Climate Control

A History of Heating & Cooling

Well into the 19th century, Americans relied on fireplaces to warm their homes in winter. But that method wasn’t simply inefficient — it was ineffective, too. Travel a few feet from the fireplace, and you might start shivering again.

In this episode, the History Guys look at what happened when stoves became widely available in the mid-19th century, and how that technology altered Americans’ way of life. They also consider the advent of air conditioning a century later, and explore its far-reaching implications on everything from architecture and leisure to demography and politics.

How did America become the “land of comfort?” And what lessons does the history of climate control hold for us today?



Comments (21)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Marc

    Of course, the obvious question is: how did the invention and spread of air conditioning change demographics, population trends, the growth of industry, etc.?

  2. Marc

    While growing up in Michigan, with its cold, wet winters and hot, humid summers, and its plague of mosquitos (which must have been far worse before the swampy land was drained), I had to wonder why anyone would have settled there. Was the climate different in the 19th century? I know it’s warmer now than in the 1960s, but what was it like in 1800s?

  3. Marc

    I recall the Laura Ingalls Wilder book, The Long Winter. Heavy snows kept the rail lines closed, and without the arrival of fresh coal, people risked death. Can it be said that the coal that allowed for the railways also allowed for the settlement of these areas without wood to provide heat?

  4. Marc

    As we try to reduce our energy use, what lessons can we learn from how Americans heated and cooled themselves in the past, in particular with regard to housing design?

  5. Diana Franklin

    Along the Missouri river there were areas totally denuded of trees during the late 1700 to mid 1800s due to the forts built for the fur trapping enterprises. Most of the labor in forts were spent searching for firewood and stockpiling it for winter.

  6. Ellie Goldberg

    I’ve always been curious how people survived extreme temperatures – especially women in those long dresses — How did people survive the heat working the fields in the plantations in the south, the wagon trains in the desert, the Antartic…not just for a day or two but for years! How did they physically manage everything? And what were the long term effects on their health and emotions?

  7. Travis

    Hey, guys. Great topic!!!

    I’m a professional mechanical engineer in southern california, so I design HVAC systems for commercial buildings.

    One story I’ve always loved from history is about the “Alphabet buildings”. See, before the advent of commercial HVAC, architects had to make sure that everyone in a building was within about 20 feet of an openable window. So, if you looked at them from the sky, they all looked like Os, Us, Ts, Is, As, of Hs.

    I try to tell my architect clients this, but they don’t really seem to care. But, if you think about it, before the 20s, you’d never be able to build a structure that’s 100ft by 100ft. The poor souls in the midde would suffocate and burn up!! Even in the winter!

    Of course, nowadays, its all about energy. The HVAC system is a big user of energy. But, its an even bigger accountant of energy. Every kw that you use in your building has to get shuffled around by your HVAC system.

    Someone also mentioned that history could teach us some lessons on building energy. Boy, it sure could. How about this one: Don’t build glass boxes, they focus the sun’s energy into the building like magnifying glasses do to ants. Sadly, nobody wants to hear that…. glass buildings are so pretty.

    I can’t wait to hear this show!

  8. David

    I wonder whether the fear of Washington summers played into the legislative effectiveness of FDR’s first 100 days. Since the inauguration occurred later in 1933 than it does now, 100 days would have placed Congress at the beginning of summer. FDR’s threat to keep Congress in session during the sticky Washington summer might have seemed formidable in an era before air conditioning, and contributed to the alacrity with which it passed laws.

  9. RR Anderson

    Dear History Guys,
    Great show! Loved the bit about cast iron stoves. I once heard that Walt Disney would make mini potbelly stoves out of clay as a hobby.. your thoughts? Thanks!

  10. Mark Davis

    You invited us to share our favorite heating/cooling stories. When I was a teenager and had my first summer job I wanted to buy an air conditioner for my room. My parents wouldn’t let me because of the costs of energy. To protest I decided to be naked. I got in an argument with my mother who said “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t walk around naked.” we did live in a glass house and was right.

  11. Ward Mulroy

    Good show! On the subject of the introduction of early air conditioning it should be noted that the technology was developed to remove moisture from the air rather than to temperature control. Willis Carrier (later – Carrier Air Conditioners) was an engineer employed by a printing press who was looking for a way to keep skids of paper from warping and buckling due to changes in the moisture content of the air.

  12. Dennis D.

    In the early 50’s having air conditioning would make many businesses boom. I remember, as a child, going to the movies just to get out of the heat of Utah. It did not always matter what was playing. Now you know why many movies were seen several times a week by the same patrons.