When you ask people what technologies they can't live without, they typically name cars, the Internet, and indoor plumbing as essentials to living comfortably. But after suffering through relentless heatwaves this summer, we're ready to rank air conditioning as our most indispensable luxury. While central air is less historically significant than the aforementioned technologies, we can't imagine living, working, and sweating through mid-July without ducking into buildings chilled to Arctic temperatures.
Despite the ubiquity of air conditioning, less than a century has passed since people dealt with summer temperatures the old-fashioned way: by sipping mint juleps out on the porch. Out of curiosity, we glanced through a few summer issues in our archives to find a number of gadgets that, however strange, managed to work far better than even the iciest summer cocktail.
Up until the early 1940s, we put our faith in rudimentary window units and space coolers more than in central air. The prospect of changing a room's temperature with the flip of a switch was so novel, we could only refer to it with glamorous terms like "manufactured weather" and "climate to order." In addition to watching scientists experiment with so-called weather factories, we recommended a space cooler that would replicate mountain weather by blowing incoming air through a gentle spray of water. A few years later, we looked at supplementary air conditioning units that reversed the effects of a built-in furnace. After that, we studied how air conditioning could stimulate productivity in workplaces, which included gold mines in South Africa.
If you couldn't afford fancy appliances, however, you could always place a block of ice in front of an electric fan. Or you could replace your curtains with wet towels. Central air was inevitable, but in the meantime, you could paint your house white and douse your window shrubbery with cold water while waiting for the technology to become affordable.
Feeling thankful for your window unit yet? Turn down the thermostat, bust out a few popsicles, and click through our gallery to see more technologies leading up to the development of our modern-day air conditioners.
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