Cultural Revolutions

Cooling Off

Air conditioning you might be surprised to learn, marks its 100th anniversary this year.  At a Brooklyn printing plant in 1902, Willis H. Carrier designed a system to control humidity, temperature, and air quality and, in the process, changed the world forever.

Before the widespread availability of air conditioning, families cooled off on porches, talking with neighbors as the children played, all sweltering together in a community.  The community evolved when consumers gathered in air-conditioned theaters and restaurants.  While today’s ubiquitous use of air conditioning—and its first cousin, refrigeration—has made our lives more comfortable and convenient, it has also made us more isolated.  Giant refrigerated meat-packing plants have replaced neighborhood butchers.  Large refrigerated trucks move food to air-conditioned supermarkets to be bought by consumers who drive air-conditioned SUVs and taken home to families basking in central air.  Affluence now means being hermetically sealed in air-conditioned environments; upscale gift shops even offer personal air-conditioning systems for those times when you have to go outside.

Nowhere has air conditioning had a greater impact than in the South, where car trips used to be postponed until the cool of the evening.  The U.S. Department of Energy says that half of all housing units in America are air conditioned; in the South,...

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