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Addicted to air conditioning
July 23, 2012
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by Ivan Raconteur

I had a dream the other night in which I was trapped in an episode of the 1960s television series, “Gentle Ben.”

It all started when I returned from a pilgrimage to the land of my forefathers and discovered that the central air conditioning unit at the bachelor pad had succumbed to exhaustion brought on by the recent heat wave.

Now, heat is a fine thing, up to a point. I have spent many a frigid winter’s morn wishing for warmer weather, but too much of a good thing can be bad.

I am a large man, and on a hot day, I can work up a pretty good sweat just sitting still and thinking too vigorously. So, when the air conditioner went on strike and the heat index was off the chart, it didn’t take many trips back and forth unloading the mobile command vehicle to generate a certain level of discomfort.

When I walked into the bachelor pad, I experienced a sensation not unlike that which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego must have felt when they entered the accommodations that old Nebuchadnezzar prepared for them.

One notable difference, however, was that there was nothing dry about this heat. The air was as moist as Lake Okeechobee in the rainy season.

I am too large to fit in the freezer, and it would have taken too much work to remove enough beverages for me to squeeze into the refrigerator, so there was no good way for me to keep cool.

After positioning it directly in the path of a gale generated by the box fan, I parked myself in the La-Z-Boy with a beaker of limeade at my side.

Some say when the weather gets really hot, a fan doesn’t help a person stay cool. Blowing hot air on someone works like a convection oven, and it makes a person warmer, not cooler.

Still, I was past caring, and the fan at least gave the illusion of making it easier to breathe. I sat there quietly perspiring, trying to think cool thoughts and wishing for winter.

After awhile, I took a cold pack out of the freezer and draped that over my melon. It seemed to help, but when it came into contact with my hot head, the condensation turned to steam and actually increased the humidity in the room.

I eventually drifted into a fitful slumber. I suppose it was the relentless heat and the roar of the fan that reminded me of “Gentle Ben.” On the show, Dennis Weaver played a park ranger who seemed to spend most of his time buzzing around the Everglades on an airboat.

An airboat is a sort of flat-bottomed craft propelled by an aircraft propeller driven by an aircraft engine. It is steered by the use of vertical rudders that deflect the air stream generated by the giant propeller.

I awakened to find myself in a tropical environment with none of the benefits of an island paradise. There were no sea breezes, white sand beaches, drinks with little paper umbrellas, or girls in grass skirts and coconut bras. There was only the intense heat and enough humidity to make one feel as lethargic and droopy as a used dish towel.

It is days like this that make one appreciate the work of Willis Haviland Carrier. He was a visionary who didn’t simply loaf around wishing he could bring a touch of winter to a steamy environment – he figured out how to do it.

A year after graduating from Cornell University in 1901, Carrier developed and patented the first modern air conditioner. His invention kept people comfortable, and provided the kind of controlled climate needed in some industrial settings.

Carrier’s “Apparatus for Treating Air” (patent #808,897) provided a mechanical means to control both temperature and humidity. The technology he developed is still the basis of the air conditioning industry.

He and his company developed air conditioning systems for business, industry, and other applications. He installed the world’s first residential air conditioning system in a home in Minneapolis in 1914.

While we celebrate the work of Carrier and his colleagues, one can’t help wonder if we have become too dependent on artificial climate control.

In less than a century, air conditioners have become an indispensable part of modern living. It is difficult to imagine what life would be like without them, even in northern climates.

Not long ago, residential air conditioning was still fairly uncommon, and air conditioning in automobiles was rare.

We are reminded, in cases such as my recent tropical adventure when we are deprived of air conditioning, just how dependent on it we have become.

My grandparents never had air conditioning in their homes or cars, but I wouldn’t want to be without it.

In a short time (in historical terms) we have lost some of our ability to adapt to our environment.

There is no doubt air conditioning has increased our comfort and productivity, but one wonders if it has also made us weaker and softer. Our ancestors were able to adapt to a wider variety of conditions than we are. Will future generations be even less adaptable?

I grew up without air conditioning, and I never thought much about it. Today, however, if I am forced to endure extreme heat and humidity without air conditioning, I quickly become lethargic and find it difficult to concentrate.

I can’t help wondering if the invention that has done so much good for us has also narrowed the range of conditions under which we can operate without artificial controls.


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