Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

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Beat The Heat?

The Columbus area is bracing for absurd heat today.  The temperature is supposed to reach the mid-90s, and the “heat index” (which is kind of the opposite of the wind chill factor, and looks at temperature and dew point, to assess overall mugginess) is supposed to hit 105 degrees.  That’s hot enough that the National Weather Service has issued an extreme heat advisory, and some businesses, like my nephew’s pizza kitchen, are adjusting their schedules and practices to try to avoid exposing workers to dangerous heat levels.

1280x720_50116b00-xayzgIn short, we’ll be reaching the thermometer point at which, traditionally, your air conditioning goes on the fritz.

Is there a way to beat the heat in the beachless Midwest?  Not really.  The National Weather Service heat advisory recommends wearing lightweight and loose fitting clothing (no duh!), drinking plenty of water, spending more time in air conditioned or well-ventilated places, and avoiding doing much outside except in the early morning or late evening.  So you can stay inside, drinking cool beverages, crank up their air conditioning, and watch movies — but that’s really just avoiding the heat, not beating it.

Or you can follow the post-enlightenment advice of the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day and go outside and embrace the heat.  Recognize that summers in the Midwest are often crushingly hot and that’s just part of the deal.  Walk around in air so scalding and moist that it feels like steam.  Note that the squirrels and birds aren’t exactly doing industrious things.  And sweat until even that lightweight and loose clothing that the National Weather Service recommended is soaked through, weighs a ton, and is clinging ferociously to every damp, broiling inch of your skin.

And then, when you realize that you are behaving like an idiot, come back inside, drink a cold glass of water, and hope for all that’s holy that your air conditioning doesn’t go on the fritz like it did last summer.

AC Outage

We’re doing a long-distance drive today and — wouldn’t you know it! — mid-trip the air conditioning has gone on the fritz. No matter how longingly I look at the vent, hoping for the arctic blast to which I’m accustomed, only warm, moist air emanates. And, of course, it had to happen on a warm, humid day.

What is this — the ’50s? Time to roll down the windows and hope for a rain shower and a cool breeze.

In The Gelid Zone

Hotel air conditioning in the common areas can be . . . uneven.  The temperature in the elevator lobby on my floor of the hotel last night was so cold the air had a kind of gelid feel to it.  It was only a fraction above see-your-breath levels.  I half expected to see cattle carcasses hanging from hooks, or a sad-eyed kid whispering “I see dead people.”

Of course, my actual room was hot.

Fan Fans

It’s been obscenely hot in Columbus recently.  We’ve had the appalling combination of stifling temperatures, high humidity, and sunshine that make you feel both broiled and wilted at the same time.  Under such conditions, any rational person lingers inside, where they can enjoy the blessings of air conditioning.

IMG_2599Yesterday some friends and I went to a fundraiser at a local business that doesn’t have air conditioning.  (Who knew that such places still exist?)  They did, however, have a big industrial-sized fan that was running at peak speed.  Fans really aren’t an adequate substitute for air conditioning.  In reality, they mostly blow the hot air around.  But any breeze is preferable to sweltering in the hot, dead air, and when there’s no alternative a gigantic fan that’s blasting out air currents at close to hurricane speeds will have to do the trick.

I grew up in a house that didn’t have air conditioning, and the room UJ and I shared always had a window fan during the summer months.  It was loud as hell and didn’t really make the room that much cooler, but it was fun to talk through the spinning blades and hear your voice emerge, chopped up and garbled, from the other end.

Yesterday I resisted the temptation to talk through the fan again, but after standing for a bit to the side of the room, and feeling like we were going to melt into the floor like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, we shamelessly moved directly in front of the fan.  We tried to avoid completely blocking the air currents, in deference to the other people in the room, but the interests of self-preservation in the face of the blazing heat kicked in and overwhelmed our sense of social decorum.  We weren’t the only ones who were repositioning ourselves in relation to the fan, either.  As the gathering went on, people were drawn to the fan’s wind tunnel effect like moths to a flame.

Hitting The Triple Digits

Today the outdoor temperature in Columbus hit the triple digits.  According to the outside thermometer in my car, we got as high as 101 degrees, Fahrenheit.

I was feeling kind of sorry for myself and the rest of the overcooked residents of Ohio’s capital city until I talked to some folks in St. Louis and learned that, there, it was supposed to hit 106 degrees today and 109 degrees tomorrow.  109 degrees!  It sounds like part of a recipe, the setting on a sextant, or a section of the instructions on how to locate a distant galaxy in the evening sky, rather than part of the daily weather report.

I normally don’t really mind hot weather, but when the mercury hits 100 or more the nature of the heat seems to assume an almost physical dimension.  When I stepped out of my car at a gas station this afternoon, the wall of heat hit me like a fist.  When I drove home tonight at about 8:45, with the sun hanging low on the horizon, it was still 95 degrees.  I can’t imagine trying to sleep tonight in a room that isn’t air-conditioned — I don’t care how many fans might be running.

Air Conditioning

According to Wikipedia, the concepts underlying “air conditioning” were known to the ancient Romans, to Chinese dynasties in the centuries before A.D. 1000, and to the medieval Persians and Egyptians. The first modern, electrical air conditioning device was invented in 1902. Air conditioning was common in American hotels and restaurants in the 1960s — I recall, during summer visits to Ocean City, New Jersey during that decade, going to a restaurant that marketed itself with “air conditioned” painted on the front of the building in blue letters, with icicles hanging down — and, currently, virtually every American hotel, shopping mall, fast food outlet, grocery store, and other commercial establishment features powerful air conditioning units capable of cranking the temperature down to meat locker levels. During the summer and early fall months, when the mercury rises and humidity levels are high, many Americans — myself included — have come to rely on air conditioning to allow them to sleep comfortably and live their lives without dissolving into pools of sweat.

So, why are so many establishments in non-American countries so different? During our recent trip to Quebec, when we stayed at an otherwise spectacular hotel, our room air-conditioning unit was a pathetic failure. The only “conditioning” apparently accomplished was to add moisture to the air, and then feebly exhale the still warm, now moist, air into the room. It had about the same effect as someone breathing on you, and each morning I woke up a sweaty mess. Nor do I think our Canadian experience was anomalous. During our terrific trip to Italy, we experienced a number of sleepless nights when the heat and humidity in our rooms was unbearable. This may also be why so many restaurants and cafes overseas emphasize outdoor seating, where there is at least the promise of a breeze and cool shade.

Why can’t other countries be more like America, and recognize the value of air conditioning? If, as France’s high court found, access to the internet is a basic human right, shouldn’t air conditioning also receive that designation? Of course, if something like the recent “climate change” legislation passed by the House of Representatives is enacted into law, America could end up being more like other countries, and the current days of brisk, air conditioned comfort would become a fond but distant memory. To that I say:  Please, Congress — don’t take away my air conditioning!