156: Gail Cooper’s Air-Conditioning America

In Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, Gail Cooper examines the development of air-conditioning technology and the tensions between engineering philosophy and consumer preference that shaped its design.  Working from a variety of sources, including trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, Cooper argues that air-conditioning developed via a process of contestation, and that the three systems that resulted – custom-built systems, centralized air, and window units – are each an imperfect mix of the interests of engineers, corporations, and various consumer groups, legacies of the times when each group was more dominant than the other two.

Per Cooper, air conditioning development went through three major phases.  From 1900 to WWI, engineers Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer and Willis Carrier adapted industrial heating, ventilation, and freezing systems to offices and factories.  Their custom designs attempted to control both heat and humidity, though they focused mainly on humidity until the 1930s.  The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, and Southern textile mills.  Because Progressive reformers were obsessive about healthy ventilation for schoolchildren, schools also became testing grounds for the new technology.

In the interwar years, alternative cooling technologies challenge the engineers and their custom-built systems.  In the 1920s, movie theatres installed mechanical cooling and introduced the public to a/c; attempts to introduce window units in the 1930s failed, but more because of high costs during the Depression than because of a lack of consumer demand.

From WWII to 1960, air-conditioning companies exploit the consumer demand opened up by movie theaters and window units and introduce standardized or central air.  New central systems reshape buildings – just think of the sealed picture windows in suburban tract housing.  By the 1960s, cooled air had become a necessity rather than a luxury, and residents of older buildings began buying up window units – which, while inefficient, live on because they are affordable and portable.

Throughout her narrative, Cooper is attentive to the interests of various groups affected by air-conditioning: engineers who want to create a wholly artificial indoor climate; managers who want to reduce seasonal fluctuations and be able to locate buildings without regard to geography; workers (and consumers) who want comfort and health and don’t like centralized systems they can’t control; movie theaters who use a/c as marketing; public schools who treat children as test subjects; poor people who just want to be cool at any cost.  She also discusses the detrimental environmental impact of controlled indoor environment – one more reminder of what happens when you let turn of the century engineers run the show.

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