Column: A salute to air conditioning

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A big round of applause for the Sackett-Wilheims Publishing Company of Brooklyn, N.Y. It seems in 1902 they got sick and tired of their printing jobs getting messed up from high humidity and decided to do something about it.

What they did in desperation was hire a young, Cornell University engineering graduate by the name of Willis Carrier to install a wild and fanciful off-the-charts system he had concocted that he claimed would control humidity.

It worked, and air conditioning was born. Carrier’s brainchild came one foggy morning while he was waiting for a train. He realized, standing on the platform in the mist that cool air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air. So, if he could reduce a room’s air temperature, the moisture would turn to fog, which he could then shuttle to the outside with a fan.

The printing company experiment had a couple of unexpected results. Not only did Carrier’s system reduce the humidity, it cooled the air. And the fan circulated it, keeping it fresh. It is likely that during the overheated summer of 1902, the happiest employees in New York worked at the Sackett-Wilheims Publishing Company.

It took a while for the rest of the world to join the AC revolution, however, probably because each system had to be meticulously designed and built by hand. The first in-home unit was a one-of-a-kind behemoth built in 1914 for the Gates mansion in Minneapolis. It was seven feet high, six feet wide and 20 feet long.

The first window ACs showed up in 1931, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when the entire world was rebounding from the war and intent on keeping up with the Joneses that in-home cooling hit it big.

By contrast, the first air-conditioned car was the 1939 Packard. Chrysler followed in 1953 with Chrysler Airtemp, which set the standard for auto AC for years to come. Still, it was another two decades before factory installed AC became the norm.

Our family wagon was un-air conditioned Fords until Dad bought a Buick in 1956. My first air-conditioned car was a used 1975 Cadillac.

When I was a kid living in southern Missouri, the only store in town that had air conditioning was Finch’s drug store. We used to enjoy hauling our sweat-soaked bodies into Finch’s and feeling our tee shirts freeze. Old man Finch didn’t like loiterers, however, so we always pooled our pennies to buy something. Of course, we took our sweet time deciding.

Today I go nonchalantly from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car. But sometimes I offer a salute of gratitude to that long-forgotten publishing company.


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