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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 593-595

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Book Review

Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960

Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960. By Gail Cooper. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Pp. x+227; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $35.

In May 1999 the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., mounted a temporary exhibition that resonated among the residents of the nation's capital when record-breaking temperatures hit in midsummer. Curated by Donald Albrecht and Chrysantha B. Broikos, Stay Cool focused on the history of air conditioning. According to the museum, this "defining technology of modern times" was nothing less than spectacular; it had midwived the rise of great cities filled with breathtaking skyscrapers and ushered in the postwar economic redevelopment of the South. To those who scurried from one climate-controlled building to another in Washington's triple-digit temperatures--including reporters from National Public Radio who featured Stay Cool in a news spot--the museum's sweeping claims about the miracles of air-conditioning made a lot of sense.

In her history of the controlled environment, Gail Cooper approaches the subject of air-conditioning with no less verve while at the same time tempering her enthusiasm. Drawing on archival research, Cooper does more than present broad generalizations about the wonders of mechanical cooling. Using trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, she considers a technology that went through several stages of development before triumphing at midcentury. Cooper demonstrates exactly how we have come to rely on manmade weather, that is, the complex, energy-intensive systems and smaller individual units that regulate the heat and humidity in public and private spaces. [End Page 593]

As a historian concerned with the social history of technology, Cooper understands technical advancement to be the outcome of complex negotiations among interest groups. In her story, members of competing factions--engineers, contractors, builders, and consumers--had greater control or influence over the emerging technology at various times. At the turn of the century, the engineers' authority reigned supreme; after World War II, developers and builders usurped power from these technocrats. While producers battled each other, consumers lurked in the background. A silent majority, these users ultimately exerted enormous influence as they decided which type of air-conditioning to adopt for their personal spaces. Only through the deliberations among these actors did air-conditioning emerge as a mature technology, a tool of comfort and convenience that transformed daily life in the twentieth century.

The brainchild of the engineering profession, the first air conditioners were custom-built installations modeled after successful heating and ventilating systems. The use of freezing systems by Chicago meat packers inspired engineers to envision wider applications for refrigeration. Three early-twentieth-century engineers--Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer, and Willis Carrier--led the charge to cool off America's offices and factories, pressing forward with designs that aimed to achieve a balance between heat and humidity. The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, insurance companies, a few private residences, and, eventually, southern textile mills. As experimental versions of the new technology entered the marketplace, three competing interest groups--engineers, managers, and workers--struggled over who would decide whether, when, and how to use the customized systems. During the Progressive Era, reform-minded educators, concerned with children's health, initiated mandates for proper ventilation in schools. In cities and towns across the country, engineers used schools as a proving ground for perfecting climate control.

The design hegemony of the engineers was fractured during the interwar years, as an alternative technology challenged the dominance of custom-built systems. During the 1920s, air-conditioning captured the popular imagination when movie theaters installed mechanical cooling to lure audiences on a year-round basis. As the public learned about cooled air, competitors began to envision massive household sales. In the 1930s, mass producers attempted to create a residential market with the introduction of portable window units. Thwarted by the depression, the portable air conditioner, still relatively expensive, remained largely a pipe...


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