Have you ever wondered what people did to keep cool before air conditioning systems became affordable and commonplace? After all, residential air conditioners haven’t been around that long and surely people were just as uncomfortable from the heat then as they are now, those without air conditioning that is. So let’s look at some of the ways that people have used to keep cool in the past.
Cooling with the Earth
Probably the original method of dealing with heat in living environments involved living underground or living in a cave. Not only would a cave help protect you from predators, it could also maintain a temperature of about 10 degrees Celsius throughout the year. When people started moving out of caves they often built using materials and techniques that mimicked the temperature controlling characteristics of caves. Exterior walls were generally made out of stone, brick, or adobe and homes were often built into hillsides or set down into the ground, which helped to keep the house cool through its contact with the earth.
Ancient Egyptians hung wet mats and placed pots that were filled with water in areas that otherwise had warm, dry breezes. This created breezes that were more cool and moist. This particular method has been used for thousands of years by Ancient Greeks and Romans as well as by indigenous people throughout the world. Roman emperors were also known to have mountain snow brought into their gardens for cooling. Historical records from the Middle East around the 8th century indicate that slaves were used to make cool breezes by fanning air across blocks of ice. Some of the wealthiest homes had double walls that were used for packing in snow and ice. The practice of slaves creating breezes for their masters by waiving fans continued well into the 19th century in the west.
In warm climates, people learned to build their homes in ways that would optimise the circulation of air. Features included large windows and doors, covered porches, high interior ceilings, lots of large shade trees as well as fountains and pools. It is interesting to note that the pools were primarily used to cool the air and that swimming pools did not become popular until the mid-19th century. Many homes built before residential air conditioning was invented have split-levels and have high ceilings to take advantage of rising warm air. Open stairwells were very common as well since they also allowed the warm air to rise to upper levels. Turrets or towers were often used in these homes to collect heat and disperse it outside. Shade trees and awnings were also commonly used to block the summer sun, minimise its heat and provide cool breezes. Large, covered front porches were also established as a way to stay cool. When homes were unbearably hot from gathering heat all day, people would sit on the porch to enjoy the coolness of the evening.
A Modern Marvel
In the 19th century, engineers and inventors continued to experiment with different ways of blowing air across a cold substance, such as wet cloth or ice. After nearly 100 years of experimenting, the predecessor of modern air conditioning was born at the turn of the 20th century. Of course it took many decades of refinement to establish a design that was simple enough and affordable enough for the masses.
Today air conditioning has gone from a luxury item to a necessity, especially when living in a sub-tropical climate like we have here in Australia. Aside from the incredible comfort that air conditioners bring, there are also many health benefits such as cleaner air, less mould and better rest. So with summer right around the corner, perhaps it’s time to move out of the dark ages and into a happier and healthier way of life.