Gail Cooper. Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment 1900-1960. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. x + 229 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-5716-4.
Reviewed by David Kinkela (Department of History, New York University)
Published on H-Urban (March, 2000)
Gail Cooper's book, Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, describes what one might call a hotly contested history of cool indoor air. The book explores the ways in which producers and consumers of cool conditioned air defined its use while also trying to determine who controlled and maintained the indoor environment. Cooper writes, "Two distinct traditions [emerged] in the deployment of air conditioning. One is the choice of design professionals, engineers, and architects, who favor[ed] a controlled and rational system....A second is the choice of some users, who want[ed] an interior that is more comfortable but not necessarily ideal and who favor a technology that is above all flexible and responsive to the consumer's needs" (3). Cooper provides an astute reading of the tenuous relationship between producers and consumers suggesting that air conditioning was in many ways a struggle of implementing a technology and imposing one's scientific knowledge onto a public realm where the understanding of comfort was highly individualized. In order to illustrate this contentious relationship, Cooper examines how two particular air-conditioning technologies -- the central cooling unit and the window unit -- affected how engineers and the public at large experienced and defined cool indoor air.
By identifying central cooling and window units as independent technologies, Cooper asserts that Americans experienced two distinct indoor environments -- one controlled and regulated, the other, flexible and individualized. She suggests that not only has the "split in air-conditioning technologies...resulted in a giant public policy headache," but also that "many Americans personally experience the schizophrenic character of modern air conditioning by working in one kind of air-conditioned space and living in another" (3). For Cooper, this type of binary experience brings into question "whether technological design can wholly be entrusted to either the technical elite or the market forces of our consumer culture" (4). Although Cooper does not provide answers to this intriguing question, she forcefully demonstrates how air-conditioning technologies shaped and were shaped by producers and consumers alike.
Published as part of Johns Hopkins University Press's series on the History of Technology, Air-Conditioning America focuses almost exclusively on the air-conditioning industry, pointing out specific technological innovations and improvements, while also tracing how engineers, and the industry as a whole, brought air-cooling products to the marketplace. Using such a strategy, Cooper relies heavily on the history of those individuals who produced and marketed the emerging technology. The central protagonist in this story is Willis Carrier, the described father of air conditioning, who in conjunction with his company, the Carrier Corporation, set out to cool indoor America, from factories to pleasure palaces, and from the office to the home. Carrier's importance as a technological innovator as well as an entrepreneur captures the conflict Cooper describes between scientific achievement and control over indoor atmospheres, in addition to the notion that cool air was a product to be bought and sold. In this reader's opinion, selling air is one of Carrier's true lasting legacies.
Cooper's contribution to the history of technology, and air conditioning in particular, is quite enriching. She provides a history of an extremely ubiquitous, yet largely invisible product, cool air. For example, in numerous studies of the post-World War II American home, technologies like dishwashers, electric stoves, and washing machines were the symbols of the modern American home. The air conditioner was almost always excluded. Yet as Cooper's study makes clear, air conditioning became an instrument of American modernity -- it was a tool marking an American middle class identity as well as a symbol representing a particular and highly specified standard of living. In 1953, for example, Fortune magazine recognized the social importance of the air conditioner by stating: "The rump of a room conditioner building out of the window [wa]s becoming as unexclusive a social symbol as the television aerial overhead." Cooper's text highlights the dramatic influence air conditioning has had on the American landscape, illustrating the ways in which technology, class identities, comfort, and standards of living were concepts completely intertwined in Americans' understanding of cool air and American post-war modernity.
As noted above, Cooper devotes most of her energies to describing the air-conditioning industry, yet she provides the reader with the important social, economic, and cultural contexts for each chapter. I think the strength of her book rests on four chapters, comprising the main body of the text: "Defining the Healthy Indoor Environment" -- Chapter Three; "Motion-Picture Theaters, Human Comfort, and Recirculation, 1911-1930" -- Chapter Four; "Mass Production, the Residential Market, and the Window AirConditioner, 1928-1940" --Chapter Five; and "From a Luxury to a Necessity, 1942-1960" --Chapter Six. In these chapters, Cooper places the air conditioner at the center of a number of important American historical experiences, namely progressive reform movements, public entertainment, and post-war mass consumption. This is not to suggest, however, that the remaining chapters in the book are inconsequential. In fact, the other chapters provide important contextual analysis explaining how and why air-conditioning technologies emerged, who produced them, and what were the social, economic, and political ramifications of cool indoor air. Yet the four chapters mentioned above highlight the transformative power air conditioning contributed to the public discourses over public health and mass consumption, as well as defined an American standard of comfort.
The conflict between producers and consumers can best be seen in Chapter Four, "Motion-Picture Theaters, Human Comfort and Recirculation, 1911-1930," where the tension occurred over different notions of human comfort. Engineers created elaborate guidelines detailing relational specifications between outdoor and indoor temperatures. Theater owners, on the other hand, used cool indoor air to sell theater tickets, employing the adage, "the colder the better," to lure the public into cool theaters. Cooper suggests that this discord forced engineers to adopt a variety of strategies by which to impose their scientific understanding of air conditioning and human comfort. Despite their best efforts, however, once air-conditioning systems were in place, there was little air-conditioning engineers could do to control how their products were used. But, as Cooper writes, movie theaters provided engineers with a type of laboratory where they conducted experiments to determine "quantitative limits" of comfort. It was in these venues, Cooper suggests, that engineers attempted to procure their status as scientific specialists, claiming professional identities based on specific scientific knowledge.
Throughout the early twentieth century, science and the concepts of professionalism merged in an effort to claim a legitimate and authoritative space. The history of professionalization is rich, and Cooper adds another important voice to history. Yet the technology proved to be too flexible, where consumers, not engineers, controlled the indoor environment and the meaning of human comfort. Efforts by engineers to claim professional and scientific authority failed in many ways because they could not control the end product -- cool air.
While Air-Conditioning America offers a rich history of a specific technology, it is not a complete history of air conditioning. Cooper states that "this book centers on the debate, sometimes acrimonious, over open windows"(1). Throughout her study, Cooper assumes that American windows were immediately closed once air conditioned spaces were possible. The ensuing debate in the book, therefore, was not about open or closed windows, but was concerned with who controlled cool comfort, engineers or consumers. Cooper's study neglects the counter-narrative -- the non-consumers -- those who questioned the supposedly positive effects of air conditioning, who recognized the potentially harmful effects of the technology, and who could not afford cool comfort. In a time when scholars and citizens alike are engaged in a public dialogue concerning the loss of community and an individualization of American society, can we suggest that the closed window, like the television or internet, as other social critics have argued, contributes toAmericans' feelings of isolation? Has the closed, air-conditioned window created a permanent barrier between the indoor and outdoor, between individual and community? Cooper overlooks these important questions, reasoning, instead, that all Americans consumed cool air, collectively sealing their windows to the outside world. And despite the enormous influence on the technology has had throughout the country, it is difficult to believe that all Americans willingly participated in the cooling of indoor America.
Another interesting omission in this study was the failure to discuss the dramatic demographic shifts that have occurred in the last half-century. Although Cooper's study concludes in the 1960s, it is this reader's opinion that the history of air conditioning and its influence could be further articulated through an analysis of the political and environmental transformation of the American South and Southwest over the past three decades. During this time, the South and Southwest have gained enormous political leverage by a shear force of numbers. Richard Nathan, a political economist and director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, recently stated that "the civil rights revolution and air conditioning are the two biggest factors that have changed [the United States's] demography and a lot of our politics in the last 30 years." (The New York Times, August 29, 1998). These demographic and political shifts can not be solely attributed to air conditioning, yet they underscore how air conditioning enabled large numbers of Americans to inhabit regions once thought to be inhospitable. While these particular issues were not part of Cooper's stated intentions, they do suggest alternative approaches to the history of air conditioning that may open up future discussions about the technology and its social and political implications.
Overall, Cooper provides an extremely interesting and insightful study of the air conditioning industry. Her most important contribution, I think, is her discussion of the constructed meaning of human comfort -- how it was measured and by whom. The conflict between engineers, trying to claim scientific authority over cool indoor air, and consumers, who used the technology according to personal preferences, explains much of the contested story of this history. Cooper writes: "Although makers of central air conditioning proposed a vision of perfect indoor climate, high standards of performance, ideal operating procedures, and a new way of living, consumers seemed to embrace the technology but not necessarily the industry's prescriptions" (176).
In the end, it seems that consumers had a tremendous impact on how Americans became air-conditioned, even though millions of Americans continue to live and work in centrally controlled air-conditioned environments, where cool comfort is regulated by building managers and HVAC experts. The debate continues.
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