(163): Cool Air — Growing Up in Florida Without Air Conditioning, Mostly

This is not an air conditioner. It is actually a Tesla coil. But it looks cool, and I couldn’t find a picture of an antique air conditioner. Image from Wikipedia (scanned by Andy Dingley).

About a decade ago, I paid a visit to my stepmother and her second husband; they lived in the home I grew up in back in the 1970’s and early 80’s. (She got the house in the divorce from my father). But anyway, neither one of them was particularly well-off, even though both worked. As a result, they never upgraded the house, which was an early 1950’s vintage, to central heat and air. Since this was central Florida, we didn’t really need central heat. But you’d think it would be impossible to get by in this subtropical state without air conditioning, wouldn’t you? When my family moved into the house in the mid-1970’s, there was one wall unit air conditioner, and that was in the master bedroom, somewhere I almost never went. The rest of the house was cooled by fans (all the box variety, as it didn’t have ceiling fans).

In 1981, we finally got a living room wall unit, and I was ecstatic! I made excuses to be in the living room during the day, because it was just so luxurious. But I was ok in my bedroom for the most part. All I had in there was a fan, and, most relevantly, a huge overhanging shade tree outside. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that shade tree is probably what made it possible to survive in my bedroom during the insanely hot Florida summers. When I visited around 10 years ago, the tree had been cut down. It was apparently dead and presented a danger of falling on the roof, so it had to go. I noticed that my old bedroom was now fitted with a window air conditioner that ran nonstop. Even then, it was hard to cool.

The other luxury that I think played a part in my father originally deciding to buy the house was a swimming pool, modest-sized but so refreshing! When I wasn’t in the living room during the day (or at school), I was in that pool. I used that pool more often than anyone else in the family I think. I also maintained it. I imagine I could have survived in Florida without the pool, but having it made summer so much more comfortable.

I wonder if the folks who built the house back in the 50’s put the pool in as a hedge against the heat, since air conditioning was just starting to become widespread in residential homes and it might not have been an option at building time. The state of homes even in the early 1950’s makes me wonder how it must have been back in the 1920’s or before, when air refrigeration was less reliable and less widespread.

It puts me in mind of an old short story written by H.P. Lovecraft entitled “Cool Air.” The title is significant, for one of the main features of the story is an air refrigeration unit which must keep a man’s apartment at a very low temperature, or else there was danger of, er, spoilage, so to speak. It’s a great story, if rather revolting in some details. The air conditioning unit uses ammonia, probably an application of Michael Faraday’s original concept of compressing and liquefying ammonia and then allowing it to evaporate. The story is set in 1923, so I imagine AC units were quite a lot less reliable than in the modern day, and a whole lot less common.

From “Cool Air”:

“Nevertheless, as I saw Dr. Muñoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify. Only his lividly inclined complexion and coldness of touch could have afforded a physical basis for this feeling, and even these things should have been excusable considering the man’s known invalidism. It might, too, have been the singular cold that alienated me; for such chilliness was abnormal on so hot a day, and the abnormal always excites aversion, distrust, and fear.”

Imagine being struck with aversion, distrust, and fear just from meeting a fellow who has air conditioning in his flat! That alone ought to tell you how uncommon such a thing was back then. I’m so glad it is commonplace and more reliable these days, although it seems that every time mine has gone out, it has been on a sweltering day, usually a national holiday when nothing was open. But that’s another story. ‘Night y’all!

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