Most of the United States is unpleasantly hot for at least part of the year. Much of it is unbearably so. The result is that one of the defining technologies of modern America is the air conditioning unit. As this article by Rebecca J. Rosen in the Atlantic explains it has underpined some very fundamental changes in American life:
In the 1920s, innovations made air conditioning units smaller and safer (older versions had used a toxic coolant). During the Depression, few places could afford to install the systems, but one venue saw returns on such an investment: movie theaters. The air conditioning in theaters became an attraction in itself, and people flocked to them. Not coincidentally, what many consider Hollywood’s Golden Age began around the same time.
It was during the postwar period that air conditioning arrived en masse in American homes, with more than one million units sold in 1953. The machines were heavily promoted by two key industries. Air conditioning served the needs of homebuilders eager to build huge numbers of cheap houses and utilities were only too happy to keep ramping up electricity sales to the burgeoning suburbs. AC for cars became a status symbol, too, so much so that some people without it supposedly drove around with their windows up in 100 degree heat to give an impression otherwise. The suburban American dream was built on the sweat of air conditioners.
Many of the central changes in our society since World War II would not have been possible were air conditioning not keeping our homes and workplaces cool. Florida, Southern California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico all experienced above-average growth during the latter half of the 20th century — hard to imagine without air conditioning. In fact, the Sunbelt’s share of the nation’s populations exploded from 28 percent in 1950 to 40 percent in 2000. And hubs of business and technology in hot regions of the globe, such as Dubai, may never have taken off.
Computers throw off a lot of heat, too. The development of the entire IT industry might not have happened without cooling technologies first pioneered by air conditioning.
The advent of air conditioning has shaped our homes and family life as well. Houses are designed not for ventilation but for central cooling systems. Porches, where they exist, are relics of another age, and few new homes include them. Families gather inside, in the comfort of 72-degree living rooms, to watch TV. Would television have even gained its central place in American family life, were the rooms from which we watch it not so enjoyably cool?
Another article from the Atlantic claims that without air-conditioning Miami, Phoenix, Tampa, Orlando, Las Vega and San Antonio would be unlikely to exist in anything like their present form. They are all in extremely hot areas and prior to the advent of AC only a few thousand people were prepared to endure those temperatures. However, since then they experienced explosive growth that has raised their population to many times what it was before. None of them now has less than a million residents.
In 2006, sociologists at Ohio State and Western Washington University teamed up with a professor and a doctoral student in health studies at the University of Chicago to analyze the infamous 1995 Chicago heat wave, which resulted in over 500 heat-related deaths over five days. Like other studies, this one found that lower-income neighborhoods saw higher mortality rates, but with an additional explanation. The authors noted that neighborhoods with “commercial decline” (broadly speaking, a less vibrant business community) were even more closely correlated with high mortality rates. (Other factors often linked to low-income neighborhoods–higher crime rates, for example–did not correlate as strongly with the mortality rates.) Because many victims of the heat were elderly, the writers suggested that, in neighborhoods with more businesses, elderly suffering from the heat were more likely to leave their apartment and go into a nearby business and use their central air to cool off. Without such stores, they were more likely to stay in their apartments and suffer from the heat.