What Did We Do Before Air Conditioning?

“Kids these days.” “Why in my day.” 

Truly some of my favorite phrases. I mean that ironically, of course. Phrases like these, and the sentiments behind them, annoy the hell out of me. They usually refer to some imagined past that never actually existed, but that older generations love using to proclaim superiority over younger ones. 

Case in point: air conditioning. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Well in my day we lived without air conditioning,” when I was a kid. This usually came after I complained that school was too hot and I couldn’t concentrate, only to have an adult remind me of this fact. It was implied that I was weak for wanting AC. Now I hear similar sentiments as I sit and await another heat wave currently approaching New York. 

Here’s my problem with this outlook though: Just because air conditioning wasn’t invented yet doesn’t mean there wasn’t still a need for air conditioning. There’s a belief that if something hasn’t been invented yet, then there’s no need for it. After all, how can there be a demand for a product that doesn’t exist? That’s sometimes true. Before TV, for instance, people were perfectly capable of entertaining themselves in other ways. 

But this isn’t universally true. Air conditioning is a good example. Humans have always needed some way to cool themselves down. That’s true of all animals. Older generations weren’t more resilient to heat because they didn’t have air conditioning. The human body still worked the same way. The reason you feel like crap when you have a fever is because your body can’t function properly at such a high temperature. Once your body temperature tops 103 degrees F, you’re officially at risk for heat stroke. At that point you could become delirious, lose consciousness, and, if you aren’t cooled down, die. 

So the answer to the question “What did we do before air conditioning” is pretty simple: people died. 

There are tons of examples where heat waves in the past resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of fatalities. Take, for example, the 1911 New England Heat Wave. In July of that year, temperatures topping 105 degrees swept throughout New England and down to New York. In the sun, temperatures soared even higher. For 11 days, inhabitants saw little relief until thunderstorms broke the heat wave. In the interim, people died every day. The New York Times reported that 221 had died in New York City alone (July 13, 1911). Especially at risk were babies, who overheated in their cribs, and anyone working outside. People quite literally collapsed in the streets as they were overcome by heat exhaustion. Without air conditioning, people had few choices to cool down. Many tried swimming, but you couldn’t stay in the water all day if you had a job to get to. Parks and beaches were opened for people to sleep in, and thousands took the offer. All told, as many as 2,000 people died from the heat during these 11 days.

Reports from 1911

That’s only one example. Throughout the 20th century, there were several prolonged heat waves that caused hundreds or even thousands of deaths. I won’t go through them all, but you can have a look and see that historically, heat waves could be devastating natural disasters.

And something else to keep in mind is that heat waves are still deadly now, even with air conditioning. As I’m writing right now, there are news alerts about the dangerous heat approaching the Northeast and reports about fatalities throughout the country. It’s no joke. 

So all that said, my point here with this little rant is that once again, we can look to history for guidance. I’m not being weak for wanting my AC! The human body needs to cool down, and it’s always had that need. Now, thankfully, we have a device that can do that for us. It’s fulfilling a need that humans have always had. And as history shows us, there are fatal results when we can’t cool ourselves down.

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