"How hot is it?" "It's so hot that the...


July 24, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"BOY, IS IT HOT!" "How hot is it?" "It's so hot that the president has a standing order for five tons of ice a day."

Actually, that's an old joke, about the White House in the summer of 1881, where residential air conditioning was (more or less) born.

President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, three months after taking office. Doctors felt his recovery was hampered by the swampy heat and humidity of the Washington summer. Imaginative engineers rigged up a device which sucked hot air in from outdoors, blew it over melting salted ice into a duct that led to the president's sick room.

He died, but the invention was a success. It lowered the temperature in his room 20 degrees and kept it cool for 58 days, at a consumption of over 500,000 pounds of ice.

Twenty-two years later, Willis ("it's not the heat, it's the humidity") Carrier built the first air conditioning system for a whole building -- a plant in Brooklyn -- and the precondition for modern times was accomplished. By 1914, Carrier had air conditioned whole residences and, in the 1920s, office buildings, movie houses and so forth.

A truly historic event occurred in 1928. The House of Representatives was air conditioned. The next year the Senate was. A physician had testified that the foul air in the Capitol "impaired the mental faculties" of members of Congress. Air condition the place, he said, and the quality of legislation will go up.

Mental faculties stayed the same. All that went up was the quantity of legislation. Before a.c., members of Congress often went home to stay in June or early July. Now they never go home, and the number of laws they inflict on us has soared.

President Herbert Hoover installed real air conditioning in the White House in the winter of 1929-30, to prepare for the heat he foresaw. The heat he got was not the kind a.c. could do anything about, however -- political not climatological -- and he was booted out of the White House in 1932.

(Not to be outdone by its co-equal branches, the Supreme Court air conditioned its chambers in 1931, even though it always adjourns from early summer till October.)

Air conditioning took off after World War II, with the mass manufacture of widow units and other technological developments that allowed every middle class home, every skyscraper office and many other workplaces to be chilled.

Thanks to what Carrier and a few other American inventors wrought, computers, which have to be kept cool, proliferated and changed the world. (Also, Houston and Phoenix became habitable. There's a down side to everything!)

About 15 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. goes to space cooling. On days like yesterday in this part of the country, a third or more goes to cooling you off.

Burning the fossil fuel to produce this much electricity is a prime cause of the global warming that creates a need for ever-more air conditioning. God is an ironist.

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