The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955
The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955

17 Historical Reactions to Air Conditioning

The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955
The Pittsburgh Press - Jul 5, 1955

On July 17, 1902, Willis Haviland Carrier finished drawing up plans for what is today considered the first modern air conditioning system. It was installed in a printing business in Brooklyn in 1903, and in 1906, Carrier patented a refined version, called “Apparatus for Treating Air.” By 1936, Carrier predicted that in the future, "the average businessman will rise, pleasantly refreshed, having slept in an air-conditioned room, he will travel in an air-conditioned train, and toil in an air-conditioned office, store, or factory—or dine in an air-conditioned restaurant. In fact, the only time he will know anything about heat waves or arctic blasts will be when he exposes himself to the natural discomforts of out-of-doors."

Though Carrier is often called the father of air conditioning, his system wasn’t the first system—and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Here’s what people thought of “colderizing,” "air chilling," “mechanical weather,” and being “cooled by refrigeration” in its early days.

1. “Some Crank in Florida”

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When Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, Florida, was treating victims of yellow fever in the 1840s, he cooled his infirmary using a mthod that involved hanging a pan of ice from the ceiling. But eventually, his supply of ice ran out. Gorrie began tinkering, and in 1851, he received a patent for a refrigerating machine that made both ice and cool air. Unfortunately, the reception to his device was anything but warm, thanks in part to the Northern Ice Lobby, which made money by shipping ice down south in the summer. Gorrie was roundly mocked in the media. “There is Dr. Gorrie, a crank down in Apalachicola, Florida, that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty,” The New York Globe crowed. The same year he obtained his patent, Gorrie’s financial backer died, and the artificial ice machine did, too.

2. “Struck with Wonder”

But by the 20th century, the world was ready for air conditioning. Though it had been installed in the new New York Stock Exchange building in 1903 by Alfred R. Wolff, A/C had its public debut in 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair in the Missouri Building. The official Fair book noted that “a refrigeration plant installed in the basement has the capacity to reduce the temperature in the building to 70 degrees even when the mercury may be in the 90s outside.” According to the November 1904 issue of Ice and Refrigeration Magazine, “Visitors, not aware that the building was artificially cooled, were struck with wonder and were unable to account for the very perceptible change felt in the temperatures.”

3. “Exclaims with Delight”

Movie theaters were among the first businesses to install air conditioning. In 1922, Willis Haviland Carrier installed his system in Sid Grauman’s Metropolitain Theater, which advertised its new system by saying that the theaters were “cool as a mountain top—the ice system does it … it’s always fair weather inside.” Then, in 1924, Carrier outfitted the Palace Theater in Dallas. Owner Will Horwitz gave the system a glowing review, writing “The cooling plant is revolutionizing picture show attendance in Houston. Each patron exclaims with delight when he gets inside the doorway. The plant is working perfectly. Our engineer says he has nothing to do on the job but loaf” [PDF].

4. “Yes, the People Are Going to Like It”

In 1925, Carrier installed his system in New York City’s Rivoli Theater, which heavily advertised its new toy. According to Margaret Ingels in Willis Carrier: Father of Air Conditioning, here’s how Carrier described the night later:

Long before the doors opened, people lined up at the box office—curious about 'cool comfort' as offered by the managers. It was like a World Series crowd waiting for bleacher seats. They were not only curious, but skeptical—all of the women and some of the men had fans—a standard accessory of that day.

It takes time to pull down the temperature in a quickly filled theater on a hot day, and a still longer time for a packed house. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. Only a few chronic fanners persisted, but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them 'cold' and breathed a great sigh of relief. We then went into the lobby and waited for Mr. Zukor [the president of Paramount Pictures] to come downstairs. When he saw us, he did not wait for us to ask his opinion. He said tersely, “Yes, the people are going to like it.”

The Rivoli made $100,000 more that summer than it had the previous one

5. “An Actual Relief”

In a June 1925 article, a writer for the New York Times visited the Colony Theater and wrote, “When we entered … the other afternoon, we noticed, as we did at other theaters, the change in temperature, which was an actual relief. It was so comfortable that one dreaded going on into the hot sun.”

6. “The Naturally Pure Air of the Mountains”

When one Florida theater installed a refrigeration plant in September 1926, the St. Petersburg Times said that a visit “imparts the same physical exhilaration that you feel after a two-hour vacation in the naturally pure air of the mountains … now the theatre is a haven of comfort and pleasure, a place to be sought rather than avoided, regardless of the atmospheric conditions outside.”

7.“Many Compliments”

One of the first department stores to install air conditioning was Detroit's JL Hudson's in the summer of 1926. According to Marsha E. Ackerman in Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning, Hudson's advertised that visitors could "shop in comfort. Pure fresh cool air makes shopping in the basement store a pleasure. On warm days it's 8 to 12 degrees colder in the basement store than street temperature." The building superintendent told Carrier that the store was "15 to 25 degrees cooler than outside ... we have received many compliments on the air condition in our store." A decade later, the store sent a testimonial to Carrier via telegram: "As the first large users of air-conditioning we have never regretted installation. Effect on business has been good beyond question."

8. “This is Not a Fairy Story”

In 1928, the St. Petersburg Times looked toward the future of air conditioning—the home. Giddily, the newspaper wrote,

"Press the button, John! And turn on the cold. This room is too warm to be comfortable," will say the wives of Johns all over the country some day. And John will push the button and in a few minutes the room will be comfortable. This is not a fairy story. It is a picture of a future modern home, electrically refrigerated … If you are astounded at this thought, reflect a few moments. The primitive caves of our ancestors were crude protection from the weather. Our forefathers later fashioned walls and a covering roof. Out of these attempts, over a period of time, has evolved the modern home, not only protecting those within it from the forces of nature, but actually harnessing these forces to serve those within the home. Think of it! Heat when you want it and as long as you want it. Running water. Electric lights. Electric labor-saving devices of all types, and then the newest development in the electrical field, electric refrigeration.

9. “This is regular Republican atmosphere”

In 1928, after complaints about the lack of fresh air in the Capitol building, air conditioning was installed and operational by the beginning of the next session. To quell the fears of Senators who were unaccustomed to cool air inside, fliers were posted that explained that "the sensation of chill experienced upon entering the Senate Chamber is due principally to the dryness of the air causing the evaporation of the slight amount of moisture of the skin. After the completion of this evaporation the body will be perfectly comfortable, for the actual difference in temperature between the inside and outside air is very small. No fear may be felt by the occupants of the Senate Chamber from the conditions produced by this new system of ventilation and air conditioning.”

Though the air undoubtedly increased comfort in the chambers, some still complained that it was too cold. According to Cool Comfort, John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi lodged the first complaint on May 28, 1929, saying "the atmosphere is too cool in this room. On yesterday it was 75 by thermometer ... and 91 degrees on the outside. Fifteen or twenty degrees difference is too much ... This is regular Republican atmosphere, and it is enough to kill anybody if it continues." His declaration was met with applause.

10. “Every Day Inside is a Fine Day”

Many publications covered A/C, and how it worked, with glee. In an April 1932 article, Popular Science noted that, “With complete air conditioning apparatus in the home, broiling August sun will mean as little as piercing January cold; every day inside is a fine day!”

11. "Just As Clean When Ready to Leave the Train"

In the early '30s, according to Cool Comfort, railroad companies began equipping their cars with air conditioning. Carrier employee L. Logan Lewis tested out an air conditioned car in 1932 and wrote to his aunt that "I am completely sold on air-conditioning for passenger trains. I was comfortable at all times and felt just as clean when ready to leave the train as when I entered it in Lexington, Kentucky."

12. "The President did not like air-conditioning"

Carrier installed an air conditioning system in the White House for Herbert Hoover in 1929, and replaced that unit with a better one in 1934, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. But FDR was no fan: In a memo, Carrier employee Logan Lewis wrote that the president "had a strong dislike of air-conditioning and never hesitated to say so. The outspoken comments that he frequently made to the press gave the installation some pretty bad publicity." In 1952, speechwriter Samuel I. Rosenman recalled that "The President did not like air-conditioning. It seemed to affect his sinuses. He did not even use an electric fan ...; he never seemed to mind the heat ... at least he seldom turned the air conditioning on."

13. “Almost at the ‘touch of a button’”

Self-contained air conditioning units for the home finally debuted in the 1930s. In a 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics, the magazine described the machine: “Compact and so low in height that it fits below the window sill of the average home or office, a self-contained air-conditioning unit is ready for the market … Almost at the ‘touch of a button,’ it is possible to have the air cooled, dehumidified, circulated and filtered.”

14. “Doggone Cool”

Carrier took its A/C systems—including home units—to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The company’s “Igloo of Tomorrow,” attended by Mr. Carrier and some snow bunnies scooping manufactured slush, opened on April 25, 1939; outside, the weather was 90 degrees, but inside, it was a delightful 70 degrees. As a visitor to the fair wrote in the Miami News a month later, “It’s always doggone cool in the Carrier igloo.” 

Boy’s Life magazine noted that “a manufacturer of air-conditioning equipment has a building resembling a huge Eskimo igloo, with a scintillating aurora borealis playing over the snow-white dome of the structure.” By 1940, people could literally cool their heels there. According to the Nevada Daily Mail, 

Holding out promise of a cure for the blight of last year’s fairgoers—"Fairground Feet"—this foot-cooling device called the "Cold Dog Stand," has been installed at the Carrier Igloo of Tomorrow, air conditioning exhibit at the 1940 New York World’s Fair, for the comfort of walk-weary visitors. Pretty Eunice Healey, Broadway musical comedy star, finds the gadget a real treat after roaming about the grounds. Cool air is circulated by means of suction fans under the comfortable foot panels at a velocity of 300 feet per minute, creating a feeling of "walking on air." A miniature air conditioning system under the hood cools and conditions air for the machine.

15. "The greatest contribution to civilization"

In 1947, British scholar S.F. Markham declared that "The greatest contribution to civilization in this century may well be air-conditioning—and America leads the way." In 1953, Fortune wrote "The rump of a room conditioner bulging out of the window is becoming as unexclusive a social symbol as the television aerial overhead."

16. "The Men Leave on Their Coats"

According to Cool Comfort, in 1954, both House Beautiful and House & Home magazines published the results of a survey of well-to-do Dallas and Houston residents about air conditioning in their homes. "When we have a party now, the men leave on their coats," one said. "We run our machine 24 hours a day," said another. "It costs us much less than we'd thought, and we save part of the cost in fewer restaurant bills." A Texas pediatrician declared that "there is no doubt that air-conditioning is better for children," while one woman noted that "The movies and the automobile broke up family life, but television and air-conditioning are bringing families together again."

17. “My Tips Are Bigger”

The first air conditioned cars debuted in the 1930s, and by the mid-’50s, most cars were equipped with it. In a 1958 issue of the New Yorker, the talk of the town section—written by M. Pittman and John Updike—recounted a cabbie who “readily confessed” that he used to hate hacking:

In the summer, it was a nightmare. Now I look forward to a day’s work; I can hardly wait to get out of the apartment. No more noise. No more dirt. No more heat. It makes you feel—you know—different, almost distinguished. You’d be surprised how many people see the blue sticker saying ‘air-conditioned’ on the window and stop me and ask just to be drive around awhile, to cool off. I figure business has improved twenty-five percent since I got my unit in. On top of that, my tips are bigger.

The hack concluded that "In about five years, all the cabs will have air-conditioning. It’s going to be real big business, real big."

Additional reporting by Roger Cormier and Arthur Holland Michel.

Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.

Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.

Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
National WWII Museum Launches a European Tour Tracing the 'Band of Brothers' Path
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Thanks to Stephen E. Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries of the same name, the story of "Easy" Company of the United States Army is among the most famous to come out of the Second World War. Now WWII buffs have a whole new way to experience that chapter in history: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is offering a 13-day European excursion that traces the company's footsteps from Britain to Nazi Germany.

Easy Company suffered from one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. company during World War II. They landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

All of those highlights are covered in the WWII Museum's tour called "Easy Company: England to the Eagle's Nest." The museum was founded by Ambrose, and the new tour gives guests an intimate look at the sites mentioned in his book. During the excursion, tour members will be treated to commentary from museum historians and guest appearances from the actors who portrayed Easy Company soldiers in the miniseries. Admission to historical sites at each stop, as well as meals, transportation, and accommodations, is included in the price.

The next available tour starts September 9, with tickets costing $8490 for single guests and $6495 for each guest traveling as a couple. And if you're looking for another book-related escape for your next vacation, Rail Europe's literary tour of the continent may suit your tastes.


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