The Life-Changing History of A/C


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  • Photo: Richard Khavkine



The Upper East Side’s Museum of the City of New York will host the second lecture in its “Fast, Cool, and Convenient” series on the city’s relationship with several energy-consuming necessities.

Stan Cox, a research coordinator and senior scientist at the Land Institute in Kansas, will speak on Thursday, Aug, 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the New York Academy of Medicine about air conditioning. Cox’s most recent book “How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia,” co-written with his son Paul, addresses the dangerous weather events climate change has caused so far, including Superstorm Sandy. His lecture will be followed by a Q&A session moderated by Cecil Mark-Corbin, deputy director and director of policy initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

What will you be talking about on Thursday?

Considering the way the summer has gone so far you can’t start a talk like this without talking about heat waves. It’s too bad because in the middle of a heat wave, or just after one, it’s probably the worst time to try to discuss the impact of air conditioning because people don’t want to think about life without it. What I’m going to try to say is that certainly there’s no doubt that as air conditioning became more widely available over the last two decades, death rates in large northern cities have gone down, including in New York.

Could air conditioning almost be considered a measure of socioeconomic status?

[During] the terrible Chicago heat wave of 1995, when 700 people died, there weren’t any deaths up on the Gold Coast and the more affluent neighborhoods. They all occurred on the South Side and other economically distressed areas. There are other factors besides the lack or presence of air conditioning. In that heat wave, there was a big power outage caused by people running air conditioning too much. Having air conditioning is very much correlated with having higher income [and] larger, newer houses, better pumping, higher education levels.

What is the history of air conditioning in New York City specifically?

Air conditioning actually got started in New York City when Willis Carrier installed a system in the Sackett & Wilhems Lithography Company in 1902. The building is still there in Brooklyn but the system he put in isn’t anymore. At the time, they did it … to make an industrial process more efficient. In this case, to reduce the humidity so the paper would go through the rollers. That same year, the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange was air conditioned, and that was the first case of air conditioning for human comfort rather than for an industrial process.

How do window units, which are used by many New Yorkers, compare to central air conditioning as far as energy consumption?

Overall,it’s a pretty small portion of the total electricity used for air conditioning that goes to room units, at least around the country, because central air is much more common. In New York I imagine the majority of the energy would be used by these room units. However, I argued in my book that even though they may be less efficient in an engineering sense than central air, that if room units are used just to cool occupied areas we’d be using a lot less energy for air conditioning if we were relying on room units.

In your book you address the impact of climate change on various cities. How well do you think New York City responded to Superstorm Sandy and what should we be concerned about in the future?

When [co-author Paul Cox and I] were deciding which post-disaster stories to tell, Sandy was one of the first ones that we decided that we should. Regarding resilience, we kind of contrasted the two post-Sandy approaches that were taken in lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Paul talked to people on the Lower East Side, for example, that [future storms] would lead to intense gentrification. A lot of people who had lived there for a long time wouldn’t be able to anymore. So we have to think about not only resilience to disasters but resilience of the communities that are living with disaster living.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.


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