Air conditioning is a hot topic in the nation’s capital. An article in the September 16 Washington Post announced, “The Obama administration is preparing to introduce major steps to phase out production of a popular chemical coolant [R134-a] used in refrigerators and air conditioners, citing growing evidence that the substance is contributing to the warming of the planet.” That story serendipitously coincided with the release of this book, in which the author explores how the current political clamor surrounding air conditioning is just the latest in a long series of passionate responses to artificial cooling that have run parallel to its century-long evolution.
One might assume that a history of air conditioning would necessarily be a dry, academic exercise; but Salvatore Basile makes clear that he is more interested in exploring the nuances of changing societal attitudes toward air conditioning than in “trac[ing] the technical development of” the invention. This will come as a relief to readers more inclined to lively, well-researched nonfiction narratives than scientific manuals. Nevertheless, Basile offers enough information about mechanics to be able to explain cogently, and in layman’s terms, why predecessors to the modern air conditioner were ineffective, and why the invention as we know it today succeeded where its forebears had failed.
His descriptions of these various apparatuses, and some of the seminal buildings in which they were first installed in the first half of the 20th century, are augmented by his inclusion of relevant archival drawings, photographs, and advertisements. These are often accompanied by snarky captions: He writes of the primitive Improved Air Cooling Apparatus as “an instant fix for any hot room—that is, as soon as a waterproof vat was nailed up on a nearby wall to hold ice and a bucket was positioned below to catch the runoff.”
One of the attributes that can make Basile’s prose both entertaining and occasionally trying to read is the exasperated tone with which he relates historical attitudes toward (and responses to) summer heat. He scolds 19th-century physicians for insisting that “perspiration-drenched people never . . . remedy [overheating] by removing any clothing,” and he scoffs at “the lash of Victorian etiquette . . . [that] simply would not admit that there was any such thing as unbearable summertime heat.” Given the nature of such attitudes, the reader is more likely than not to laugh and shake his head in disbelief—as Basile seems to intend him to do. On the other hand, Basile’s disdain for certain archaic social norms might prove grating for anyone who opens the book with the expectation that the author will maintain a (perhaps old-fashioned?) standard of objectivity.
Nevertheless, Basile’s frustration with federal bureaucracy in his discussion of the history of artificial cooling in government buildings will strike a responsive chord among most readers. Throughout a series he entitles “Washington’s Hot Air,” Basile describes the bipartisan squabbling that long delayed air conditioning from being installed in the Capitol and in the White House—and continued even after the technology had been installed. He relates how both the Senate and House established their own committees on ventilation, the latter declaring in 1928 “that, in the previous 35 years, nearly 300 congressional members had died while in office.” While this “statistic was enough to frighten lawmakers into . . . vot[ing] $323,000 for air conditioning to be installed in both the House and Senate chambers,” it did not stop Rep. John Rankin, Democrat of Mississippi, from decrying the newly installed system in highly partisan language: “This is regular Republican atmosphere, and it is enough to kill anybody if it continues.”
One of the best aspects of Basile’s study is that it examines the many institutions that did change—mostly for better, but some for worse—because of the advent of air conditioning. Any reader interested in new forms of media that came to prominence in the 20th century—film, radio, television—may be surprised to find how integral air conditioning proved in creating hospitable environments for the production and consumption of entertainment in these new formats. Radio’s Clicquot Club Eskimos, for example, would “perform, at least when cameras were around, in fur parkas” as a means of promoting Clicquot Club Ginger Ale: “The show . . . was miserably hot business” until the band relocated to the newly renovated NBC studios, where “they . . . were finally able to make music in air-conditioned comfort.”
Thomas Johnson is a writer in Maryland.