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WNY native’s invention brought chill to Rust Belt

Air conditioning changed this country and later the world, creating comfortable living and working conditions in locations previously cursed with unbearably hot and humid summers. The eventual result was a dramatic population shift from the Northeast to the sunny Southeast and Southwest.

Buffalo is a victim of air conditioning, perhaps the most beleaguered casualty of all. In 1900, it was the eighth-largest city in the country. In 1940, it was the 13th-largest city. In recent years it has struggled as an also-ran. Currently it is ranked 65th.

I’m a native, and I cherish the city and its diversity of seasons, but there is a delicious irony in the impact of air conditioning—which was invented in Buffalo by a young man who grew up in Angola, studied engineering at Cornell and was hired as a junior engineer at Buffalo Forge Corp. His name was Willis Carrier.

Just one year after he graduated from Cornell, Carrier devised a contraption that was installed in the pressroom of a Brooklyn printer, where the summer humidity was wreaking havoc. The paper would absorb varying amounts of moisture, making it virtually impossible to maintain registration of the colors as they were printed, one at a time. His contraption was the first air conditioner.

Carrier proved to be an engineering wizard. He realized it wasn’t the heat that jeopardized the printing quality; it was the humidity. He found a way to reduce the moisture content of the air in the pressroom, enabling the printer to produce the same high-quality work that was normal in cooler weather. The invention also delighted the pressmen, who no longer worked in oppressively hot conditions.

That was in 1902. Carrier subsequently modified his original concept and in 1915 founded Carrier Air Conditioning Corp.

Over the years, air conditioning had a stunning influence around the world. It is easier to measure in the United States, but the story is the same elsewhere. The growth of certain areas had been stunted by the climate. People and developers shunned those areas—places such as Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego and San Jose. No longer avoided, those places had phenomenal growth and are now in the top 10 in population, along with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

For Buffalo, the irony is obvious: Air conditioning was invented here, and it was the singular invention that stimulated exponential growth in the Sun Belt. It was Carrier’s invention that contributed to the decline of cities like Buffalo and Rochester, cities that eventually became known as the Rust Belt.

For a number of years, I spent time in Arizona during the late spring and summer. Phoenix now has a population of about 1.5 million. In the mid-20th century, when the census showed Buffalo at 580,000, Phoenix had 106,000. The Phoenix of today is a direct result of air conditioning. The unrelenting heat of the Southwest has been subdued by air conditioning.

Phoenix residents stress the “dry heat.” I can testify, however, that no matter the relative humidity, when the temperature soars to 100 or 110, which is not unusual, it is unbearably hot—too hot to work or play outside unless it is absolutely necessary. People don’t stray too far from the air-conditioned comfort of their homes, offices, cars and businesses.

The latest census statistics show that 87 percent of housing units in the United States are air conditioned, a figure that 25 years ago would have been considered incredible.

Yes, Willis Haviland Carrier deserves credit for changing the world. He died in 1950 and is buried in Buffalo, in a cool and shady spot at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

7/25/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.



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