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The Cool History of the Air Conditioner

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The Cool History of the Air Conditioner

Summer

The Cool History of the Air Conditioner

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Temperatures in some parts of the country have eased a bit over the weekend, but there's no risk that throngs of people are suddenly going to turn their backs on air conditioning. The air conditioner has established itself well in the hearts of Americans. The first widespread use of air conditioners came during the 1920s when movie theaters used what they called man-made weather to lure customers to the silver screen. After World War II the cost for air conditioners started to come down, and manufacturers advertised them as for the millions, not just for millionaires.

Deborah Hawkins knows how to keep cool. She's chairman of the Air Conditioner and Refrigeration Institute. We called her at her office in Fort Worth, Texas, where the temperature this weekend is a balmy low-100s. Welcome to the program.

Ms. DEBORAH HAWKINS (Air Conditioner and Refrigeration Institute): Well, thank you.

HANSEN: I assume you've got your air conditioner going great guns?

Ms. HAWKINS: Oh yes, we do. Full blast, in fact.

HANSEN: All right. Take us back. Where was the first air-conditioned movie theater in the United States?

Ms. HAWKINS: Well, it's probably in the Central Park Theater in Chicago, Illinois. Willis Carrier, considered the King of Cool and the founder of air conditioning, actually sold his inventions to movie theater operators during the late teens and early '20s, and this was one of the first ones to receive it. And they actually had some of the largest audiences than anywhere else in the country, as you can imagine.

HANSEN: So does the air conditioner get credit - or maybe the blame - for the advent of summer blockbusters?

Ms. HAWKINS: Both. I think it gets both. Definitely the term was coined because people were trying to get away from the heat during the summer months. And they came in in droves to get out of that, into the cool air, and watch movies, 'cause that was probably the only event that allowed them to do that at that time.

HANSEN: And it also, I assume, allowed the theaters to stay open during the summer.

Ms. HAWKINS: All year long, all year long. Where before they were primarily just open from November to May.

HANSEN: What were some of the other early places to be cooled down by air conditioning?

Ms. HAWKINS: Well, right after the movie theaters, the government buildings in Washington, D.C. were air conditioned. It started with the U.S. House of Representatives building, the Senate Building, even the White House. And it's funny, too, because prior to that the lawmakers only worked from November to May and then they disbursed, you know, went home. And it's funny because most people say this may or may not have been a good idea to allow them to work 12 months out of the year.

HANSEN: When did air-conditioning become a staple of the middle class?

Ms. HAWKINS: Well, actually it started in the '50s when sales exceeded over one million units, and then each decade it increased enormously, to where now today probably 82 percent of all homes either have room air-conditioning units or central air-conditioning units in America.

HANSEN: Deborah Hawkins is chairman of the Air Conditioner and Refrigeration Institute. Thanks a lot, keep cool.

Ms. HAWKINS: Thank you, you too.

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