How Air Conditioning Changed Us Forever

July 7, 2015

Every once in a long while we see entrepreneurs and inventors make products so incredible that they forever change the lifestyle of our civilization. The air conditioner is no exception, and it has changed how we behave. In 1961, fewer than 14 percent of households in urban America had air conditioning. Today, the number is over 87 percent. Even though it was patented in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 50 years after its invention that air conditioning started becoming the norm. With an invention that has exploded in half a century, it is fair to say that it has changed the way we live.

Massive Productivity Benefits

While some of us may take it for granted today, historians note that when the air conditioner was first introduced in commercial environments, productivity shot through the roof. The reason was twofold: people could work more efficiently when they weren’t overheating, and they tended to work longer hours. It took a number of years before residential air conditioning began to catch on, so employees were more likely to show up early and stay late in order to beat the heat! Residential implementation of air conditioners didn’t really begin until after World War II.

Behavioral Changes

Once the air conditioner came to the household—combined with the introduction and popularity of the television—people started spending more time inside. People became less social and started spending more time secluded in their households. Public space became less important, as it was more comfortable to stay at home! Today, that trend has shifted back a bit, with the advent of large cooling systems for theaters, arenas, and other public facilities.

Even the houses we live in today have been changed by air conditioning. Many older home designs featured wide eaves to shadow windows, large porches for gathering outside, thicker walls for older types of insulation, large attic spaces, and vaults and windows specifically for cross ventilation. While many of us still enjoy these features, their architectural necessity as it relates to cooling has been largely negated because of air conditioning. Home location has taken front and center stage, and things like lot size and home orientation are often predetermined and offer limited options. Practices like siting and landscaping to maximize shade, while still important, are not as strong a concern since the inside temperatures can always be kept cool.

Population Shifts

Air conditioning had the biggest effect on the Sun Belt—more or less the southernmost states in the continental U.S., from South Carolina west to southern California. In the second half of the 20th century, the Sun Belt saw above average population growth. In 1950, these states accounted for 28% of our country’s population. By 2000, they accounted for 40%.

Twelve percent may not seem like much, but such a population shift has huge implications in a country like ours. Some researchers attribute the resurgence of the southern-dominated Republican Party to air conditioning.

The Modern Benefits of Air Conditioning

The air conditioner is one of the best inventions within the last century that we take for granted every single day. In fact, the National Academy of Engineers ranked the invention of the air conditioner within the top ten most important achievements of the twentieth century. Today, air conditioners are more efficient than ever before and they offer numerous benefits.

There are a lot more benefits to air conditioning than beating the heat and staying comfortable, though. They also help us be more productive as a society, they protect us from extreme heat (over 70,000 people died in Europe—where AC is far less popular—during a 2003 heatwave), and they are becoming increasingly environmentally friendly. Where would we be today if the air conditioner was never invented? It’s tough to say, but we can all agree that we probably wouldn’t like to find out!