What Did We Do Before Air Conditioning?

What Did We Do Before Air Conditioning?

In the summer, we all sing the praises of Willis Carrier. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, his invention should: In 1902, he created the first modern electrical air conditioning unit. When the temperatures reach the triple digits, you might think he deserves a Nobel Prize. Although Carrier invented it in the early 1900s, it was several decades later before the AC unit became a regular member of the household. But what did people—particularly those in the South—do before air conditioning?

Before the Luxury of Air Conditioning

The great outdoors

While the comfort of air conditioning has us running inside for relief, previously, people actually went outside, including playwright Arthur Miller, who recounted some of the ways New Yorkers “chilled out”:

At night, Central Park was full of hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake.

For a nickel, those wanting to escape the humid misery of their apartments could ride the elevated trains throughout New York City, rolling down the windows for fresh, cool air. There was also a greater appreciation for cold foods and shaved ice “snow cones.”

Cross ventilation

But what about hotter areas, such as the tropical climates of Florida? Home design incorporated windows and doors strategically placed to take advantage of cross-ventilation, which allowed even the slightest breeze to flow through the home, granting relief. Landscaping also played a large role—trees were planted to provide shade. In fact, in countries where air conditioning isn’t available, this strategy is still used.

Movie theaters

Local movie houses capitalized off the heat waves by promoting air-conditioned comfort. Often, this drew more audiences than the movie itself!


Early Innovations in Air Conditioning

What about the time before movies, trains and ice machines? You may be surprised at these early innovations.

  • Baoli.
    This is a Hindi word for a stepwell, bodies of water enclosed in a descending set of steps. Modern buildings such as the Pear Academy of Fashion in Jaipur, Rajasthan (northwest India), take advantage of this ancient technique and the science behind it. When water evaporates, it cools the space around it. This allows the building to remain 20 degrees cooler in the sweltering summers. It’s the way desert inhabitants have beat the heat for more than 1,500 years.
  • Cave dwellers
    When it comes to staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer, it’s hard to beat Mother Nature. In some ancient cultures, living in a “hole in the ground” was a brilliant use of the earth’s natural cooling and heating properties—think of it as the first geothermal heat pump. This perfected temperature control is one reason cave paintings and artifacts have been so well-preserved.
  • Elevation
    The opposite principle also works: Elevated houses allow air circulation underneath the floor, cooling the room.
  • The Old South
    You need look no further than Scarlet O’Hara constantly fanning herself in Gone With the Wind to see the impact of the weather below the Mason-Dixon line. Obviously, fanning was common, but Southern houses typically had long breezeways, wraparound porches, floor-to-ceiling windows and high ceilings. These architectural details enabled cross ventilation and took advantage of shade from trees and outdoor sleeping porches.


Before air conditioning, humans have always found creative ways to keep indoor temperatures bearable. Interestingly, many of these older techniques are now being adopted for use in modern, green, energy-efficient homes.


Betcha didn’t know that!



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