Making Peace with Air Conditioning

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Once upon a time, America was a very hot place. Very, very hot. This wasn't heat like we have today, which most of us experience only briefly as we hopscotch our way from home to car to office — shrouded at all times in air conditioned comfort. No, this was a very different America, a land where "cooling off" meant sticking your head in a bucket of ice water (and better do it fast, because that ice is melting) or diving into a local lake and then spending the rest of the day picking leeches off your legs.

It may surprise you to learn that we lived in this sticky state until exactly 100 years ago today — July 17, 1902 — the day that Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner.

Carrier was just one year out of Cornell when he presented the world with his brainchild. Today, 80 percent of American homes are air-conditioned, a figure that's even higher in the steamy Southern states and a bit lower in the northernmost climes. And as average temperatures inch upwards and air conditioner prices fall, we're likely to see even more families giving in to Mr. Carrier's siren song. It's the kind of story that makes you proud to be an American — and makes you wonder why the heck you haven't been able to think of anything useful to invent.

A confession: I have what you might call a conflicted relationship with the air conditioner. Growing up, I tormented my parents — devout air conditioning fans — by leaving my bedroom window open on sultry summer nights, preferring the occasional stirrings of hot air to the dry, icy chill of the air pumping through the house. On summer vacations, when we stayed in modern houses with central air, I would close the door to my room and surreptitiously open every window and door, praying that I'd be able to raise the temperature a few degrees before anyone found me out. Even today, there are summer days when the climate in my New York City office plunges to something approximating Arctic conditions, sending me, shivering, to cover up with shawls and wool socks. The disparity between outside and inside temperatures drove me crazy — no one has been able to explain to me why, if it's 95 degrees outside, it must be 55 degrees inside; why not find some happy medium? — until I invested in a space heater. Sometimes it is better to turn up the heat than to sit and curse the cold.

This summer, however, I've finally made peace with Mr. Carrier's invention by purchasing my very first air conditioner. As the resident of a studio apartment at the on the top floor of a five-story walk-up building, and as someone loathe to invest in the very machine that had caused me so much grief in the past, I spent most summer weekends either lying on the floor of the apartment in a pool of my own sweat or desperately devising plans that would keep me out of the building for as long as possible.

This year, I decided I'd had enough. I'm getting too old to bounce back from sleepless nights, another sad by-product of my anti-air conditioner prejudices. So I went out and bought an air conditioner. And since its installation, I feel slightly less grouchy when I wake up in the morning, a little bit better rested. Most of all, I feel a deep and somewhat sheepish sense of gratitude for Mr. Carrier. In the right hands, apparently, the air conditioner can be a powerful force for good.