The Strange History of Air Conditioning

The Atlantic

Until the 20th century, only the wealthy or dying might have witnessed someone trying to cool the air indoors—even though building a fire to keep warm in the winter would have been perfectly reasonable. Extreme heat was seen as a force that humans shouldn’t tamper with, and the idea that a machine could control the weather was deemed sinful. Even into the early 1900s, the U.S. Congress avoided the use of manufactured air in the Capitol, afraid voters would mockthem for not being able to sweat like everyone else.

While adoption of air-conditioning demanded industrial ingenuity, it also required renouncing the vice of cooling the inside air. But in the process of shedding its hypothetical moral slight against the heavens, the air conditioner has perpetrated worse, actual sins against the Earth.

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Despite the shadow of immorality, breakthroughs in air-conditioning developed out of desperation. Doctors scrambling to heal the sick took particular interest. In 1851, a Florida doctor named John Gorrie received a patent for the first ice machine. According to Salvatore Basile, the author of Cool: How Air-Conditioning Changed Everything, Gorrie hadn’t initially sought to invent such an apparatus. He’d been trying to alleviate high fevers in malaria patients with cooled air. To this end, he designed an engine that could pull in air, compress it, then run it through pipes, allowing the air to cool as it expanded.

Outside of his office though, people saw no practical need for this achievement. It wasn’t until the pipes on Gorrie’s machine unexpectedly froze and began to develop ice that he found a new opportunity. Still, this accomplishment was lampooned as sacrilege in The New York Globe: “There is Dr. Gorrie, a crank … that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty.”

The use of ice and snow to chill drinks or to help cool a room was nothing new. In the 17th century, the inventor Cornelius Drebbel used snow that had been stored underground during the summer to perform an act he called “turning summer into winter.” In his book Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold, Tom Shachtman speculates that Drebbel achieved his effect by mixing snow with water, salt, and potassium nitrate, which formed ice crystals and significantly cooled the space. King James, who invited Drebbel to demonstrate his innovation, reportedly ran from the demonstration in Westminster Abbey, shivering.

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