The Air Conditioning Effect

Of all amazing leaps forward in household technologies in the early-to-mid-1900s — automobiles, radios, televisions, refrigerators, washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc. — the most underrated might be air conditioning.

I have been thankful for air conditioning every humid Michigan summer day of my life. I can’t imagine how people ever lived without it.

Using cold as a tool in the household burst onto the scene in the 1950s right as the middle class exploded and began buying stuff for the home.

Not only were a large number of people finally able to keep frozen dinners in their deep freezers and create as much homemade ice as they could handle but they could actually cool the interiors of their homes for the first time.

Willis Carrier discovered air-conditioning by accident in the early-1900s while trying to develop an apparatus that would keep his ink from smearing during the humid summer months. His contraption not only helped keep ink dry while writing but also cooled the entire room.

The lightbulb went off in his head once he noticed colleagues gathering around the printing room during hot summer days.

After testing out AC in movie theaters, department stores, hotels, and office buildings for a number of years, people were finally ready to put Carrier’s innovation in their homes following World War II.

When he set out to make his printing room less humid I’m guessing Willis Carrier didn’t expect his invention would have a massive impact on migration patterns which in turn changed voting patterns in the country.

Steven Johnson details how air conditioning played a role in re-shaping the south and other warm-weather states in his book How We Got to Now:

Places that had been intolerably hot and humid — including some of the cities where Frederic Tudor had sweated out the summer as a young man — were suddenly tolerable to a much larger slice of the general public. By 1964, the historic flow of people from South to North that had characterized the post-Civil War era had been reversed. The Sun Belt expanded with new immigrants from colder states, who could put up with the tropical humidity or blazing desert climates thanks to domestic air conditioning. Tuscon rocketed from 45,000 people to 210,000 in just ten years; Houston expanded from 600,000 to 940,000 in the same decade. In the 1920s, when Willis Carrier was first demonstrating air-conditioning to Adolph Zukor at the Rivoli Theatre, Florida’s population stood at less than one million. Half a century later, the state was well on the way to becoming one of the four most populous in the country, with ten million people escaping the humid summer months in air-conditioned homes. Carrier’s invention circulated more than just molecules of oxygen and water. It ended up circulating people too.

This migration of people changed the political dynamics of the south to a more Conservative base of voters. States in warm climates gained 29 electoral votes between 1940 and 1980 because of these shifts.1

Innovation has always led to unintended consequences, even when you try to plan for the obvious eventualities.

When railroads and trains changed the way people and goods were transported in the mid-1800s the prevailing wisdom was a severe reduction in the need for horses was coming.

The British aristocrats worried this new technology would crush the demand for horses so much that it could end the art of horse breeding, which would hurt game hunting as well as the national defense since there would be a lack of horses for the cavalry.

Those in the railroad industry countered that fewer horses would be a welcome development since all the land used to feed the horses could be put to better use to feed more people.

Both groups were wrong.

The buildout of railroads actually increased the need for horses (remember this was before automobiles). Although trains could move goods more efficiently between cities there was still a need for horses to transport those goods from the train station to their final destination. They also needed the horses to move stuff around the rail yards.

All of the current trends being pushed into overdrive by the pandemic could lead to similar unintended consequences.

I’ve come away with more questions than answers when thinking through the outcomes of this crisis.

Could the work from home trend completely reshape the electorate much like AC did in the 1950s? Or is this going to prove to be an overreaction in terms of where people settle down?

Are people going to leave big cities en masse? Or will the people who leave be the ones who were going to leave anyway because that’s typically what happens when you settle down and have kids? And maybe a massive number of young people will be there to take their place like always.

What impact will the massive shift to eCommerce have on people’s spending patterns? Is retail as we know it changed forever? And what happens with all that real estate at the malls?

Will people now be more willing to buy stuff rather than experiences or will this be a short-term trend?

Will this crisis make people more grateful for what they have or leave them angry at how messed up this whole situation is?

Will all of the new sports-betters-turned-day-traders remain enamored with the stock market or give up on Hertz and the like once sports come back?

This crisis is possibly still in the early innings and already we’ve seen things transpire that would have felt impossible just a few short months ago.

Further Reading:
Why We Don’t Learn From History

1California balanced out the south somewhat in this shift.

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