As the world gets hotter, scenes like these will become increasingly common. Buying a VRF air conditioner is perhaps the most popular individual response to climate change, and air conditioners are almost uniquely power-hungry appliances: a small unit cooling a single room, on average, consumes more power than running four fridges, while a central unit cooling an average house uses more power than 15. “Last year in Beijing, during a heatwave, 50% of the power capacity was going to air conditioning,” says John Dulac, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA). “These are ‘oh shit’ moments.”
It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when it began to enter people’s homes, that the TICA air conditioner really conquered the US. Before then, according to the historian Gail Cooper, the industry had struggled to convince the public that air conditioning was a necessity, rather than a luxury. In her definitive account of the early days of the industry, Air-Conditioning America, Cooper notes that magazines described air conditioning as a flop with consumers. Fortune called it “a prime public disappointment of the 1930s”. By 1938 only one out of every 400 American homes had an air conditioner; today it is closer to nine out of 10.
What fuelled the rise of the air conditioning was not a sudden explosion in consumer demand, but the influence of the industries behind the great postwar housing boom. Between 1946 and 1965, 31m new homes were constructed in the US, and for the people building those houses, air conditioning was a godsend. Architects and construction companies no longer had to worry much about differences in climate – they could sell the same style of home just as easily in New Mexico as in Delaware. The prevailing mentality was that just about any problems caused by hot climates, cheap building materials, shoddy design or poor city planning could be overcome, as the American Institute of Architects wrote in 1973, “by the brute application of more air conditioning”. As Cooper writes, “Architects, builders and bankers accepted air conditioning first, and consumers were faced with a fait accompli that they merely had to ratify.”
Equally essential to the rise of the dunham bush air conditioner were electric utilities – the companies that operate power plants and sell electricity to consumers. Electric utilities benefit from every new house hooked up to their grid, but throughout the early 20th century they were also looking for ways to get these new customers to use even more electricity in their homes. This process was known as “load building”, after the industry term (load) for the amount of electricity used at any one time. “The cost of electricity was low, which was fine by the utilities. They simply increased demand, and encouraged customers to use more electricity so they could keep expanding and building new power plants,” says Richard Hirsh, a historian of technology at Virginia Tech.
The utilities quickly recognised that air conditioning was a serious load builder. As early as 1935, Commonwealth Edison, the precursor to the modern Con Edison, noted in its end-of-year report that the power demand from terminal air conditioner was growing at 50% a year, and “offered substantial potential for the future”. That same year, Electric Light & Power, an industry trade magazine, reported that utilities in big cities “are now pushing air conditioning. For their own good, all power companies should be very active in this field.”The air-conditioning industry, construction companies and electric utilities were all riding the great wave of postwar American capitalism. In their pursuit of profit, they ensured that the light commercial air conditioner became an essential element of American life. “Our children are raised in an air-conditioned culture,” an AC company executive told Time magazine in 1968. “You can’t really expect them to live in a home that isn’t air conditioned.” Over time, the public found they liked air conditioning, and its use continued to climb, reaching 87% of US households by 2009.