The Social Impact of Air Conditioning in the United States
April 18, 2011 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I've been thinking about the social impact of relatively mundane technologies, like air conditioning, largely because of a brief mention by Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants. He says something along the lines of, "cheap air conditioning transformed the American southeast." So I'm looking for scholarly sources that discuss the transformative power of air conditioning on american culture.

Also, I'm curious about how and why europe doesn't have air conditioning to the same extent that the U.S. does. Is it because the entire continent was devastated by WWII? The lack of cheap energy? Or are some other cultural forces at work?

And no, I'm not writing a paper on this, and I hope this isn't too "chatfilter."
posted by mecran01 to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Also, I'm curious about how and why europe doesn't have air conditioning to the same extent that the U.S. does.

One major reason is that Europe is much more temperate than the US. Note that there's basically no red and very little orange in Europe, whereas roughly 1/3rd of the continental US is red or orange.

As for the social impact in the US: air conditioning was a major draw for people to go to movies in the summer, which no doubt helped the expansion of the US movie industry.
posted by jedicus at 11:46 AM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

It transformed that Southeast because because could live there comfortably, so they (partly because of this) moved there.)
posted by sandmanwv at 11:48 AM on April 18, 2011

Well for lots of Northern Europe it just isn't hot enough, the UK only has about 35 days a year when AC would be needed to achieve a comfortable temperature. In the UK, pretty much all commercial buildings do have AC, while very few residential buildings do. There is low uptake in the residential sector in pretty much all non-Mediterranean countries. Some countries on the med do have a fair amount of AC, usually mobile units, but governments tend not to keep separate data for these and so it is difficult to say exactly what share of residences have AC or not.
posted by biffa at 11:54 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part of it may be that Europe's climate isn't quite as sweltering for quite as long. There's a big part of Florida was basically uninhabitable--and basically uninhabited--until the introduction of cheap air conditioning. I mean, really, take a look at Florida's demographics. The population has increased by a factor of ten since 1940. The population of the United States has only increased by a factor of about two and a half. Air conditioning was invented in about 1900, but really only commercially available with the invention of Freon in 1928.*

By contrast, the southern-most parts of continental Europe are hundreds of miles north of Florida. More like Virginia. Which has its hot and humid days, to be sure, but nothing like Orlando or Lake Wales. For example, the average July high in Orlando is 92F, but in Rome it's only 86F. Which is still warm, but not oppressively so. But Germany? Germany is north of Maine, and it's only the Gulf Stream which keeps its climate from being more like Newfoundland's. As it is, it's more like Pennsylvania, where air conditioning is common, but not ubiquitous.

As far as scholarly sources, I think Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 is exactly what the doctor ordered.

*Before that all the refrigerants were toxic and/or flammable substances like ammonia and propane. Tough sell for homeowners.
posted by valkyryn at 11:54 AM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Part of the OMA book "The Harvard Guide to Shopping," co-produced by the Harvard School of Design and Rem Koolhaas, is about the impact of modern high volume air conditioning systems on shopping spaces.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:59 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Air conditioning also drove people indoors - a different kind of transformation. Life became less social, more isolated, when neighbors were no longer congregating on porches in the summertime.
posted by valeries at 12:12 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, this is all great, thank you. So excited to come back to this thread and get all this tasty information. I can pretend I'm at a real university and have my own research assistants! You are wonderful and smart people!
posted by mecran01 at 12:13 PM on April 18, 2011

See also: Where have all the porches gone? and this comment in particular.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:14 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here's a 1963 Time article about the role of air conditioning in the growth of Houston.
posted by neroli at 12:15 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

At one level or another, air conditioning has affected nearly every aspect of southern life. But it has not changed everything. Although climate control has done its best to homogenize the nation and eliminate regional consciousness, the South remains a land apart—a land that still owes much of its distinctiveness to climatic forces. Of course, how long this will remain so is an open question. Perhaps, as it has done so often in the past, the southerner's special devotion to regional and local traditions will ensure the survival of southern folk culture. But this time it will not be easy: General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman.
Raymond Arsenault, "The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture" (Journal of Southern History, Nov. 1984)
posted by RogerB at 12:32 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Life became less social, more isolated, when neighbors were no longer congregating on porches in the summertime.

To some extent though air conditioning moved them from porches to movie theaters. Movie theaters were some of the early adopters of air conditioning technology and on hot summer nights would advertise they had "ICE COLD AIR" as much as what was plying that night.
posted by Captain_Science at 12:37 PM on April 18, 2011

The Right Nation by Economist writers/editors Woolridge and Micklethwait cites air conditioning as one of the factors that drove elite northeasterners - including, critically, George HW and Barbara Bush - to Texas and the south. They don't expand on this greatly, but the reference is there.
posted by hiteleven at 12:46 PM on April 18, 2011

One other thing keeping Europe from needing A/C as much is that in the warmer countries with Mediterranean climates, summers are typically drier, so you don't have the additional comfort factor of humidity. Humidity control is a big part of what makes A/C "cool" in humid climates like the American southeast.
posted by clerestory at 1:00 PM on April 18, 2011

There was a recent New Yorker article on the Jevons Paradox that might be of interest. Refrigeration and air-conditioning are two specific examples used to illustrate the paradox that increases in efficiency often don't lead to decreases in energy use - quite the contrary, actually.

Home A/C is also frequently credited with kicking off the modern population boom in the Southwest (water projects being another huge factor).

There's also a great NOVA program on the history of cold and refrigeration, Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold. It's available (for now) on Google Video.
posted by unmake at 1:14 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're ever in Apalachicola, FL, you can go to the Gorrie Museum which honors a doctor who developed a primitive cooling system to help save yellow fever patients. They have displays and information on how much it sucked to live in Florida before AC and the life-saving role of AC.
posted by parkerjackson at 1:21 PM on April 18, 2011

Reading up on Glenn Murcutt, or at lest commentary on his work, will probably give you all the data you could want.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2011

Another possible source of info I remembering hearing about on Marketplace: Stan Cox's book, Losing Our Cool Article link
posted by five_dollars at 6:44 PM on April 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all, these are fantastic.
posted by mecran01 at 7:13 PM on April 18, 2011

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