Posted by: distributorcap | July 23, 2010

Local Global Warming

For most of the country, it has been a very hot summer. It was the warmest June on record, and July is on record pace. As of July 22, the average temperature has been 81.6 degrees in New York, one half degree higher than the previous hottest July. There have been 12 days above 90, including two over 100 degrees. On July 6, it hit 103 degrees – the fourth highest temperature ever (the highest was 106 on 7/9/1936). Electricity usage hit 33,542 megawatts – the second highest ever. Add on top of that some extreme humidity and it has been a mighty uncomfortable summer. If Homeland Security wants to legally torture any potential terrorists, have them stand on the platform of the 34th Street N/Q/R subway station for 60 seconds.

As bad as it gets, we are all spoiled – we can easily run into Macy’s or a restaurant or our homes and feel the blast of air conditioning. Some places (like restaurant I ate in last night) are actually freezing. But who’s complaining?

I know – people who lived before 1928.

There was a time when there was no air conditioning – people living in places like Arizona (if they weren’t deported). Las Vegas, in the deep south or even in NYC in the summer had to endure many 100+ degree days without a machine compressing air and shooting out a cool breeze.

The history of air conditioning (some form of it) goes back as far as the 2nd century. The Chinese used manually powered fans. The Persians used large pools of water and wind capturing towers as a form of cooling. In the mid 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin discovered that evaporation of a liquid such as ether could be used to lower temperatures.

The first rudimentary use of compression for cooling was invented by Michael Faraday in 1820. After Faraday compressed ammonia to liquid form, he discovered it would chill the air when it evaporated. The first ice making machine was developed in 1842 by John Gorrie, a Florida doctor.

It was a very different America before air conditioning and refrigeration. With heat and humidity unable to be controlled – food, textiles, manufacturing processes and construction all were susceptible to the elements. Bread went moldy, machines jammed, printing was not clean and cotton threads broke. Skyscrapers had awnings installed on windows to reflect the sun and lower the temperature.

Modern a/c could not have been developed with the installation of electricity and grids in the cities.

The first modern electrical air conditioning unit was invented in 1902 by Willis Haviland Carrier. The Carrier machine regulated both the temperature and humidity. Carrier, who was earning $10 per week, had recently graduated from Cornell with a Masters in Engineering. He claimed the inspiration for his idea came while waiting for a train. (What trains have to do with a/c other than standing a hot, sticky NYC subway – who knows?)

The premise was quite simple, air was sent through coils filled with cold water and pushed out into the atmosphere. The colder air chilled the surroundings. This cool air also held less moisture, thus the machine could control the dampness in the air.

Carrier received a patent in 1906 for an “apparatus for treating air.” The term air conditioning was coined by Stuart Cramer, a textile engineer. Because the level of moisture in the air was critical in the manufacture of textiles, Cramer had to devise a method to add water vapor to the Carrier cooling system, thus keep the yarn “conditioned.” Carrier founded the Carrier Engineering Corp in 1915 with $35,000 in start-up funds. The idea behind this type of cooling was so basic and successful – the fundamentals are still used in modern air conditioning.

The first a/cs used compressed ammonia, propane or methyl chloride to keep the coils cooled. These gases were either flammable or toxic (or both). In 1928, freon, a non-poisonous, non-flammable gas, was invented and began to be used as the coolant (freon would later prove to be damaging in other ways).

Initially these new-fangled air conditioning units were only used for industrial plants. The first commercial use of a/c was in 1924 – in Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit. It was such a welcome addition – people flocked to the store just to beat the heat. The Rivoli Theatre in New York advertised “cool comfort” and saw their business rise dramatically. The Weathermaker, designed for home use, was introduced in 1928. The Packard was the first car to have a/c – introduced in 1939. The system took the entire trunk and cost over $4000 in 2010 dollars. The White House was air conditioned in 1930. After World War II, a/c began to be installed everywhere.

A/C is not without its problems. Machines can grow mold and spores. Freon is part of a group of gases known as CFCs. While safe for a/cs, CFCs are deadly to the Ozone layer. Substitute gases have been developed.

Air conditioning completely changed the dynamics of migration within the United States. By creating indoor (and artificial) climates, areas of the country that were inhospitable to growth due to extreme heat – were now just as accessible. Geographical differences due to climate became insignificant. Air conditioning was largely responsible for the explosive postwar growth of cities like Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Miami. In addition, the gleaming glass towers of many cities could not have been designed and built without a/c – as sunlight would make the climate inside intolerable.

So while we complain mightily about how hot it is, we can harken back to a country less than a century ago that had no air conditioning, no refrigeration and a lot of smelly people.



  1. CappyLot's of info here. Thought it was great except the smelly people part.In Schoharie County were I live the people are for the most part Ripe.When they want to cool off they jump in the Schoharie Creek. That's where all the sewage empties.I stay inside a lot….in air conditioning..;)

  2. Great post. Must add that I opt not to have air conditioning. I'm heat tolerant (would be totally humidity tolerant too, if it weren't for the havoc the humidity is playing on my sinuses). Just a fan will do. But, yeah, I wouldn't mind if there was some air conditioning provided on subway platforms. Now that's hot.

  3. I would rather it is hot outside than cold.In fact, I love the hot weather but, I also have air conditioning at home, in my SUV and in the office, so I can easily say this.What is odd this summer is the high humidity. There were days that felt like a sauna. Not the easy to deal with, dry heat but the punishing humid heat where the heat index was 10 degrees above the actual temperature.Last summer, we ran the AC for two weeks in total. This summer, it's two months of AC so far. In fact, Jim had to have his car AC recharged. That's a first.

  4. I dunno. Try standing in the sub-sub-basement at West 4th waiting for the "F" train (which because of budget cutbacks comes less often now). That's about as bad as it gets. You're so far below street level that it's hot there until mid-November.Unlike Chris, I'd happily take a 20F day over a 100F degree day. As the Swedes and many Canadians will tell you, it isn't the cold, but how you dress for it, that matters. New Yorkers seem to be in as much denial about their northeastern climate as Angelinos are about their desert climate.The changes A/C brought are fascinating. With the advent of the private car and television, A/C was one of the big inventions that caused communal and civic life to collapse. My sister worked on her PhD at Arizona State University in Phoenix and one of the striking things I noticed on my visits there are how homes and neighbourhoods are designed to minimize exposure to the weather and interaction with neighbours, resulting in completely empty streets during the summer. Given that human beings and other primates evolved to live in communal societies, it strikes me as profoundly unnatural.

  5. I am a total fan of air conditioning. My body temp runs hot as it is, so without a/c I become quite unpleasant to myself and others.Yay AC.

  6. This is why autumn remains the finest season. Neither checkbook-crushing electric bill nor sky high gas bill. As long as that fan runs, I'm cool.

  7. Hi Cap;Had a flat tire on HWY 111 in Cathedral City in the eighties.Temperature was 122.The tire iron in the trunk was so hot, I had to use a towel to hold it. Cars were driving by, no one would stop.My spare was flat and I pushed it about 3/4 of a mile to a service station, filled it up with air, pushed it back and put it on the car. I had air in the car to cool me down every few minutes but I am lucky I made it. It was three o'clock when I made it home, I drank a gallon of water and passed out on the bed. I woke up 24 hours later.I don't know how the settler could stand the blast furnace temperatures in the summer there. I don't think it got that hot there in a while as the proliferation of swimming pools, golf courses and lawns may have dampened the extreme a tiny bit.

  8. I'd rather freeze my rear end off. You can always put on more clothes. If you keep getting hot, there's a limit as to what you can remove.Back when I was a kid growing up in Nashville we only had fans. When I look back I wonder how we survived in this horrendously hot and humid climate. A few months back a blogger published a link to a site where you could see how the temps have risen since records were kept – by city. I think the average was 20 degrees cooler back then – still not comfortable but a heck of a lot better than the 97 degree, 77 percent humidity we're having now.One nice thing – we actually had snow in the winter instead of ice storms.

  9. Oh no — is this the sign of being an old fuddy duddy: remembering when there was no air conditioning?A long list I guess — no color t.v., no remote control, no cell phones, no Internet, string beans had strings, etc., etc.

  10. Speaking of global warming, one of our local TV meteorologists said the humidity in some nearby Texas hick town was 84 percent, with a temperature of 84. I have no idea what that means (except sweaty hot and Hellish) but he said he'd never seen that ratio of temperature-to-humidity in his 30-year career.I also heard that 2010 has thus far been the hottest year in recorded history.Anyone who still questions the validity of disturbed temperature patterns and global warming should be forced to get a haircut by a sloppy barber, get a mess of clippings down his polyester shirt, then spend three hours sitting in my black on black car in the sun with the windows rolled up.I HATE STUPID PEOPLE!

  11. I guess I'm spoiled. It never really gets too cold or too hot here. If it does get cold it's never for more than three days and the same with the heat. But the one thing I really love is that it mostly rains during winter and as we say here "you don't have to shovel rain".

  12. I learned and I laughed – a cool win/win!

  13. I should point out that this record hot weather is almost certainly related to Global Warming, though not the way most people might think. Increasing average global temperatures would logically create stability in local weather and climates. We should expect a lot more frequent unusual weather as the climate slowly heats up.

  14. I grew up high in the mountains and my body became adapted to cold weather, not warm. If I didn't have AC to run to, I never would have left those hills!

  15. my uncle (who was brilliant and crazy in a good way) used to drink hot coffee on the hottest days. i'd ask him why he was drinking that instead of something cold, and he would tell me that evaporation was a cooling process. when you perspire, the moisture evaporates, and it cools your body. by drinking hot coffee, he sweated more, thereby being cooler, because more evaporation took place because of the extra moisture. i miss him.

  16. No wonder I used to get car sick as a kid…. hot as hell & twice as humid- like a freaking hot air furnace blowing at you…. oh & Dad was a 5 pack a day smoker. (notice I said was… he's not with us anymore). Jeez!Anymore, I consider A/C to be a health necessity. it was 94 here in Western Oregon today. I can't handle it. So cheers to the A/C guy!

  17. Good post, thanks. It's 103 here in Florida today and every day, not what we are used to, one day people from your state NY won't even come here in the winter. It is Global increases in temps. We are living differently, our AC bills have tripled in ten years. It's amazing. I wonder if AC is a healthy necessity. What does D-Cap think?

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  19. Absolutely right on, man. Happens to be a favorite subject — and it's all true!

  20. Excellent post, love all that background. I just got AC for the first time in my life four years ago and can't imagine how I survived so many years without it.

  21. I would rather be hot than cold. I can always take another shower, but when it's too cold, my body just starts to shut down, and it doesn't matter how many clothes I put on. When it comes to my body at least, those "you can put on another sweater" jerks are full of it. I haven't much cared for the "humidex of 41" stuff we've been having lately, but I'd rather that than our lovely -40 wind chills.

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