President In Crisis: Magic boxes stop nation overheating

American Times WASHINGTON
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WASHINGTON HAS been humming this summer. In mid-town lawyers' offices, Kenneth Starr and his colleagues have been hard at work chronicling the sex life of the President; down in the basement lairs of the National Security Council and the Pentagon, they have been planning missile strikes; while in the top-floor eyries of the International Monetary Fund, they have been working night and day to monitor the financial crises of the world. August has been the busiest month of the year.

But none of this would have been possible were it not for the whirring boxes that sit in cellars, on rooftops or on window ledges across the city. In Washington, when the going gets tough in the summer, the tough turn up the air-conditioning. Everything that has happened in this steamy summer has relied on a steady stream of cold air.

Air conditioning in Britain is thought of as a luxury. But in Washington, a town made all but uninhabitable by heat and humidity for five months of the year, it is a staple of decent human existence.

It was politics which decided that the capital of the new nation should be placed in Washington, in between New England and the southern plantation states. It was a malarial swamp in the sub-tropical belt, making life a hell.

Even now, the excited chatter of political life takes second place to a house on the beach, a hammock and a cold drink. The air becomes thick, wet and enveloping; the city starts to smell, perhaps appropriately, of putrefaction. With the rhythmical sibilance of cicadas in the background, sometimes one comes over all Tennessee Williams.

Once, this made Washington a seasonal city. When the temperature and humidity were above certain levels, everyone was given the day off. Mr Starr would have spent the summer sipping iced tea in his house in Virginia, his thoughts wandering, perhaps, from his moral crusade.

All of this changed in 1902, when Willis Carrier invented air-conditioning for a printing plant in New York. Washington quickly embraced the innovation. In 1928, the House of Representatives got it, followed by the Senate, the White House and the Supreme Court. Air-conditioning now accounts for more than 40 per cent of electricity use in the capital in summer.

The Pentagon was built with air-conditioning, one of the first such large-scale office buildings. Back in 1942, it had 16 1,100-ton Carrier machines (Air-conditioning is measured in terms of the cooling obtained from melting blocks of ice; so a 1,100-ton machine equates to 1,100 tons of ice melting in a day). The addition of more people and hot machinery in the Pentagon made it necessary to upgrade these.

By 1996, when the whole system was replaced, they used 10 modern, 3,750- ton York Turbomasters, generating twice the cooling power of the old system.

The new machines rarely break down, but during the 1991 Gulf War the old machines faltered, raising the temperature in the Army's operations centre to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Air-conditioning has altered the sweat-stained face of the nation. In Washington, it has even made its mark on men's fashion. Once, the standard uniform in the summer was the lightweight blue-and-white striped seersucker suit; now it is the dull business two-piece.

Raymond Arsenault, a historian, charted this chilling change 20 years ago, noting that the South, in particular, had been transformed out of recognition by humming boxes that drip water all over the pavement.

The birth of the cool has removed many distinctive features from the old South, changing architecture, fashion, and social life. "General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman,"Arsenault wrote. New houses no longer have the characteristic high ceilings or large windows, and the front porches are gone, because there is nobody to sit on them any more and chat away the long, hot nights.

There have been hints of a backlash, with people yearning for the simple, if hot, days of yore. But frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Progress is progress. You can sit outside in a puddle of your own sweat discussing Faulkner if you want. I shall be inside, with the Turbomaster cranked up as far as it goes.