he adds, as if it had only just dawned on him, “I don’t know my neighbours.”
Air conditioning is undoubtedly an American triumph, a terrestrial form of space travel – ‘Apollo 13’ after all, is a film about a bunch of guys struggling to fix their glorified AC unit. It has however, forever changed what it means to be an American – America’s gregarious ingenuity can be oddly alienating. More to the point, ‘American air’ and ‘climate control’ may also be helping to change forever the setting of the giant thermostat on Spaceship Earth, nudging it up several degrees in the next hundred years.
And making aircon even more desirable.