Summer is officially here! After a late, short Spring it’s been beautiful in Boston, sunny and warm. It’s been so lovely to have the windows open, feel the breeze and hear the birds chatter (the cats, of course, like it too).
But it won’t last. Eventually the heat and humidity will be oppressive. And I dread it. My c. 1900 abode is not equipped with central air conditioning (one of my favorite modern-day inventions). I’ll be making due with a couple of electric fans and a portable AC unit.
But thank goodness I have them!
It must have been brutal back in the day. There was no such thing as dressing down, it was layers upon layers and down to the ankle, no tank tops and shorts! Yikes!
Those of you in the same position as me know the “trying-to-keep-cool” drill:
PHASE 1: OPEN WINDOWS…initially so pleasant…until it becomes…well, less pleasant.
PHASE 2: BRING OUT THE FANS…the more power the better! Whiiiiirrrrrr…a little loud, but it’s great, until the humidity becomes too much.
PHASE 3: HOOK UP THE AC…my portable unit is no Central Air unit, but it’s better than nothing, that’s for sure! It’s also loud. And of course the fans are still going, working now to move the cooler air through the flat. In high summer I’m packin’ a lot of decibels! …sorry, what did you say?
So I’m taking time this first week of summer to give thanks for my climate-altering equipment, and of course to do a little research, to find out who I should thank for these amazing inventions.
THE ELECTRIC FAN
Of course manual fans go back to the dawn of time; any flat, semi-firm item will do. But what genius plugged it in? Dr. Schuyler Skaats Wheeler (1860-1923) of Massachusetts did it in 1882! It was a two-blade table top model.
Never heard of him.
Probably because that same year, Philip H. Diehl created a ceiling fan—much more effective—his invention was a big deal! (No pun intended…wink, wink.) I have totally heard of him! I actually owned one of his gorgeous fans a few years ago; almost 100 years old and it still worked!
Prior to air conditioning, electric fans were everywhere: offices, stores, public spaces, so it was important that they were attractive looking. They were fancier than what we use today; ornate, maybe even made of brass. These high-tech devises were not affordable for the average household until after 1920 or so.
In the 1950s the box fan hit the market. Box fans were made to fit into a window and could either draw cooler air in or force hotter indoor air out.
Thank you Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Diehl!
Those darned Romans were so clever! Of course they figured out a way to cool their rooms: they built channels in the walls that cold water could be pumped through to bring the air temperature down. Of course that only added to the humidity, and for me, abating humidity is critical.
Fast-forward to 1901. Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1960) was contracted by a printing company in Brooklyn, New York to devise a way for them to control the heat and humidity in their plant. (Carrier is certainly a brand that’s stuck…just saw a commercial on tv for his products!)
His solution was to draw the air in the room over refrigeration coils, thereby lowering the temperature and humidity before returning it to the room. He even applied a gauge to the unit so the workers could control the level of cooling.
By 1915 Carrier’s company was marketing AC to large facilities such as the White House, U.S. Capitol and Madison Square Garden. He continued to experiment and improve his product, and by 1922 he was able to offer a product to smaller venues such as movie theatres (which often used their cool environment as a draw), offices and eventually homes.
The home market, however, was curbed significantly by the Great Depression and World War II, but the window air conditioner was introduced to the open arms of the post-war consumer market.
Thank you Mr. Carrier!
How do you stay cool in the heat? How would you do in the summer if you didn’t have AC? Or maybe you go without all summer? Share in the comments!
Craughwell, Thomas J. 2012. 30,000 Years of Inventions: Breakthroughs, Discoveries, and Accidents That Changed Human History. New York, NY. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.
1950s and early ’60s. Baker family. 4 children.
Option One: 1 fan. It was affixed to an adjustable stand so that, as a child, I positioned myself to feel the ‘breeze’ on my face. Low. Medium. High. It could oscillate, too. The impression, in hindsight, is eight-year-old Judy’s imitation of a snake charmer’s python.
Option Two: Put on plays in our cool basement with my sister Kathy.
Option Three: Kathy and I joined friends at the Parks and Recreation swimming pool.
Now? I have central air conditioning but definitely prefer open windows along with a ceiling fan above my bed and above my living room sofa.
Note: There is an unused ceiling fan in the kitchen. Who cooks in the Summer?
Linda Branham says
First bit of humidity and I have the AC running! Too many years without it and having the fans blowing on my face! I can get pretty cranky if it’s too hot and humid! 😉
Christina Branham says
I didn’t even need fans last night! It’s another beautiful (sunny, low humidity) day in Beantown! 🙂
Nancy Bryk says
Don’t forget that double-hung windows were used by many– hot air went out the top of the window and and cooler air flowed in below. Very nice! Love this blog.
Christina Branham says
Thanks for the note on double-hungs–an important innovation. I love the feedback, and I’m so glad you enjoy the blog!
Gregory Metzler says
One fan in the upstairs window sucking air thru the house. I don’t think it did anything. This was in a house with a bath tub with no shower so summer was hot a sticky.