How AC invented the modern world

Back in August, we talked on this blog about how Willis Carrier invented the air conditioning unit as a way to control humidity in a printing warehouse during a New England heat wave. In a new book by Tim Harford, titled Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, we learn more about how AC literally invented the modern world. As we will soon see, its no overstatement to say that these innovations ushered in the modern era. Some of the points made in his book include:

Ice exports and pathetic cooling methods

AC Invented The Modern WorldDerek Thompson recently interviewed Tim Harford, and spoke with him about how humanity used to try to keep cool before Carrier saved us all with his invention. Thompson said to Harford, “You describe the early 19th-century business of New England companies shipping large carved ice cubes insulated with sawdust around the country. New England literally exported ice the way Georgia exports peaches. There were even shortages during mild winters – ‘ice famines’.”

Harford replied, “It was really hard to cool things. Before the invention of air conditioning, you had to take something that was very cold and move it to places that were hot. And there were fascinating problems. For example, when the bodies of water that supplied the ice, like lakes, started getting polluted, the pollutants would be trapped in the pieces of ice. When they melted at their destination, it filled the air with unpleasant smells.”

Political, Economic, and Cultural Shifts

Thompson continued, “Air conditioning transformed cities’ skylines, allowing for tall glassy skyscrapers that didn’t broil people in the top floors. It transformed demographics, allowing for migration in the U.S. to the Sun Belt, to Atlanta and Phoenix. By allowing politically conservative retirees to move south and west, you quote the author Steven Johnson saying that air conditioning elected Ronald Reagan.”

Harford responded, “Yes, and it’s key to have a global perspective, too. This didn’t just reshape America; air conditioning reshaped the world. Places like Singapore and Shanghai are miserable when they’re hot and humid, but today they are global metropolises. There are studies showing that human productivity peaks around 70 degrees. That means air conditioning has made us more productive, but also, by creating density in Singapore, it allows people to work longer, making the world a rich place. There is also the dark side of air conditioning. You cool the temperature inside, but these units are energy-hungry, and they contribute to global warming.”

Technology breeds inequality

In Harford’s book, he discusses the plow as the facilitator of the agricultural revolution. According to Harford, “agricultural abundance creates rulers and the ruled, masters and servants, and inequality of wealth unheard of in hunter-gatherer societies.”

He also mentions the gramophone, which brought the most popular singers into homes around the world, thereby turning local stars into global superstars. This also creates an inequality of wealth.

Thompson asked, “Do you think technology inherently creates superstar effects and inequality?”

Harford replied, “There are two questions in there. First, does tech always increase inequality? Second, can politics offset that?

“First, no. The famous example of technology displacing workers is the mechanized loom, famously smashed by the Luddites. These machines made their owners rich. But I think it’s possible that those looms actually decreased income inequality, because the new looms could be used by lower-skilled workers, who earned more money. On the other hand, I do think that much technology today is biased toward people who already have skills, which exacerbates winner-take-all effects.

“But the winners of technology are often determined by politics and law. Bill Gates’s wealth could not exist without the U.S. property system that protected his software from being copied. Political choices have made him one of the richest people in the world.

“Can politics offset inequality, too? Yes, of course. The welfare state can offset it.”

This topic will be continued, and concluded, in next week’s post. Stay tuned for more great information on the inventions that have changed our world for the better, and some, perhaps, for worse.