Summary: An synopsis of the engineering behind air conditioning, arguably the most important machinery to many people around the world.
Imagine a student, sitting in class. He stayed up until 1 a.m. finishing a very confusing lab assignment he still doesn't understand and can't help but doze off while the teacher is talking. The teacher notices the droopy eyes mid-lecture and walks to the all-powerful device known as the air conditioner. With a flick of a hand, the air conditioner roars to life, blowing out so much cold air it slaps the poor student into full consciousness. The student can not help but wonder who invented such a powerful and machine and how so much cold air can be blown into such a large room.
The man behind the air conditioner is Willis H. Carrier, father of the modern air conditioner. His moment of discovery came while working for a publishing company in Brooklyn. His job was develop a machine to help control the heat and humidity, which was causing problems in printing correct colors. Carrier's solution to this problem was the air conditioner, which was able to control the humidity, as well as the temperature in the room. His invention introduced the use of air conditioners worldwide.
Basically, an air conditioner is like a refrigerator. It uses the evaporation of a refrigerant, such as Freon, into a gas. An air conditioner has two sets of coils, one for the hot Freon gas and the other for the cool Freon gas. Usually in a school's air conditioning system, the hot gas coils are outside in a condensing unit, while the cool gas coils are inside the building. A compressor compresses the cool gas into hot gas, which passes through the coils and cools into a liquid. This liquid runs through a valve (known as an expansion valve), which turns the liquid into cold gas. The cold gas passes through the second set of coils which allows the Freon gas to absorb the heat and cool the air inside the building.
|This section contains 327 words|
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
For much of this week, New York, along with the eastern half of the U.S., has been caught up in an unstoppable heat wave. At times like this, it’s hard not to imagine the worst-case scenario. What if, in an apocalyptic turn of events, the world’s air-conditioners just stopped working? What would we do then?
The New Yorker’s archive offers a window into the pre-air-conditioning world. It was, it turns out, wholly survivable; it may even have had good qualities. In a Comment on July 1, 1961, Niccolo Tucci explained how, without air-conditioning, your open windows let you snoop on your neighbors, who, “apparently unaware of the change in the season, go on fighting their private winterfights. You come in at the end of the first set, but you can reconstruct what went on day after day under cover of snow”—the same way that, nowadays, you can start with season two on Netflix. In “Before Air-Conditioning,” from June 11, 2011, the poet Frederick Seidel pointed out another benefit of throwing the windows open: “It’s the smell of laundry on the line / And the smell of the sea, brisk iodine.”
Air-conditioning has reversed the polarity of summer: it has us fleeing inside during hot weather, while we used to flee outside, which might have been more fun, and was certainly more social. Arthur Miller’s “Before Air-Conditioning,” from June 22, 1998—probably the definitive New Yorker essay on this subject—describes the way New Yorkers would flock together out-of-doors. During his childhood, Miller writes, in the twenties, “There were still elevated trains … along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues, and many of the cars were wooden, with windows that opened. … [D]esperate people, unable to endure their apartments, would simply pay a nickel and ride around aimlessly for a couple of hours to cool off.” At night, Central Park was full of “hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.” It was still hot in the park, and it was crowded, but the openness of the space made the heat easier to bear. In “Summer Night,” from September 7, 1935, Morris Markey explained one reason the Park felt cooler: “the lighted towers which rim the Park seemed to thrust their peaks into cool atmospheres.”
The advent and spread of air-conditioning, meanwhile, put into relief the habits of the pre-air-conditioning era. In a Comment from July 4, 1959, A. J. Liebling lamented how “the dodges for coping with the heat that New Yorkers learned in three centuries of summer have become superfluous, and in some cases hazardous. The long drink is an irrelevancy; if you arrive in a bar, after a few steps in the street, longing for a Tom Collins, half a minute of the temperature inside influences you to change to a hot toddy. Cold foods lose their charm as quickly; at the first blast of frozen air, the customer decides to stick to steak.” Liebling, like many people, was struck by the perversity of air-conditioning, which ensures that your winning summer outfit is also “a ringside ticket to the pneumonia ward.” New York buildings, he complained, were now “twenty degrees colder in summer than in winter, when they are adapted to the needs of a woman who is going to shed a mink coat the moment she gets inside, and is wearing nothing much underneath it.” In a Comment on June 30, 1962, Donald Malcolm even went so far as to argue that we’re using air-conditioners backwards. “They are, in summer, a mistake,” he wrote. “The correct time to reach for the switch is at the very end of winter. Then the occupants of innumerable apartments and office buildings, weary and befuddled after a long season of overheated quarters, might find relief in the cooling gusts of the machine. At the same time, the simultaneous operation of all the city’s air-conditioners would unquestionably raise the outside temperature by some degrees, hastening the coming of spring, the budding of trees, the blooming of tulips.”
Earlier this summer, Matt Buchanan wrote about the invention and eventual perfection of air-conditioning technology; nowadays, air-conditioners are cheap and pervasive. And yet there are still summer days like these—days when it’s so hot that the heat is almost all you can think about. “It’s just too hot right now to do much of anything,” Susan Orlean writes, in “Hot Flashes,” from August 7, 1995—“so what should you do?” You can try to talk about the heat, or about heat-related questions (“What are the health risks in eating nonfat frozen yogurt for more than two of your three daily meals?”). Or, failing that, you can give in to what Orleans calls “heat-induced dumbness.” “This is a good moment to visit with friends who are smarter than you,” she suggests, “because the heat makes everyone stupid.”