Saturday, November 26, 2016

Thank You, Mr. Carrier!

High temperatures across the nation have been mostly above normal this year. Across the South they were downright stifling from Memorial Day through September. That means we should take an even longer moment today to remember and thank Willis Haviland Carrier for his contribution to comfort through an invention we've appreciated for more than a century. In fact, I think it's appropriate to say that Carrier made the South livable in terms of industry, commerce, and housing. Without his genius the region's development in the 20th century would have emerged at a much slower pace if at all.

On this day in 1876, Carrier was born into an old New England family. A few years after graduating from Cornell with an engineering degree, he designed a system of conditioning air - the key was humidity control - 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. 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. For one, his invention made the South a more comfortable and attractive place in which to live and work.

Carrier in 1915

Just how significant was it for the South? One of the most significant books in the historiography of the region, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips's Life and Labor in the Old South, begins with these words:

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, was 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, Southerners must deal with the heat. From an environmental perspective, air conditioning made the South livable and workable year round. Carrier's invention not only improved productivity but also attracted a multitude of new industries. Today, we take this livelihood and comfort for granted across the nation giving it attention only when it's either time to change the filter or repair a compressor.

Carrier posing with a 1922 model chiller

For more information on the impact of air conditioning check out these sites:

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