It can be hard to believe that air conditioning, as an invention, is less than 100 years old, because it has become such an integral part of modern life. Especially in urban areas. Still, going back through our cultural record, the twentieth century is filled with literary efforts that show how our population viewed this transformative technology and what kinds of changes it brought about on our national (and eventually international) landscape.
Economic Benefits and Population Growth
The fact is that many of the scenes evoked by those literary accounts of the advent of air conditioning whimsically detail the myriad ways in which a much smaller population dealt with heat waves and other extreme summer weather, not just how they recreated. The advent of accessible air conditioning did change many aspects of modern life and design, including architecture, but to this innovation made life in the difficult climates within southern and southwestern the United States easier, so it seems a bit odd, looking back, to see literary giants like Arthur Miller pining away for an age where the summer heat limited opportunities for many people because of the extra effort needed to keep people healthy and productive in extremely hot environments.
For decades, emigration from the south was fueled by a combination of economic and environmental factors, and the two are inextricably linked. In extreme environments, it is more difficult to control manufacturing processes and to maintain a workforce used to fairly long hours, because effective management of that workforce requires a careful balancing of demands on the worker and provisions for the worker’s needs. With the advent of air conditioning, temperatures that would have previously challenged businesses and complicated operations became manageable, and areas of the country that previously saw little economic growth were able to boom.
It is important to note that air conditioning is not a one-sided benefit. There are some health concerns, such as the respiratory effects that transition between hot and cold environments can cause for at-risk individuals. At the same time, though, the general benefit of lowered cardiovascular labor and greatly reduced risk of dehydration through fluid loss have brought benefits to millions of people. During heat waves, like the one that hit Europe in 2003, the discrepancy in deaths between countries with high rates of air conditioning use and those with lower rates is striking, and ranges (depending on other factors) between five- and nearly one-hundred fold.
Other health-related benefits include:
Increased productivity at work
Improved intellectual performance due to reduced stress
Reduced environmental allergens when units are properly maintained
Improved air quality from refiltration
Putting it All Together
With everything that this technology has brought to life in the United States and elsewhere, it is easy to see both how it swiftly spread across the country (and then the world), and also why some people might have been uncomfortable with the rapidity of the change. Like all revolutionary improvements, though, the tangible and material benefits to the health and economic well-being of the population in general has led to many people viewing this not as a luxury, but a requirement for modern urban life.