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Not Just Another Weather Story

It has been an epoch summer in Buffalo, with prolonged periods of days and nights characterized by torrid heat, a time to be thankful for air-conditioning.

Air-conditioning changed this country and later the world, delivering comfortable living and working conditions to locations previously cursed with seasonal temperatures that were unbearably hot and humid. The eventual result was a dramatic population shift from the Northeast to the sunbelts of the Southeast and Southwest.

Buffalo is a victim of air-conditioning, perhaps the most beleaguered casualty of all. In 1900 it was the eighth largest city in the country. In 1940 it was the thirteenth largest city. In recent years it has struggled as an also-ran. It currently is ranked as 65th.

I’m a native and I cherish the city and its diversity of seasons, but there is a delicious irony related to the impact of air-conditioning, which was invented in Buffalo by a young man who grew up in Angola, studied engineering at Cornell, and was hired as a junior engineer at the Buffalo Forge Corp.

His name was Willis Carrier. Just one year after he graduated from Cornell he devised a contraption that was installed in the pressroom of a Brooklyn printer who was tormented by the summer weather. It was the first air-conditioner. The paper would absorb moisture making it virtually impossible to maintain registration of the various colors.

Carrier proved to be an engineering wizard. He realized it wasn’t the heat that jeopardized the printing quality, it was the humidity. He found a way to reduce the moisture content of the pressroom, enabling the printer to produce the same high quality reproductions that were normal in cooler weather. It also delighted the pressmen who no longer worked in oppressively hot conditions.

That was in 1902. Carrier subsequently modified his original concept and in 1915 founded the Carrier Air Conditioning Corp.

Over the years, air-conditioning had a stunning influence around the world. It is easier to measure in the United States, but the story is the same around the world. The growth of certain areas was stunted by the climate. People and developers shunned those areas, places like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego and San Jose. Those places were once avoided, but no longer. They each had phenomenal growth and are now in the top ten in population, along with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

For Buffalo, the irony is obvious: air-conditioning was invented here and it was the singular invention that stimulated exponential growth in sunbelt locations. It was Carrier’s invention that contributed to the decline of cities like Buffalo, cities that eventually became known as the Rust Belt.

For a number of years I spent time in Arizona during the late spring and summer. Phoenix now has a population of around 1,500,000. In the mid-20th century when the census showed Buffalo at 580,000, Phoenix had 106,000. The Phoenix of today is a direct result of air-conditioning. The unrelenting heat of the Southwest has been subdued by air-conditioning.

Phoenix residents stress the “dry heat.” I can testify, however, that no matter the relative humidity, when the temperature soars to 100-110, which is not unusual, it is unbearably hot, too hot to work or play outside unless it is absolutely necessary. People don’t stray too far from the air-conditioned comfort of their homes, offices, cars and businesses.

Recent census statistics show that 87 percent of housing units in the US are air-conditioned, a figure that 25 years ago would have been considered incredible.

Yes, Willis Haviland Carrier deserves credit for changing the world. He died in 1950 and is buried in Buffalo, at a cool and shady spot at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Lead image: Photo by Tim Mossholder

Written by Dick Hirsch

Dick Hirsch

Dick Hirsch is a veteran Buffalo journalist and author. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is “A new bathtub for the White House,” a collection of some of his favorite essays.

View All Articles by Dick Hirsch
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