The History of Air Conditioning in Southern California


Cold enough for you…?

… Didn’t ask for anyone living in our hot and sizzling places. Not until the 1950s and 1960s, anyway, when air conditioning changed our lives and living spaces almost as much as electric light and running water.

Air conditioning is such a standard of our standard of living now that, swirling as you can be right now through that cool, soft air, you might not even think about it – until the electric bill rolls in. .

And yet, where would you be without AC? Maybe not alive here at all.

In 1975, LIFE magazine listed 100 events that changed the nation. One of them was the Louisiana Purchase. One of them was the atomic bomb. And one of them was the invention in 1902 of modern air conditioning.

Air conditioning not only changed the interior – allowing us to “fool the atmospheric whims of Mother Nature” as another issue of LIFE magazine put it in 1944 – but it also changed the exterior, our public landscapes. .

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Southern California and parts of the American Southwest exist as they do today – populated and prosperous – mainly because AC made them OK. If this epic 1962 movie “How the West Won” had ever told the true story of what won the West, it would have featured air conditioning installers, not gunmen.

AC is so large that it has its own museum: the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Museum, in a building just below downtown LA that is also a corporate headquarters and training center for air conditioning and related trades. The museum is expected to reopen its remodeled auto next month. It will always feature “Old Chiller,” the nearly century-old air conditioning system – green as a sea serpent and almost as big – that once cooled the air in the Huntington Library.

Willis Carrier, an engineer whose last name appears on several million AC units, had no intention of becoming a sweaty benefactor of humanity when he invented modern air conditioning in 1902. He was solving a problem. problem in a New York printing house that had to control humidity to prevent its four-color printing from working during the sweltering season.

In 20 years, AC was a big business – literally a big deal: cooling skyscrapers, office buildings, hospitals, department stores and huge theaters. Long-haul trains fought over passengers by lying on air-conditioned cars. The need to keep these systems clean was clearly established in 1976, the country’s bicentennial year. An outbreak of a strange disease at a hotel hosting American Legion conventioneers left 182 people sick and 29 of them died. The cause was a bacteria that was growing in the cooling tower of the hotel’s air conditioning system. Bacterial disease is known as Legionnaires’ disease.

Three months after Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1933, the nation learned that “the Roosevelt family are going to be comfortable even if they have to stay in Washington in the summer.” Air conditioners were installed in five rooms: FDR’s bedroom, his office, Eleanor’s bedroom (separate bedrooms, very high-end), their daughter’s bedroom, and that of FDR’s indispensable advisor, Louis Howe. .

It’s a good thing the films have been silent for as long as they have been because, before AC’s arrival, the noise of paper fans in the summer audience would have drowned out the dialogue. Then, in 1923, the TCL Metropolitan Theater opened in downtown Los Angeles, perhaps the first “air-cooled” cinema system in the country, almost certainly in the West. In 1925, Carrier installed AC in the Rivoli Theater in Manhattan. The air conditioning came to the cinema just in time to keep the audience quiet enough to hear the talkies.

Once you start looking for AC stories, you can’t stop. HVAC engineers created a web page highlighting the implausibilities of duct systems in movies like “Die Hard.” Fans remember the 1955 Marilyn Monroe film “The Seven Year Itch” for its skirts swirling over a subway gate, but the film’s plot revolves around New York City in August and the seduction by the air conditioner.

For an auto mad nation, it follows that the AC car was one of the earliest uses by consumers. The Packard 1940 was obviously the first of this luxurious “factory air” range. In 1944, a “futuristic” story from The Times predicted that every car of the future would have a dashboard radiotelephone (right), be air-conditioned (again), and cost $ 400 (two out of three; I would take that in Vegas) .

For a very long time, home air conditioning usually meant a loud box mounted in a sash window. The central air was still unusual enough that in July 1937, B-picture actress Joan Woodbury got one of her rare Times mentions for installing air conditioning in her home.

1956 newspaper ad for Rigoletto Village in Woodland Hills.  Outlets included very large lots and optional air conditioning.

A 1956 advertisement for a subdivision in Woodland Hills states that air conditioning is “optional at an additional cost.”

(Los Angeles Times Archives)

World War II depleted raw materials that could have gone to AC, but peacetime suburban spending made up for that. Just change the numbers and neighborhoods, and literally dozens of Times real estate stories read like this, from September 1965: “Some 165 refrigerated air conditioning units have been installed in the $ 12 million community of 565 Sunshine Homes-Newhall homes. “

From mid-century to the turn of the century, Americans followed air conditioning. The Sun Belt came to claim 40% of the country’s population.

Steven Johnson, in his book “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World,” remarkably but not implausibly argues that California Governor Ronald Reagan may have become president in part because of air conditioning: air conditioning otherwise makes inhospitable areas from Arizona to Florida habitable year-round, which has led “most conservative retirees” to move south and west, and take their popular and electoral votes with them. .

Central air conditioning was still something new and expensive enough that after WWII the VA reassured veterans that they wouldn’t have to pay larger down payments on their new homes if they added the air conditioner.

In September 1961, when Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter Pitchess begged for money for air conditioning in his new prison – the cooler air makes prisoners more manageable – he made sure to l ‘call it “air control,” and the supervisory board was so reluctant to get excited. voters who might not take advantage of “air traffic control” at home referred it to a committee for further study.

Yet it is an icy wind that blows quite well:

  • Decades of air conditioners have blasted the environment and the atmosphere by releasing CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that damage the ozone layer. There are several types, and their production and import here has been phased out, but many older AC units can still use old stock to keep them running.
  • Global demand for air conditioning is rising in step with global temperatures, which means increased pressure on the energy grid – on fossil fuels like petroleum and coal, as well as on cleaner energy. Between 2019 and 2060, the demand for electricity in Los Angeles could increase by 50%.
  • A famous piece of AC lore is that during the energy crisis of the early 1970s, Richard Nixon – the only president born in California – walked into the Lincoln living room in the White House, or into his hidden office in the Executive Office. Building, turn on the air conditioning fully, whatever the season, and take a seat in front of a crackling fire in the fireplace. The author of a book on the Nixon administration’s redecorating program wrote that “the fires seemed to comfort him.”
  • Fifteen years ago, The Times reported that less than half of the homes within LA city limits had air conditioning. The numbers are higher now, but older homes and especially older apartments are less likely to have air conditioning. Energy poverty is a reality. Cold air and hot air cost money. Residents of the freezing east and midwest might use heat sparingly due to utility bills, and overheated Californians do the same. People who are probably used to air conditioning, if they have it, are older, poorer, and colored.
August 15, 1895, LA Times article, headline

An 1895 Los Angeles Times broadcast implies that you can strum your lute under an arbor all summer. These days you will probably need at least one window air conditioning unit.

(Los Angeles Times Archives)

In the 1920s, many homes in Los Angeles had porches for sleeping, porches, and screened decks for a cool night’s sleep. Temperatures were still fairly moderate then, even taking into account the All Year Club propaganda hubbub. It was expensive promotional prep to get winter visitors to come and spend their money in Los Angeles the other eight or nine months of the year as well, intimidating them with come-ons like this, there. is 100 years old: “Sleeping under a blanket every night all summer in Southern California.

Plain and Simple: Yes, “it’s now a lot hotter than it was in Los Angeles and the southern California coast more generally. This is from Daniel L. Swain. He is a climatologist at UCLA and a Californian climatologist at Nature Conservancy.

“The number of uncomfortable hot days has increased dramatically over the past century, but especially in recent decades, due to climate change. On top of that, we generate a kind of feedback loop with urban heat islands, especially “since WWII, when the city’s footprint and the extent of cobblestone areas have exploded over the decades. . These two elements together – climate change and the city’s propensity to ‘keep warm’ via the heat island effect – have led to more uncomfortable temperatures most of the time, ”and sometimes even at night, in case you are thinking of making a sleeping porch of your own.

It has a nicely comical sound, but the word “coolth” is a real word. This means, of course, the opposite of “heat”, and its peak was in the medieval climate era known as the “Little Ice Age”.

And if you’ve read all of this, you now know the birth of “coolth” – and the scarcity of coolth.

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