Wishing for a heat waiver

With today’s temperatures topping off at nearly 100 degrees, it may take many of us a colossal amount of restraint to avoid giving Mother Nature the finger. But perhaps a bit of perspective, of the historical sort, will help cool our brows and (dare I say) re-warm our hearts to Mama Nature.

The above picture doesn’t seem so ridiculous after having experienced a 100 degree heat wave the past two days, does it? We have it pretty good, despite what our recent expletive-riddled tirades against the humidity and heat may indicate.

Most of us have working air conditioning units (whether centralized or via window units) that can soothe our sizzling flesh, and we have A/C units (thank you, Freon) that can quickly cool the inside of our cars should we drive with either purpose or frivolity. We are the lucky ones.

Our ancestors, on the other hand, had to deal with heat the old fashioned way–by not being able to do anything about it. But by knowing a bit of history, we can foster some modern-day appreciation for just how fortunate we are during a seething heat wave.

Be glad you didn’t live in New York City in August of 1896. In the course of ten consecutive days, poorly ventilated buildings became ovens, with their occupants dying from heat-related afflictions because there was no air conditioning or running water. Edward P. Kohn, author of Hot Time in the Old Town says this of those hapless New Yorkers:

“They took to the rooftops, and they took to the fire escapes, trying to catch a breath of fresh air […] Inevitably, somebody would fall asleep or get drunk, roll off the top of a five-story tenement, crash into the courtyard below and be killed. You’d have children who would go to sleep on fire escapes and fall off and break their legs or be killed. People [tried] to go down to the piers on the East River and sleep there, out in the open — and would roll into the river and drown.”

Horses would drop dead in the street. All told, roughly 1,500 people across the country (an average of 150 per day) died because of the heat wave. The then little-known police commissioner of New York City, Theodore Roosevelt, was one of the few public officials who actively voiced his concern for the poor, and would rise to political notoriety, in part because of public admiration for his involvement in the affair.

In 1902, Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first air conditioning system, and his patent titled “Apparatus for Treating Air” (U.S. Pat# 808897) was granted in 1906. This type of air modulation, however, was meant for preservation purposes. Carrier pioneered home cooling in 1928 with his “Weathermaker” unit, although the Great Depression initially stymied its popularity. The economic boon following World War II, however, made this luxury more and more common, with more manufacturers tweaking and improving upon the initial design (why, as of yet, there isn’t a national holiday commemorating Carrier’s cooling influence remains a mystery).

The ancient Egyptians (2500 BCE) would use a “fly-roof” to “air-condition” a cabin on board a sailing vessel for the traveling pharoah. They would stretch canvas tarp over a wooden frame, soaking the tarp with water to allow for evaporative cooling (removing of moisture in the air). Although this would (just barely?) minimize the oppressing heat, it does not come close to the effectiveness of a contemporary Frigidaire. Be grateful that we in the 21st century call this form of air conditioning “primitive” and not “post-modern.”

But heat, in and of itself is not the only force that makes the summer hellish. We’ve all heard someone say, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” as if they themselves coined this overused (although scientifically legitimate) phrase. Humidity, the phenomenon of water vapor in the atmosphere, and heat form a dynamic duo of thermodynamic annoyance.

When our bodies become overheated, they expel moisture to cool themselves. But when high a high presence of humidity surrounds our bodies (such as the greater Richmond area in summer), they cannot expel as much sweat, thus creating the sensation that the temperature is hotter than it, in fact, is. Although we want to avoid cliches like the plague, as William Safire once said, we can give a pass to our overused “it’s the humidity” line because it, in a sense, gets to an important truth: when hot, humidity is not your friend.

Although today’s heat, and the heat that we can expect in the future (hello July and August!), can feel oh so “enhanced interrogation technique”-ish, be grateful that we have our contemporary methods to stave off the cruel heat of Mother Nature, and that we are not in the shoes of our far, far less fortunate ancestors. Think of them while you stay indoors next to your A/C unit watching cable television, sipping on your water and iced tea.


Photo by: thrp

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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