One of the best inventions ever

It’s been a hot, muggy day. The air outside feels roughly like having one’s head wrapped in a warm and wet towel — only not as pleasant. But here I am, sitting at my desk, feeling nice and comfortable, because of that beautiful invention known as air conditioning.

Oh, it can be abused. I dislike over-chilled offices as much as the next woman (the temperature is set for men in suits: is this the last vestige of the patriarchy?) There are environmental questions, of course, and the existence of AC may be one reason kids spend less than 40 minutes a week in their backyards. But as I ponder the great inventions of human history — the wheel, antibiotics — I’d put AC right up there. Humankind has long been able to light fires and put on an extra blanket. AC is a more recent perk, and yet it’s already enabled all kinds of things:

  • Any semblance of summer productivity. When you’re uncomfortably hot, you’re thinking about your corporal body. Air conditioning lets you ignore your body and think.
  • The livability of the American south. Sure, Alabama’s factory boom probably has a lot to do with being a right-to-work state. But people wouldn’t build factories there if they couldn’t maintain a reasonable temperature.
  • The ability to sleep in hot weather. The trailer I spent Saturday night in had air conditioning, but it was a window unit that basically only covered the living room. I slept in the bedroom, and kept drifting in and out of dreams, tossing and turning in the uncomfortable sweatiness of it all.
  • Malls. If stores were boiling hot, no one would go to them. Who knows how much of our economy is due to the existence of AC?

We often take AC for granted. Sometimes we even disparage it as artificial on breezy days. But for the 4 million plus households that lost power after the June 29 derecho, and then suffered through 100 degree heat, it was a very serious matter. Like our health, we tend not to think about the AC until it’s taken away. All it takes is sticking your head outside on a day like today, though, to be grateful to be living in a country with a mostly functioning electric grid at this point in history.

Photo courtesy flickr user ToddMorris. Better in the central (not window) version.

14 thoughts on “One of the best inventions ever

  1. “The livability of the American south.”
    There’s a section of urban economics that basically proves this to be the case.

    Not that that’s necessarily a good thing.

    1. @N&M – it’s interesting to think if there are competing forces here. The rise of the south, which tends to be more conservative, may push one direction politically. But because Washington DC is livable in the summer now, politicians in the federal government spend more time making laws. That might expand the scope of government — pushing the other direction. Hmmm….

  2. Here in the PNW, hardly anyone has A/C at home, which mostly makes sense except for the week or so we really need it.

    This means we spend some of those HOT HOT days shopping, or at work even if it’s not a work day (which I’m sure work appreciates!).

    I figure you can fix “too cold” but it’s harder to fix “too hot”. So I’m on the overchilled side myself.

    1. @ARC- there was some study done by one of the early air conditioning companies claiming productivity rose by 20+% when offices installed AC. I thought it was because people could concentrate, but that’s an intriguing idea that they spent longer in the office because it was more comfortable than home!

      1. Oh yeah, I’d totally believe it. At some point my company decided to raise the temp outside of standard business hours but changed it back, I think because so many people complained about coming into work on weekends and finding it pretty uncomfortable. Of course, that may be urban legend and maybe they changed it back to protect all the eletronic equipment…

  3. Growing up in the deep dirty south, I agree with this 100%. We live a lot further north now, but still having 100-ish temps lately & we had to ADD a tiny window unit to our 3rd floor bedroom b/c the central air system wasn’t strong enough to cool it below 84 degrees. Sleeping so much better now, the best $100 I ever spent.

      1. We have an *ancient* wall A/C unit in our bedroom that I giggled at when we bought the house, but it has been an absolute blessing for those few days each year we need it (more so when I’m pregnant!). It’s probably hugely energy inefficient but works really well, so we keep it around. We are contemplating the next step when it dies, though – whether to spring for central A/C or just a series of room units, or … It’s so easy to put off the decision after the heat wave has passed, so maybe we’ll never do anything about it 😀

          1. So true! This is the same dilemma we’re having with my 7 year old car. It has no all-wheel-drive, which means for the 2-3 days of snow we get in a year, I can’t drive up our street (or anywhere, really, since Seattle doesn’t have enough snowplows). We think about replacing it, but can’t figure out if it’s really worth it for a few days of inconvenience.

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about AC lately as our home only has 2 wall units and we put in window units as needed in the bedrooms, still it’s hard to keep the house a consistent temp and I feel like I’m using a ton of electricity with the fans and 2 old AC units. I’m wondering if putting in an efficient central AC system would be more cost effective in the long run but the high start up and the duct work costs have been delaying it for us until this record hot summer showed up.
    Interesting post.

  5. Amen! I couldn’t live in Florida without AC…or, to be more accurate, I couldn’t live in FL without AC and not be a snarling lunatic! And it’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity–the AC takes care of that, too. I wish I could have my windows open more often, but it’s just too wet.

  6. On the other hand, our over-reliance on air-conditioning (my opinion as someone who did not grow up with it and whose sinuses have never gotten used to it) goes hand-in-hand with undervaluing and under-utilizing other effective means of keeping cool indoors that would save considerable energy and money if used consistently with or without a/c in the design, construction, and placement of houses (if not skyscrapers), such as shades/blinds, ceiling vans, cross-ventilation from windows you can actually open, shade trees, etc. And on the third hand, I wonder if the pendulum has swung or is starting to swing back the other way in terms of people patronizing businesses in their leisure time as a means of escaping the heat at home, now that most people have a/c at home and spend much more time on home entertainment and online shopping than in going out to be entertained or to shop?

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