HEADING OFF TO see a summer blockbuster? Thank the early 20th century movie hero who kicked off the phenomenon. Not Superman. Not Captain America. Not even Rin Tin Tin.
In 1902, the young engineer was working for a heating outfit called Buffalo Forge. That company was approached by Sackett & Wilhelms, a print shop in Brooklyn that was facing a dilemma. Four-color printing meant paper had to be inked four separate times, with each run laying down a different hue. Thanks to humidity, sheets would often shrink or expand in the interim between inkings, making the finished image a mess. What could be done?
Carrier came up with a way of "conditioning" the air in order to keep the temperature and moisture level steady. You can probably guess what he called his invention.
Not only did printing companies suddenly have a solution to the problem of summer, so did all sorts of other industries, from candy makers (chocolate no longer turned gray) to razor manufacturers (blades no longer rusted) to theaters.
In the earliest days of cinema, theaters would often close during the summer as their cramped, crowded spaces became suffocating sweatboxes. Thanks to air conditioning, not only could they stay open, they became bastions of comfort. In 1925, the Rivoli Theater in Times Square became the first movie theater to install the new technology. A decade later, summer had become the biggest time of year for movies, and the summer blockbuster was born.
Air conditioning changed more than just our film viewership. Cooler air had basically been the holy grail of sizzling civilizations since the dawn of history. In ancient Egypt, porous urns were filled with water that slowly seeped out and evaporated, providing a modicum of relief. (Though not as much relief as those slaves with the palm fronds, I'd guess.) In ancient Rome, an emperor named Elagabalus had ice harvested from the mountains and spread around his garden, so the breeze would waft cool air inside.
The rest of us spent eons fanning ourselves and drinking lots of liquids. Meanwhile, homes were built to deflect oppressive heat as best they could. Shaded front porches were wide enough for socializing and even sleeping on. Windows were positioned to facilitate cross drafts. High ceilings drew the heat up and away from the humans panting below.
After World War II, A/C finally came to the average home, and when it did, life changed. For starters, builders could use thinner and thus cheaper...