Ring's reflections: When air conditioning kicks off, our thoughts turn to the sweaty settlers

2011-08-04T00:00:00Z Ring's reflections: When air conditioning kicks off, our thoughts turn to the sweaty settlersOpinion by Bob Ring Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Recently Pat and I camped out in our bedroom for days at a time. No, it wasn't a romantic holiday - it was because the darn air conditioning in the main part of the house bit the dust four times in 10 days.

Each time the air conditioner went out, Pat and I watched our living area temperature rise, slowly but surely, until we were driven upstairs to the bedroom where (thankfully) a second air conditioner still worked.

It took four visits - and replacing everything in the main air conditioning unit except the air - for the repair guys to isolate an overheating problem in the fan motor, which tripped a temperature switch, which blew a fuse … you get the idea.

While we were ensconced upstairs with our basic survival gear - laptop, iPad, smartphone and chocolate cookies - we wondered how Tucsonans coped with summer temperatures before air conditioning was invented. Talking to a few older friends who grew up here, and doing a little online research, we found some answers.

Husbands would send their families to the mountains or coast, if possible, while they hung on earning a living. A form of that tradition continues today, with many Tucsonans getting out of town for the summer.

Those who stayed in Tucson had a few tricks to survive. Some used handheld fans. Most of the cooking was done right after breakfast, during the cooler part of the day.

Some people had sleeping porches, screened on the back of their house. Part of that group would hang wet sheets to gain a little relief from the summer breezes that blew through.

Others even wrapped themselves in wet sheets and positioned themselves in front of an electric fan!

Pat remembers raising a young child in Phoenix, where summer survival equipment included unlimited Popsicles and frequent pool visits - yours or your neighbors. Doing housework in a bathing suit helped, too. Pat reminds me that Phoenix is hotter (especially at night) than Tucson and the sleeping porch idea there is a non-starter.

Before we resumed our normal lives downstairs, we also researched the history of man's attempts to fight back against summer heat.

Swamp coolers became generally available in the 1940s - removing heat from air blown through thin, water-logged layers of burlap or wood chips. But swamp coolers lose effectiveness when it's very hot and humid (i.e., during the monsoon).

Air conditioning saved the day! Invented by Willis Carrier in 1902, air conditioners use chemicals, such as Freon, that easily convert from a gas to a liquid and back again. As the liquid changes to gas and evaporates, it extracts heat from the air around it.

Starting in 1925, initial applications of air conditioning included movie theaters, office buildings, department stores and railroad cars. Do you remember the first local building to use air conditioning? Please let me know.

After World War II, window unit air conditioners appeared, then central air conditioning for the home.

That is when I got lucky - and terribly spoiled. My dad worked for General Electric in the room air conditioner department; we got to try out all the new models while living in hot, humid Louisville, Ky.

I'll be ready to "beat the heat" during my next air-conditioning catastrophe. My extensive research included a modern manual for sleeping comfortably on a hot night. Suggestions include using a fan to blow air over ice, using a hammock, wearing wet socks and chilling your pillowcase.

My favorite recommendation is getting several blocks of "blue ice," normally sold in supermarkets, freezing them during the day and taking them to bed with you at night.

Online sources: "Hot Weather in the Old Days"; "Evaporative Cooling: History of Technology"; "History of Air Conditioning"; "How to Sleep Comfortably on a Hot Night." E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com or view his website, ringbrothershistory.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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