The New York Times Reviews COOL

What Would We Do Without It?
A Look at Our Love Affair With Air-Conditioning
by Sam Roberts | NYT Bookshelf
SEPT. 19, 2014

With summer just about officially over, we can dispassionately explore what the world was like a little more than a century ago, before Willis Carrier installed his “apparatus for treating air” in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, printing plant.

“I live in New York, a city that doesn’t exist without air-conditioning,” Salvatore Basile writes in “Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything” (Fordham University Press).

To Americans, New York is a Northern city, but in his breezily anecdotal book, Mr. Basile reminds readers that we practically share a latitude with Madrid, if not the siestas. The heat could be brutal, particularly when 5,000 ceiling fans, while the largest such installation in the world, were all that cooled the city’s subway cars.

Air-conditioning was not just about comfort.

It triggered a cultural and demographic revolution.

It made windowless offices, work and retail spaces and entertainment venues possible (and also permitted the introduction of heat-generating computers).

It also diminished street life.

And beyond New York, it made living in the Sun Belt bearable, shifting not only jobs and population there, but also political power.

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What Would We Do Without It? A Look at Our Love Affair With Air-Conditioning by Sam Roberts | NYT Bookshelf SEPT. 19, 2014 With summer just about officially over, we can dispassionately explore what the world was like a little … Full Story

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LA Times: 10 Surprising Air-conditioning Facts from COOL

BY CAROLYN KELLOGG
September 12, 2014

The easiest way to beat the heat this weekend may be to turn on your air conditioning. But the road to being able to flip a switch to cool down your house was not so simple. As author Salvatore Basile explains in his new book “Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything,” the path to easy, affordable ways to cool down took a path through ice, ammonia, fans, pipes, blowers, coils and more. Here are some surprising things you probably don’t know about air conditioning.

1. If you go to a movie to beat the heat this weekend, you’re not the first. In fact, major advances in air-conditioning technology began in 1917, when theater owners wanted to fill seats during sweltering summers. With no home air conditioning, people flocked to movie theaters, whose advertisements featured lettering dripping with icicles.

2. In 1736, the English House of Commons was cooled by a seven-foot, hand-cranked “blowing wheel.” The man at the crank was known as the Ventilator.

3. An ice-making machine was patented as early as 1851, but American ice interests, which had a network that stored and transported lake ice from cold regions, managed to quash it.

4. A variety of machine cooling systems were developed, but they were slow to catch on. In 1891, a St. Louis company transformed a beer hall and restaurant into an “Ice Palace.” Chilled by refrigeration, painted with murals of a polar expedition, it displayed frost-coated pipes spelling out the prorprietor’s name to passers-by. Those who left the 90-degree temperatures outside for the 70 degrees inside considered it merely a pleasant oddity.

5. An unnamed California millionaire was the first to try cooling an entire room in his home mechanically, in 1892. It was only 6 feet by 9 feet and required a false wall to conceal machinery, more of which was located on the roof. (Could it have been William Randolph Hearst? That’s my guess).

6. Two early successful ventilation systems were installed in 1899 in Cornell’s dissecting rooms (for the cadavers) and 1903, at the New York Stock Exchange (for the stockbrokers).

7. Willis Haviland Carrier, whose patents and ideas created the first widely popular factory-scale coolers, was so absorbed in creating his air conditioner that he once left for a business trip with a large suitcase in which he had packed nothing but a handkerchief.

8. The first fully air-conditioned residence was built in Minneapolis in 1913 by Charles “Spend-a-Million” Gates, heir to a barbed-wire fortune. The mansion, taking up three city lots, also boasted gold plumbing and a ballroom, but Gates never got to experience it: He died while on a hunting trip before the house was finished.

9. The first U.S. president to enjoy an air-conditioned Oval Office was Herbert Hoover, who spent $30,000 on the system just months after the stock market crash of 1929.

10. If you tried to buy an in-window air-conditioning unit in the 1940s, you’d spend about about $350 in 1940s money, which in today’s dollars is almost $3,500.

FULL ARTICLE

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BY CAROLYN KELLOGG September 12, 2014 The easiest way to beat the heat this weekend may be to turn on your air conditioning. But the road to being able to flip a switch to cool down your house was not … Full Story

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Air Conditioning Appreciation Day!

By Salvatore Basile

This week—August 15, to be exact—celebrates the climax of Air Conditioning Appreciation Days, a month-long tribute to the wonderful technology that has made summer heat a little more bearable for millions of people. Census figures tell us that nine out of ten Americans have central air conditioning, or a window unit, or more than one, in our homes; in our cars, it’s nearly universal. Go to any hardware or home goods store and you’ll see a pile of boxes containing no-fuss machines in a whole range of sizes, amazingly affordable, plop-’em-in-the-window-and-plug-’em-in-and-you’re-done. Not only do we appreciate the air conditioner, but we appreciate how easy it is to become air conditioned.

When it comes to coolth, we’ve come a long way. But in earlier times, it was nowhere near as simple for ordinary citizens to get summertime comfort.

One of the first cooling contraptions offered to the public showed up around 1865, the brainchild of inventor Azel S. Lyman: Lyman’s Air Purifier. This consisted of a tall, bulky cabinet that formed the headboard of a bed, divided into various levels that held ice to cool the air, unslaked lime to absorb humidity, and charcoal to absorb “minute particles of decomposing animal and vegetable matter” as well as “disgusting gases.” Relying on the principle that hot air rises and cool air sinks, air would (theoretically) enter the cabinet under its own power, rise to encounter the ice, be dried by the lime, purified by the charcoal, and finally ejected—directly onto the pillow of the sleeper—“as pure and exhilarating as was ever breathed upon the heights of Oregon.” Lyman announced this marvel in Scientific American, and in the same issue ran an advertisement looking for salesmen. Somehow the Air Purifier didn’t take off.

More interesting to homeowners was the device that showed up in 1882, the electric fan. Until then, fans were powered by water or steam, usually intended for public buildings rather than homes, and most of them tended to circulate air lazily. But the electric model was quite different, with blades that revolved at 2,000 rpm—“as rapidly as a buzz saw,” observed one wag, and for years they were nicknamed “buzz” fans. They were some of the very first electrically powered appliances available for sale. They were also exorbitant, costing $20 (in modern terms, about $475). But that didn’t stop the era’s big spenders from seizing upon them eagerly. Delighted reviewers of the electric fan claimed that it was “warranted to lower the temperature of a room from ninety-five to sixty degrees in a few minutes” and that its effect was “like going into a cool grove.”

The fan combined with ice around the turn of the century, producing an eight-foot-tall metal object that its inventor called “The NEVO, or COLD AIR STOVE.” The principle was simple: air entered through a small pipe at the top, was pulled by a fan through the NEVO’s body—which had to be stuffed daily with 250 pounds of ice and salt to provide the cooling—and would then be discharged out an opening at the bottom. “It dries, washes, and purifies the air.” As the NEVO had more in common with a gigantic ice cream freezer than with actual temperature control, and the smallest NEVO cost $80 (nowadays, $1,700) and cost $100 per season (over $2,000) to operate, it didn’t get far.

By this time, a young engineer named Willis Carrier had developed a mechanical system that could actually cool the air and dry it, the Apparatus for Treating Air. But this was machinery of the Giant Economy Size, and used only in factories. In 1914, one wealthy gent asked Carrier to install a system in his new forty-bedroom Minneapolis home, and indeed the system was the same type that “a small factory” would use. Unfortunately, this proud homeowner died before the house was completed, and historians speculate that the machinery was never even turned on.

It wasn’t until 1929 that Frigidaire announced the first home air conditioner, the Frigidaire Room Cooler. This wasn’t in any way a lightweight portable. The Room Cooler consisted of a four-foot-tall metal cabinet, weighing 200 pounds, that had to be connected by pipes to a separate 400-pound compressor (“may be located in the basement, or any convenient location”). And it cost $800, in those days the same as a Pontiac roadster. While newspaper and magazine articles regarded the Room Cooler as a hot-weather miracle, the price (along with the setup requirements) meant that its customers came almost solely from the ranks of the rich, or businesses with cash to burn. Then fate intervened only months after the Room Cooler’s introduction when the stock market crashed, leaving very little cash for anyone to burn. Home air conditioning would have to wait until the country climbed back from the Depression.

Actually, it waited until the end of World War II, when the postwar housing boom prompted brand-new homeowners to fill their houses with the latest comforts. Along with television, air conditioning was at the top of the wish list. And at last, the timing was right; manufacturers were able to offer central cooling, as well as window units, at affordable prices. The compressor in the backyard, or the metal posterior droning out the window, became bona fide status symbols. By 1953, sales topped a million units—and the country never looked back.

Appreciation? Of course. And perhaps, adoration.

To read more about Salvator Basile’s latest book, COOL: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything visit FACEBOOK and www.fordhampress.com.

By Salvatore Basile This week—August 15, to be exact—celebrates the climax of Air Conditioning Appreciation Days, a month-long tribute to the wonderful technology that has made summer heat a little more bearable for millions of people. Census figures tell us … Full Story

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New York Times Review of Italoamericana

Bookshelf
By SAM ROBERTS

Not enough time and too much bulk might have prevented Mayor Bill de Blasio from taking his copy of “Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943” (Fordham University Press) with him on vacation to Italy. (For wimps, there is a Kindle edition.)

Even if you’re not Italian, summer would be an ideal time to repeatedly dip into this kaleidoscopic, thousand-page anthology of memoirs, poetry, political commentary and newspaper excerpts, only now translated into English after being published in Italian in 2005.

Edited by Francesco Durante, an Italian journalist (he describes New York as the most densely populated Italian city after Naples) and faithfully executed by a team of translators, the selections recall what Robert Viscusi, editor of the American edition, describes as “a century of displacement and universal loss.”

Included are an interview with Al (“Public service is my motto”) Capone and an eyewitness account of an Italian immigrant shining a black man’s shoes, “a duet that reawakened in me an entire symphony of pity and bitterness,” a repulsed Italian visitor wrote home.

The collection is not encyclopedic. Nor is it all incandescent literature. Rather, as Mr. Viscusi writes, it represents “the dawn of legible memory for the English-speaking people who now call themselves Italian-Americans” — the point at which “they abandoned the Italian language as their primary means of verbal expression.”

Recounting first-generation immigrant life in “the American colony,” the selections don’t shy away from scabrous subjects, like prejudice, exploitation of women, criminal conduct or radicalism.

And they shed light on a question posed two decades ago by Gay Talese: “Where are the Italian-American writers?”

The scribes introduced in “Italoamericana” migrated from a nation itself only a few decades old. Many were from a region, Mr. Talese wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1993, that for thousands of years had been conquered and reconquered, producing “an implicit history of caution” and “a people united in the fear of being found out.”

Go to: NYT Bookshelf

Bookshelf By SAM ROBERTS Not enough time and too much bulk might have prevented Mayor Bill de Blasio from taking his copy of “Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943” (Fordham University Press) with him on vacation to Italy. … Full Story

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An Air Conditioner? No, a Lightning Rod.

Those who love celebrations, note—July 17 marks the birthday of air conditioning.  To recap the story, it was 112 years ago that young engineer Willis Carrier unveiled the plans for his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” a contraption that was designed to lower the humidity in a Brooklyn printing plant.  There was a bonus; with some tinkering, it could cool the air, too.  “Wonderful invention,” says a perpetually overheated acquaintance.  “Too bad that it’s become so controversial nowadays.”

          Nowadays?  Nah.  A/C has always been controversial.

          Even in the 1840s, when a Florida physician and amateur engineer built a machine that actually produced cold air—and for his pains, was publicly labeled a “crank” and his machine “a cock-and-bull story,” and died in frustrated misery—the mere notion of monkeying around with the indoor atmosphere was enough to drive some people frantic with rage.  Part of it is the fact that no one wants to be told what constitutes comfort.  The other part is that, as Americans, we love a good fight.  And no Americans love a fight more than politicians.  So it’s only logical that our national history is strewn with tales of public servants who have seized upon air conditioning, or anything like it, as a political tool. 

          Just before the Civil War, the U.S. Capitol underwent remodeling, including brand-new houses of Congress.  In a radical move for the time, the Senate Chamber and House of Representatives were windowless, the only ventilation coming from steam-driven fans that pushed air up through floor registers.  The result was so suffocatingly unsuccessful that one journal called it “the worst that human ingenuity could devise,” congressmen took to using the registers as spittoons, and for the rest of the century the floors were repeatedly ripped up as engineers tried for more airflow.  In the 1880s the electric fan appeared; at the time it was an exorbitant item that cost nearly $500 in modern money, was picked up enthusiastically by the era’s Early Adopters, sneered at by newspaper writers who felt it was high-falutin’, and used as a political club to beat those unfortunate officials who might purchase one (one Arkansas candidate thunderously accused another of buying a fan “at the State’s expense, to fan himself with, not being content to use a palm leaf like ordinary people”). 

          William Howard Taft loathed Washington’s heat, but with the national press looking on, the best cooling device he could get consisted of fans blowing over racks of ice in the White House attic.  It did so little that he wound up hosting one state dinner on the roof of the West Wing.  When Woodrow Wilson attempted to use the same system, an article ran describing Wilson as “enjoying himself in his cool office while members of Congress and other officials, to say nothing of common citizens, who paid the taxes, had to take pot-luck with the thermometer standing above 100 degrees”—and a humiliated Wilson had the equipment torn out.  It wasn’t till the late 1920s, when A/C hit movie theaters and swept the country, that an image-conscious Congress allowed its Houses to be air conditioned.  Nonetheless, when Herbert Hoover had a system installed in the Oval Office there were accusatory screams that he might go so far as to cool the White House.  (He didn’t.)  Later, there was LBJ’s office, which by his request was so thoroughly chilled that he could “freeze oranges on his desk”; Richard Nixon’s study, cool enough in midsummer that he could have a nightly roaring fire . . .

          By the 1970s, A/C was commonplace, so worldwide energy shortages and rising costs guaranteed that the narrative would turn from its fat-cat indulgence to its expense.  Jimmy Carter tried to set an example of conservation, ordering Federal buildings to set thermostats to 80 degrees; in response, one Federal judge set his own courtroom ten degrees lower, and made sure reporters knew it.  Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof.  They were removed by Ronald Reagan.  Replaced by George W. Bush.  Added to by Barack Obama. 

          Nowadays, we’ve finally arrived at the point that “green” is—for most people—a compliment.  And air conditioning itself is criticized, even in Washington, as a wasteful technology that gobbles energy and depletes the atmosphere. 

          Some commentators insist the solution is to severely curtail, even end, its use.  A rash judgment, even if it makes for good copy.  Aside from the fact that most buildings don’t have working windows (the Houses of Congress among them), and would become decidedly stuffy in the summer, there is the inescapable fact that temperatures are climbing each year.  Something is needed against heat. 

          That original machinery of 1902 unquestionably needs reworking to fit today’s environment.  But even now, there are alternative systems being perfected; some of them are usable today.  One of these, or more than one, will show up in large-size commercial form, then will shrink in size and price for home use.  After that, the air conditioner as we know it will be an outmoded curio.

          Mr. Carrier, a forward-thinking man, would likely approve.

SALVATORE BASILE was educated at the Boston Conservatory and The Juilliard School and began his career as a professional musician. After penning various music-related articles, he entered the field of social commentary with his history Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Fordham). His forthcoming book, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything (Fordham).

 

 

Those who love celebrations, note—July 17 marks the birthday of air conditioning.  To recap the story, it was 112 years ago that young engineer Willis Carrier unveiled the plans for his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” a contraption that was designed … Full Story

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