The invention of air conditioning is an often overlooked factor in the shaping of the history of Florida. However, modern air conditioning has affected everything from culture to industry and is considered an integral if not necessary aspect of everyday life.
Florida caught its first glimpse of modern air conditioning in the 1830s when Dr. John Gorrie suspended basins of natural ice above the heads of fever patients to cool the air and alleviate discomfort. Dr. Gorrie lived near the early seaport of Apalachicola where he worked with the Marine Hospital Service to care for sick and disabled seamen. Gorrie bought his ice from Schooners that came into the port from the North. However, when the shipments were delayed ice became scarce and expensive. Like many inventions Gorrie’s was in some part accidental. Gorrie had used an air compressor to help release cold air into patients’ rooms. One warm night, the engine running the steam compressor ran to long: "Moisture condensed on the conveyor pipe and froze. He found the pipe clogged with ice the next morning.” (Becker 5) After that event he spent years trying to perfect a means to mechanically produce ice. He invented and patented a working machine that far surpassed the technology of the time and employed many of the basic principles still used in modern air conditioning and refrigeration. That is why John Gorrie, M.D. is often regarded as the father of air conditioning and mechanical refrigeration. There is a statue in the U.S. capitol building dedicated to his accomplishments as, “father of air conditioning and inventor of the ice-making machine and Apalachicola’s great physician, public official and good citizen.”(Dunn 1)
Advancements in technology soon paved the way for the introduction of modern air conditioning into Florida: “In the late 1860s the invention of the refrigerated tank car revolutionized the meat packing industry and spurred new interest in the science of air control.”(Aresnault 600) In 1882 the electric fan was invented and used to ventilate mines, and cool factories, homes, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, courthouses and barber shops. Owning an electric fan soon became a symbol of wealth and class among Floridians and other southerners. However, the first true air conditioner was not invented until 1902 by engineer Willis Carrier. Unlike the electric fans already in use, Carrier’s invention controlled both temperature and humidity by, “pumping air at a set velocity over coils refrigerated at a set temperature…” (Arsenault 601) Over the next several years countless versions based on Carrier’s initial design appeared across the United States. However, air conditioning was mostly restricted to industrial environments. Air conditioners appeared in cotton mills, cigar factories, pepper mills, breweries and bakeries. Air conditioning improved many aspects of industry in Florida and the South. For instance, in the textile industry moisture content in fibers could be better controlled and ensure a better product. Also, in the tobacco industry, controlling moisture content allowed for better weighing and pricing. In addition, all industries benefited from having a more comfortable work environment for their employees, and enjoyed the work efficiency that occurred as a result.
Soon other advancements in technology led to air conditioning the general public of Florida could enjoy. Carrier again revolutionized air conditioning technology when he coupled the centrifugal compressor to air conditioning and substituted ammonia for a safer coolant, Carrene: “By replacing the cumbersome piston-driven compressor, Carrrier’s innovation reduced the size and increased the efficiency of air conditoners.”(Arsenault 603) Air conditioning slowly found its way into several public buildings such as movie theaters, banks and department stores. However, Florida and the rest of the South’s incorporation of air conditioning were much slower compared to the north. While air conditioning of public buildings in the north began to take root in the late 1920s and 1930s, it was not until post WWII that it became more commonplace in the south. By the 1960s air conditioned hotels and motels had become more common. Motels and restaurants, like those pictured, boasted air-conditioned facilities for their visitors. This greatly increased the tourism industry as visitors to Florida could visit in comfort during the summer months. In addition, “By 1955, 10 percent of the new cars sold in the United States had factory installed air conditioners. A decade later the figure was 23 percent; in most areas of the South the figure was approaching 50 percent. By 1973 more than 80 percent of the cars in the South were equipped with air conditioning.” (Arsenault 612) This and the refrigeration of most railway cars by the 1940s made transportation much more comfortable for Floridians and the rest of the country.
After WWII, air conditioning became an integral part of Florida culture and living. This marked a major cultural shift for Florida: “Over four hundred thousand southern homes had central air units in 1960; by the mid-1960s more than 40 percent of the homes being built in the region were equipped with ‘central air’.”(Arsenault 610) Before air conditioning, southerners were accustomed to a “front porch” lifestyle where families would spend time outside of the house on the front porch where it was cooler. People would socialize while on the porch, and neighbors would often walk by and visit each other while cooling off. With the advent of modern air conditioning families spent more time inside watching television or engaging in other indoor activities rather than being social with anyone who happened to walk by their front porch. In addition, Florida and the south also began to shift from an agricultural and rural lifestyle to a more industrial and urban one. With the weather becoming more bearable with air conditioning, more and more people were visiting and staying in Florida. Motels and restaurants, like those pictured, boasted air conditioned facilities for their visitors. Air conditioning became a big draw for visitors, as can be seen in the piece of sheet music pictured entitled, “Sarasota F.L.A., the Air Conditioned City”. As a result, air conditioning is thought to have played a role in the large population density boom in the South, with the population density doubling from 1930 to 1980.
While one could argue that Florida has lost some of its “front porch culture” and other uniquely Southern culture, there is no doubt that the introduction of air conditioning has greatly shaped the recent history of Florida and is viewed by many as a near necessity in the modern world.