Friday, November 27, 2015

Willis Carrier: Mister Cool

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips's Life and Labor of the Old South, published in 1929, is one of the most significant books on the history and geography of the American South. Although it's rarely found on reading lists beyond historiography classes these days, it's opening paragraph is still a defining statement about the region:

Let us begin by discussing the weather, for that has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive.
.  .  .

The summers are not merely long, but bakingly hot, with temperatures ranging rather steadily in the eighties and nineties of the Fahrenheit scale.

The early 20th century single story Southern home, with its high-roof, wrap-around porch, and traditional "dog trot" breezeway, is a vernacular response to that baking heat. Homes of this type can still be found throughout the South, in fact, contemporary construction in the region often incorporates its features in vestigial form. But what has made the South so popular these days? I believes, in particular, the natural climate remains a significant draw, especially now that the social and political climate of the New South welcomes all Americans. Still, all Southerners must deal with the heat. And that brings us to the significance of Willis Carrier, an American inventor who made the South tolerable during the long, hot summers.

On November 26, 1876, a son, Willis H. Carrier, was born into an old New England family. By the turn of the century, Carrier developed a system of conditioning air in a stiflingly hot and humid Brooklyn printing plant. The new environment ensured stability in the paper and the perfect alignment of four-color printing. It was soon a huge success in several industries. By the 1920s, air conditioning became popular in retail trade and entertainment, especially the movie theater. It was a small jump from commercial systems to home systems, and by the 1930s, air conditioning began a slow but steady increase in usage until the post World War II era when it boomed. Carrier's application would have far reaching impacts on the American experience.

Willis Carrier in 1915

From an environmental perspective air conditioning made the South livable year round. One could work hard outside on a mid-summer Georgia day and find comfort in an air conditioned break at work and a cool, comfortable supper and evening at home. Today we take this comfort for granted, hardly giving it the time of day in the South unless a compressor dies.

If you call the South "home," take a moment today to thank Willis for his contribution, an invention you're going to appreciate perhaps as early as April of 2016 when the heat and humidity begin the steady increase to "bakingly" unbearable levels in the Southern summer.

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