Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Heat Wave Hero Worship

We live in a time and place where we are constantly surrounded by the products of the collective genius of the past and present. We are dependent on the ingenuity of others from all places and ages for our comfort, our security, our very lives.

Don't believe me? Take a look around the room where you are currently sitting. Look at all of the things that surround you. Go ahead, do it. (While you are looking, I will have time to thank James Burke, from whom I pirated this thought experiment).

Now, what (if any) of these objects could you still have if you had to make them yourself from scratch? I venture to say not many.

Ingenuity, and the people who drive technological advances, make our lives longer, cheaper and more comfortable. You might ask, though, "at what cost do we have these artificial things, these commodities that we depend on and center our lives around?" That is a simple question of economics: is what you are giving up worth what you are getting? Think not just in terms of money because economics, at its core, is about value and money is just one component of this.

Of those proudcts of technology that surround you, which could you easily live without? Live without with difficulty? Absolutely not live without?

I suppose this answer will be different for different people. I, however, can point to one thing in particular that I consider essential to my mental and physical well-being and therefore (in some sense) my survival.

It is just such a piece of technology as mentioned above, and it was invented by a man who is near the top of my "greatest guy of all time list."

That man was one Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950) of Buffalo, New York.

His invention? The first mechanical electrically powered air conditioning unit.

Well, now, he didn't invent it from scratch; inventors rarely do this. He did, however, have the knowledge and skill to take a problem and, using this skill, design a practical solution that would go on to have profound effects on society.

First, a bit of history about the "moment of creation." Carrier, freshly out of Cornell University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, went to work for the Buffalo Forge Company of Buffalo New York in 1902. They put the young Carrier onto a problem for one of their clients, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Printing Company of Brooklyn.

The problem was that the heat and humidity were so high in the plant that the ink and paper would not dry (this is a simplification of a much more complicated problem, but you get the idea). Carrier had quite a problem on his hands; fortunately, he had the tools to get to the bottom of it.

He reasoned that the machine to be built must bring the humidity down to acceptable levels for the industrial processes at hand. He studied weather records, humidity data and took measurements at the factory itself. Using this information, he designed a machine that would regulate the temperature of water flowing through refrigeration colis and then blow air across those coils. He also figured in a regluator for measuring and controlling the dew point, another key feature.

Voila. The ability to control indoor climate in hot conditions.

After this, it was up and away for Carrier. After WWI, and the divestiture of the Carrier Air Conditioning Company from Buffalo Forge, Carrier and a group of investors staked $32,600 (some $633,202 in 2006 dollars) to found the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915. This company went on to have such prestigious large clients as Madison Square Garden and the U.S. Capitol Building. By the 1920's, Carrier's company was engineering systems for home use, which would not become widespread until after WWII.

Another American institution is born. Hot outside? Turn the air on.

The wider effects of this invention are easy to follow. Regions of the country that were not practical for development before (think Arizona and Florida) were suddenly looking a lot better (well, certainly a lot cooler).

After WWII, and the accompanying clamor for more consumer goods, demand and production of room air conditioners soared from 30,000 units in 1946 to over one million in 1953. As ever with technology, what was once an expensive luxury for the home or a great expense for a busines became easily within reach of most average income people. Now, it has been estimated (I've heard both figures) that between 64% and 76% of low-income households have air conditioning (if you are interested, I could try to remember where I heard this spread from).

More close to home than that, I cannot picture life without air conditioning. I just can't see how I would survive. You think I'm kinda cranky now? Wait until I have spend hour after hour in a hot, still room then dare to ask me "hot enough for ya?"

This actually happened not too long ago. Last Memorial Day Weekend, my air conditioner died on that Friday and, because of the holiday, I was not able to get it looked at until that following Tuesday. I tried to manage, but by Sunday night, I was in my underwear eating chicken wings on my kitchen floor with my feet in the freezer (now, THERE'S a mental image that will stick with you for a while). I had to throw myself on the mercy of friends who were more fortunate than I.

I tell you, that was the most miserable I have been in years and I am thankful every morning that 1. my brand new Frigidaire is working just fine and 2. my landlord pays for the electrical, although I would gladly foot the bill to have a cool space...clean clothes be damned!

I know that there are killjoys who will say that "air conditioners are worse than nuclear waste for the environment" and "when people got air conditioners, they withdrew to their cool homes, killing any sense of community" and "people lived for centuries without it; why do we need it now?"

To the first objection, I say that I consider it a good enough trade off that I don't own a car (and haven't for six years). That's my contribution to the environment, so leave me alone to be comfortable in peace. To the second, I say that you may be trying to reconstruct something that never really existed and besides, if I want to associate with people in the neighborhood, I will invite them over (or vice versa) to recreate in electro-chilled splendor. To the third, I say that if you would have offered and explained this device to people in the past, you bet your (sweaty) ass that they would take it in a second.

So, here's to Willis Haviland Carrier, a real exemplar of the ingenous problem solver who made people's lives a little cooler...and that's worth the price of admission from my standpoint.

(Thanks to these sites for some of the historical information alluded to herein; check out this especially informative interactive timeline at the Carrier Corporation's website).


Lost A Sock said...

I couldn't agree more. Thank GOD for Willis Haviland Carrier. I am certianly not a chicken when it comes to enjoying the summer in spite of heat waves, but I have GOT to have a cool retreat to return home to. And with the humidity at an imaginable 99.7% today, I am especially thankful for ol' Willis' genius.

No car in six years, huh? That's impressive!

Anonymous said...

Doing without air conditioning takes time off of purgatory.


Matt Jenks said...

1) Refrigerators used to keep your beer cold are far more deleterious to the environment (not to mention your beer) than air conditioners. Especially older models (most of them not even in use anymore) lying in landfills.

2) Pish. Crime and asshole neighbors did this more than air conditioners. What the air conditioner did to the sense of community in a neighborhood, the spreading of the bikini brought back.

3) Apparently, blocks of ice brought down from the mountains with slaves/servants fanning air over them doesn't count as air conditioning, I suppose. Also, apparently NOT existing during an ice age is also old timey and good, as well as co-existing with plague, rats and living to the ripe old age of 36. Screw modern times, I'm going back to the olden days, the way it used to be, the way Man was meant to live.

I love James Burke. I wish I could find Connections more readily.

Tigard Furnace Repair said...

A retreat would be the best thing to do.