The Cool Century

The chain reaction started by ammonia gas a hundred years ago has made a sea-change in our world. Whether air conditioning is really for the best remains to be seen.
During the sweltering summer of 1901, the employees of Brooklyn's Sackett-Wilhelms printing plant had trouble turning out copies of the popular political magazine Judge. In the heat and humidity, paper swelled, colors ran, and inks refused to align on the page. Fed up with these profit-killing glitches, the company's executives commissioned a device that would keep their plant at constant temperature and humidity. The machine they got weighed thirty tons and ran on ammonia gas. Installed in 1902, it cooled with the power of a hundred thousand pounds of ice and could do so day after day.

Compared with modern machines, however, that first air conditioner was a wimp. Industrial compressors now have the cooling power of small glaciers, absorbing hot air at the bracing rate of 20 million pounds of icemelt in a single day. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the mechanized air cooler, a device that has changed the American landscape. Freed from the vagaries of weather, people stopped fleeing the swamps of Louisiana and Florida. Architects began designing houses that had picture windows instead of porches. And life in a variety of sealed spaces -- high-rises, submarines, airports, space capsules -- suddenly became possible.

But there are reasons that AC's centennial year is not necessarily a cause for celebration. For years, air conditioners used chlorofluorocarbons, which had a nasty habit of escaping and chewing through the ozone. And while 73 percent of U.S. households are now AC-equipped, the machines are terribly inefficient. Half the energy it takes to run them is lost to heat. Generating all that power releases incredible amounts of carbon dioxide, the most scurrilous of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

In his last days in office, former president Bill Clinton signed a bill that mandated a 30 percent improvement in air conditioner efficiency by 2006 -- but, just shy of AC's official birthday, the Bush administration rolled back the new standard, lowering it to 20 percent. It seems the politics of cool proceed by increments rather than revolutions. In the meantime, there's always the porch.

Jennifer Kahn is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, CA.

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