The Evolution of Cool

Early cinemas were used to convince the populace that air conditioning was cool.

by Alfred Holden

I watched poetic justice unfold in a cool way last month, when the brief May heat wave hit. The clamour for air conditioning erupted that very day in my own home, and spread like a storm through the St. George Street building where I live. But by the time the engineers turned on the central air, the weather, too, had turned. We froze. The system leaked.

“A wonderful thing,” the U.S. watchdog magazine Consumer Reports found fit to say about air conditioning in 1957, when the now-familiar, then-innovative “room” air conditioner, which you hang on a window sill, was coming of age.

Wonderful then and now, maybe, but a mixed blessing too. “They make buildings look like they have a bad case of warts,” Arthur Nichol of Montreal architectural firm Affleck, Desbarats and Dimakopoulos said about window coolers in Canadian Builder in 1961.

Not to mention other unattractive ends of air conditioning’s temperature, financial and environmental equations.

Just look at all the heat vented outside as conditioners cool the indoors, which has, ironically, helped air conditioned cities like Atlanta become sweltering “heat islands” outdoors. The same effect heats Toronto’s subway tunnels way above comfort levels.

There’s also the corrosive cost — the more than $400, for instance, that I paid my mechanic Angelo on Davenport Rt. last year for a needed rebuild of the air-conditioning on my aging General Motors sedan.

And then there’s the guilt factor.

That’s the niggling feeling deep within some of us that the price of air conditioning is not pay-as-you-go, but make-your-descendants-pay, in ways yet to reveal themselves.

Charles Kettering, a General Motors researcher, was a hero much of the 20th century for instigating the development of Freon 12, a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant.

Freon was a great thing, in its day. Earlier refrigerants, such as ammonia and sulphur dioxide, were toxic; indeed, leaks had killed people.

Frigidaire was a division of GM that built refrigerators. “Our biggest research problem in Frigidaire, and the corporation’s great ultimate contribution, concerned the refrigerant itself,” the GM chief executive, Alfred Sloan, wrote in the 1960s.

He asked a chemist named Thomas Midgely –the man who put lead in gasoline to give it more oomph — to develop a new “safe” refrigerant. Midgely succeeded in 1928, and “proved it was non-toxic by inhaling some of it himself,” Sloan recalled in My Years with General Motors.

Perhaps Freon was safe in the atmosphere of Midgely’s lungs, but “the great ultimate contribution,” unfortunately, was erosion of the earth’s life-giving ozone layer by escaped Freon gases. Freon is now being withdrawn form use.

Kettering, interviewed from his Detroit laboratory by the Toronto Star in 1937, predicted other things more accurately, including that air conditioning would “completely revolutionize” industry and living.

The Star reported him saying, “No one ever ballyhooed the great bathtub industry. Yet a bathtub found its way into every home.”

In 1911, the Scientific American published an engraving of Alexander Graham Bell’s “ice room” — an office with ducts bringing in air chilled by a chunk of ice.

Sometime in the 1980s, Canadians’ demand for cooling helped push summertime energy consumption above winter’s peaks. Close to our homes, a red-letter date for air conditioning was the opening of the Midtown (now the Bloor Cinema) on Thursday, May 8, 1941. “The house is air conditioned,” reported the Toronto Telegram the night before.

In being so cool, the Midtown, which had existed as the Madison since 1913, was, by 1941, more typical than exceptional (even Packard cars had it by then), but that too was significant. “Completely air conditioned” was one of the attractions offered by the Eglinton Theatre when it opened five years earlier. Some flirted with hyperbole, like the top photo of the Tivoli, which was “scientifically air conditioned.”

Air conditioned theatres — in Toronto often decorated with paper icicles — were where most citizens first experienced air conditioning.

Its had its faults, they knew. One Toronto reporter mentioned the “competitive freezing of the customers,” but to neighbourhoods cool was hipper than hot.

Herbert L. Laube, an executive with the Carrier Corporation, called movie theatres air conditioning’s “midwife,” for not until the public began experiencing it in large numbers at the movies was the general demand for air conditioning born.

Laube’s memoir, How to Have Air Conditioning and Still Be Comfortable, is a rare example of a candid, public corporate self-critique.

Laube describes — in a great bit of prose — heat-soaked, suffering railway passengers stepping from the Santa Fe Navajo train at Needles, California, in the Mojave desert. It was “the hottest point on the hot desert portion of the Santa Fe.”

The year was 1925, and those passengers stepped from the hellish train into heaven — a Fred Harvey restaurant. “They were amazed, astonished, flabbergasted” at the coolness. Later, “as the Navajo disappeared into the darkness, its passengers realized they had all witnessed a miracle.”

Yet most of Laube’s book is about disappointment: “The great but inadequate accomplishments of the comfort industry.”

A colleague of Willis Carrier, who perfected air conditioning in the early 1900s, Laube felt a/c was often poorly designed, installed, and maintained, and frequently a cause of discomfort and waste. “Laube’s lament,” he called his own angst.

Seventy years after the re-christened Midtown cinema opened, you can still take in a movie and cool off there on a summer night, experiencing, as Laube wrote, “air conditioning’s fore-ordained career to fill movie houses during hot weather.”

We no longer feel amazement, as those passengers on the Navajo in 1925 did, but it’s a soothing atmosphere.

The moment is marred among some of us by the knowledge that our comfort may be at great, unknown future cost.

-Alfred Holden is the Sunday Insight editor at the Toronto Star, a contributing editor for Taddle Creek, and a former columnist for the Annex Gleaner, where this article originally appeared in June, 2000.

First image (from top): Tivoli Theatre, Toronto, August 1947. Archives of Ontario.
Second image: General Electric thin-line air-conditioning unit, New Liberty Magazine, 1956.
Third image: Rialto Theatre, Toronto. Corner of Yonge & Shuter, 1916. Shows early adopter of commercial air conditioning. 32elvismovies archives.
Fourth image: Midtown Theatre, Bloor St., Toronto, 1940. Note entrances on either side of box office; only one remains. 32elvismovies archives.

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