Air conditioning was invented 110 years ago and, boy, has it changed the world - both for the good and not so good.
According to Energy.gov, two-thirds of American homes now have air conditioning. Many have only had it the past 30 or 40 years. And when the heat and humidity hit, folks disappear into their homes faster than you can say “isolated.”
But before air conditioning, the heat drove us outside and brought us together. Friends sought the shade of trees or a refreshing dip in a lake or river. In the evening, neighbors sat on front porches, sipping lemonade and telling stories. At night, folks slept in groups at the park or, in Washington, D.C., along the banks of the rivers.
Homes used to have high ceilings, cross ventilation and large hallways to dissipate heat. Now we live in efficient ranches or over-designed suburban monstrosities that put the porch in the back and the garage in the front.
Even in the 1970s, when I was a kid in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, few homes had air conditioning. Our windows were always open. At night, you could hear neighbors talking, a distant baby crying and Pirates announcer Bob Prince calling a game on somebody’s porch radio: “He missed it by a gnat’s eyelash!”
In the mornings, we’d wake early to the sound of chirping birds. I could smell the cool dew outside my window and the toast and scrambled eggs my father was cooking up for breakfast in the kitchen.
Air conditioning has eliminated such simple experiences. Most neighborhoods are sealed up tighter than Fort Knox all summer long. Now, all you hear outside is the constant hum of air conditioning motors kicking on and off.
Years ago, before my time, commercial buildings used to have windows that opened, but you don’t see that anymore. Today’s glass-plated buildings are designed to keep the light and air out, so that we are oblivious to whatever season it may be.
Nor do we see the small, adjustable “wing” windows on cars that caused the air to whip around inside the cabin on hot days. If any manufacturer comes back with adjustable windows like that again, I’m buying that car.
Then again, air conditioning has improved life for millions. It made it possible for lots of people to move south - possible to endure the super-hot southern air - and Southern cities have boomed. Sure, there is still debate about the extent to which air conditioning may have an effect on the climate, but the fact is, the South has benefitted majorly from it.
Air conditioning has improved life for the elderly and others with respiratory problems - and for anyone who works in an office building all day long. Our work productivity has been vastly improved by consistently cool air.
Then again, I remember the hottest summer day I experienced when I lived in Washington. It was the Fourth of July and thousands of us were dripping with sweat on the National Mall.
We sang the national anthem together and it was a moving event. We watched the fireworks go off above the Washington Monument and it was magnificent. It was wonderful to be together in the heat with so many others.
But as soon as the last of the fireworks exploded, most people fled to their air-conditioned cars and homes and went quickly back into isolation.
Sure, I put my car windows down for a spell and drove down the George Washington Parkway, enjoying the hot summer air.
But as soon as I got home, I cranked up the AC and slept like a baby.
Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!” is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com