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Editor's letter: Willis Carrier's wondrous invention

The greatest invention in human history is not the wheel, and it’s certainly not sliced bread.

The greatest invention in human history is not the wheel, and it’s certainly not sliced bread. As much of the nation broiled this week in temperatures in the high 90s and beyond, can there be any doubt that our most wondrous piece of technology is the air conditioner? It was way back in 1902 that Willis Carrier created the Apparatus for Treating Air for a Brooklyn printing company—a breakthrough that, as it developed and spread over decades, changed the human condition. Today close to 90 percent of U.S. homes have AC, but I am old enough to remember when it was still a luxury. During heat waves, people barely moved, fanning themselves in an oppressed torpor. Nights were a sleepless ordeal, with sweat pooling in your hollows. From such misery did Carrier set us free. Why is there no statute of this great American among the heroes at the National Mall?

Air conditioning is not merely a matter of comfort; it has given us modern life. It keeps people—and computers—working when the mercury climbs past 90, thus boosting the economy. It’s enabled a great migration of tens of millions of people to Sun Belt states that nature intended for lizards, not warm-blooded mammals. And as the world warms, the demand for AC grows ever greater, consuming 20 percent of all U.S. electricity—and a rapidly growing share in India and China. Alarmed, some eco-warriors now suggest we all wean ourselves from Carrier’s invention and return to a more natural way of life. Sorry: I’d give up my digital gadgets, my TV, and even my car before I went back to a world without conditioned air. If they come for my AC, they’ll have to pry it out of my wonderfully cold, dead fingers.

William Falk

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