The "dog days of August," as we call the hottest part of the summer here in New England, came early this year. Specifically, over the Fourth of July weekend, as I write this, temperatures are breaking records, hitting a high of 109F in one suburb south of Boston. Where we live, on the northern Massachusetts coast, it's 100F, but with the high humidity, it feels, says the Weather Service, like 110F.
That's no big deal, of course, to residents of other parts of the country where the heat has been up. In fact, the entire eastern third of the nation has been experiencing wilting temperatures.
And, in the Southwest, the story is the same. We just returned from a business trip to Arizona, where the temperature at 10 am was already 100, on its way to 110. Never mind that it's dry that's still hot!
All of which brings to mind the fact that this year is the 97th anniversary of air conditioning, which today seems like one of the greatest engineering innovations of all times.
According to information on the Carrier Corp. web site, Willis Carrier designed his first air conditioning system in 1902 for a Brooklyn printer who couldn't print decent color images because of heat problems. That industrial application was followed by others in textile mills and other manufacturing operations. In fact, for the first 20 years or so of the invention, it mainly cooled machines. The only people who got relief from the heat were those standing near the machines.
It wasn't until 1924 when engineers re-directed the technology for people. The first application, according to Carrier's company history, was in a department store in Detroit, where patrons had been fainting because of the sweltering heat.
Air conditioning is one of those technologies that has made life livable and, says Carrier with plenty of justification, made manufacturing possible. And, we have never appreciated it so much as now.
Of course, purists will say that air conditioning pales in comparison to some of the other great breakthroughs of the now-dwindling 20th Century. Lee de Forest's vacuum tube, introduced in 1906, led to the electronic amplifier. Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first electronic images in 1927. And work at Bell Labs by Shockley, Brittain, and Bardeen in 1947 resulted in the first transistor.
But today, in the heat of the moment, it's that air conditioner that seems like the most imaginative and productive invention of mankind. Yea, Willis Carrier!