We seldom appreciate the transformative impact of technology if, for us, “it’s always been there.” And while we think of technology as smart phones, wifi, computers, etc., technology is anything that transforms inputs into outputs. Sewers and sewage treatment plants, for example, are technologies that eradicated Cholera by eliminating street drains that overflowed with human waste. Google the “big stink” or the “great stink” to see just how miserable London was in the 1850s before sewers. Here’s a start.
Air conditioning (A/C) is another taken-for-granted technology because for many of you, “it’s always been there.” Of course, it hasn’t. And like sewers and sewage treatment, A/C has dramatically changed how we live our lives.
To get a a visceral sense of what city life was like before air conditioning, watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a wonderful 1954 film in which a photojournalist, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, played by Jimmy Stewart, is wheelchair bound with a broken leg in his sweltering NYC apartment. The one saving grace - ok, two, since Grace Kelly plays his girlfriend - is the ever changing activities of his neighbors playing out before his (and our) eyes. So with little to do (yes, there’s Radio, but TVs were still rare, phone calls were expensive and metered by the minute, and he’s stuck in his apartment), Jeffries deals with his boredom by observing his neighbors’ lives via his apartment’s “Rear Window,” which for the sake of the story opens onto a courtyard that is in constant use because it’s cooler than the stifling hot apartments. Of course, without A/C, everyone’s windows are open, too, providing us and Jeffries a fascinating microcosm of 1954 NYC apartment life.
Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s best, so that’s reason enough to watch it. One memorable scene for me - and I’m not giving anything critical away - was a couple sleeping on their mattress on the fire escape to escape the heat of their apartment. Outside! In NYC! Then, when the storms came in the middle of the night, they scrambled to move everything back indoors. So watch Rear Window because it’s a great movie and to see how different city life was before A/C.
I’m old enough to remember a world without air conditioning, one in which car windows were always down, in which we slept on a back, screened-in porch at my great aunt’s because it was cooler (by design), and in which summer heat actually dictated your day (gardening at sun up, curtailing outdoor play from 10-6 unless at the lake or pool, and long evenings all spent outdoors, usually on front porches and in front yards).
I’ve curated some interesting articles below for additional insights into how the technology and business of A/C has changed our world.
How Air Conditioning Remade Modern America - “A friend of mine, visiting Brooklyn, drove down to Coney Island on a recent summer weekend. He remarked with some surprise that kids in Kings County still played in the spray of fire hydrants, ‘like they do in the old photos.’”
Before Air-Conditioning - “Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.”
How Air Conditioning Changed America - “Air conditioning also changed our relationship with nature itself by creating indoor artificial climates, shifting seasonal patterns of work and play, and makingAmerica's geographical differences environmentally insignificant. The engine of air conditioning largely fueled the explosive postwar growth of Sunbelt cities like Houston,Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Miami.”
The Big Chill: How Air Conditioning Changed The World - “Temperature has long been the dominant influence on birth patterns; the hotter it gets, the less interested people are in sex. Demographic studies in the States have shown that for every 10 degrees the average monthly temperature rises, conception rates decline by up to 10 per cent. But since the rampant use of air conditioning, this trend has been flattened …”
A History Of Air Conditioning - “Attempts to control indoor temperatures began in ancient Rome, where wealthy citizens took advantage of the remarkable aqueduct system to circulate cool water through the walls of their homes. The emperor Elagabalus took things a step further in the third century, building a mountain of snow—imported from the mountains via donkey trains—in the garden next to his villa to keep cool during the summer.”
How Air Conditioning Transformed The U.S. Economy - “A 2008 study by three economists, led by Northwestern's Benjamin Jones, found that poorer countries experience a plunge in economic output during hotter-than-average years. It's not just that drought kills off crops. Industrial output declines, and political unrest becomes more unlikely.”
Air Conditioning Goes to the Movies - "The film industry had a problem. Summertime's hot, sticky temperatures combined with the natural body heat of an audience crammed into a confined space to create an insufferable environment for movie-goers. As a result, the theaters saw the size of their audience, and consequently the size of their profits, slump during the summer months."