Heat and the Movies

Hot weather encourages feelings of gratitude for the existence of air conditioning, the primary inventor of which (at least as far as a practical system goes) was Willis Carrier.  His original motivation was not the improvement of human comfort, but rather solving air quality problems affecting the operations of a printing company.  But A/C was quickly applied to the dehumidification and cooling of human was well as industrial environments.

Initially, systems were large and expensive and hence better-fitted to businesses and other environments serving a lot of people than to individual homes.  One of the first industries that adopted air conditioning was the motion-picture theater industry, starting with an installation at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater in 1922.

It makes sense to believe, and seems to be generally accepted, that the introduction of A/C had much to do with the great success of the movie industry…if the theater was one of the few places in town where you could be cool, then it would be nice to have enough new movies constantly coming out to justify going the the theater as often as possible.

The same phenomenon applied with department stores…starting with a Hudson’s in Detroit in 1926…though I would think A/C was not quite as impactful in that case as in the case of the movies.

BUT, with the introduction and constant improvement of home air conditioners, the process would have likely gone into reverse: if you can be cool at home, there is less incentive to “go to the movies” unless there is something showing that you really want to see. Similarly with retail..although until the introduction of the consumer Internet, you still needed to go to a store for most things.

It is pretty common that a technology that helps a particular industry at one point will, later and with further development of that industry, harm that industry.  Another example is the newspaper industry:  one of the great enablers of the growth of the newspaper industry was the telegraph (along with the high-speed printing press and the Linotype machine.)  But as digital communications (of which the telegraph was an early example) developed into data networks and ultimately the Internet, the ability to conveniently extend the information flow into the home was devastatingly harmful to that industry.

Returning to the air conditioner, another impact of this technology has been geographical: making areas that were previously not-so-desirable for reasons of climate much more generally inhabitable…as in the cases of the US south and southwest.

A/C is a significant consumer of energy in the form of electricity, and as it is more widely adopted in places such India, it will have a major impact on electricity consumption in those countries.

Thoughts?  Other industry examples?

35 thoughts on “Heat and the Movies”

  1. Street cars, trolleys and automobiles.

    Another interesting one is computing. Mainframes to PC,s to thin clients. A constant war for control of data. It will be interesting to see what developments return power to the individual.

    Recorded music has had a similar impact on live performance.

  2. I remember going to the same movie on both Saturday and Sunday just for the A/C. I think A/C is responsible for a much greater portion of economic and productivity gains since WWII than most realize.

  3. Well, I have run an A/C distributor for 30 years so this is pretty much my wheelhouse. The only beef I have with your post is this: “…as in the cases of the US south and southwest.” Here in the Midwest, Summers are brutally humid and without a/c (which is pretty much a giant de-humidifier along with a conditioner of air) things would be insanely terrible. Granted, our season for cooling and de-humidification is not as long as other areas, but we then have our needs for heating and with that, we have to re-humidify our homes. Come to think of it, why the heck am I living here?

    In general, I am with most who think about these things – engineered climate is one of the most important inventions. Without it, productivity would be stymied, and lives shortened. Also, so many products simply can’t be produced in either low or high humidity environments.

  4. The founder of Singapore on air conditioning:
    Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics. Without air conditioning you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk.
    Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, 2009

    Low humidity parts of the US southwest can use evaporative cooling instead of AC, like the Colorado Front Range with summer temps in the 90s but <20% relative humidity. Swamp coolers cost 1/4 as air conditioner to run and the house doesn't have to be closed up.

  5. @CapitalistRoader – I sell exactly one swamp cooler a year to some enterprising individual who thinks they can make them work here in the Midwest. I always try to talk them out of it and they never listen, and they always fail. I sell them with no warranty.

    As if the humidity isn’t bad enough, the water around here is heavy with minerals, which fouls those things quickly if not treated properly with chemicals. Usually they a) don’t work and then b) freeze and explode in the Winter because the contractor/customer forgets to drain them down.

  6. Dan…any thoughts about geothermal heating & cooling for homes?

    Some guy in the industry remarked that there is a sales obstacle in selling them to ‘environmentally conscious’ people…since they are invisible and there is nothing to be seen like a been solar panel, they are useless for virtue-bragging rights.

  7. The musical play, “The Music Man” begins with salesmen on the railroad and depends upon The Wells Fargo Wagon (completing last mile delivery). Items only available from factories far from River City, Iowa were coming to families that had never considered such luxuries. The play documents an rail-mature era where little cities were joining the greater community; and just before Sears and Montgomery Ward, via parcel post, united the rural areas, even frontiers, with those and larger cities.

    Everything’s up to date in River City. So to speak.

    It’s not so very different from how Amazon is changing the logistics world today.

  8. I don’t know about the “bragging rights” argument but here is what I do know.

    Geothermal takes the right contractor to sell them, and the right homeowner to buy them. The initial installation is extremely expensive and pretty technical. The energy savings are there, and enviro types can say they are “doing the right thing” that is for sure. But as to geothermal vs. a traditional system wrt to energy savings, I am having a hard time with the math when you factor in the initial installation. And the repairs are also very expensive for geothermal vs. a traditional forced air system.

    IIRC, the city of Madison doesn’t allow you to dig the field, and most don’t have yards big enough anyways so around here you are restricted to areas outside of the city. As I mentioned before, our water is heavy with minerals so you have to chemically treat the loops correctly, or you will be back relatively soon to clean the fouled heat exchangers.

    The geothermal market has gone directly from the manufacturers to contractors (2 step) for some time. There really isn’t room for a distributor like myself – so we aren’t involved. Some brands do go through distributors, but my investment in an engineer for that and trying to dislodge established direct to contractor brands doesn’t make sense when I have better fish to fry.

    Side story – I actually supply one of the geothermal OEM’s with parts and other items that they put into their finished product as they aren’t big enough to buy on an OEM level. They found out the hard way when they stopped buying my highest quality USA made copper and started using copper made in Vietnam in their units (to save money, obviously). Failures very quickly, and they have been buying the good stuff from me ever since.

  9. Movies, especially Westerns: NOTE the sweat and sweat stains on the extras. I grew up in the mid-west. It’s humid in summer.

  10. As if the humidity isn’t bad enough, the water around here is heavy with minerals, which fouls those things quickly if not treated properly with chemicals.

    Steady supply of clean water is such an essential component for mining, manufacturing, and refining, but it is often overlooked. I suppose it’s the opposite of air conditioning in that water requirements strictly limit where production can be located.

  11. @David – just the other day I remarked to a German friend one how little you see A/C there – I remember being on a Berlin Bus in 1992 – hot – humid – and the BO! If that is more civilized…

    They can laugh all they want.

    I spent half of my childhood in the Central Valley where 100+ in the summer is not at all unusual (less the humidity of the south or Midwest) – and I can remember through the early 60s a huge industry for add-on air units for cars – remember those under-the-dash air conditioning units?

    My Dad bought a new car in 1960 – and his choice was a Ford Galaxy with air or a Pontiac Catalina w/o. And he chose the Pontiac.

    Remember swamp coolers? This big things they would hang on the car windows?

  12. It’s interesting to speculate about the social/psychological effects of various ways of consuming video media.

    Movies were inherently a collective experience: the projectors were expensive and required a dedicated operator. The capital intensity of theater was further reinforced by the introduction of air conditioning.

    Early televisions were small (in terms of screen size), expensive, and with only 1-3 channels available. Good fit for family viewing, assuming the family wasn’t too big…hard to get 7 people close enough to view a 9-inch screen comfortably. Improvement to larger screen sizes encouraged family and friends group viewing.

    Cable TV coupled with sharp reduction in set cost encouraged multiple sets in a home and more individual viewing.

    With Internet viewing and the mobile phone, the individual nature of viewing as been carried to a very high level.

  13. I watched the installation of a borehole geothermal system on a new high-end house in Denver. Four 250′ deep holes as I recall but the pool was heated with a gas boiler. The contractor said that they’d have to double the number of bore holes to heat the pool so it just didn’t make economic sense. Natural gas is so cheap; I imagine the payback time is decades for that geothermal installation.

  14. The valley of disappointment is about to hit the blockchain world but that’s a technology that is revolutionizing everything that has to be counted and reported. It’s just that 9/10ths of operators in the space care about the tech and not the business model and that will kill them off pretty quick.

    There’s an opportunity for M&A activity to take over coins that don’t have a business model but have interesting technologists and useful enthusiasts.

  15. }}} Recorded music has had a similar impact on live performance.

    I’m put in mind of Peter Gabriel’s comments decades ago about music piracy. When he finds out there is a place where his music is/was getting heavily pirated, he scheduled a tour there. And made lots of money off of that.

    The Grateful Dead was, until the death of Jerry Garcia, the top or one of the top 2 or 3 touring acts in the nation for a decade or more running. And they ENCOURAGED fans to record their concerts. Pearl Jam recognized this, and there are many many of their concerts which have official “bootleg” recordings, sold by the band at the concerts (i.e., they did not make a lot of effort to clean it up and trim out things, it’s pretty close to being actually at one of their concerts). I believe you can/could buy CDs of older concerts at the concerts, and order one shipped to you of the concert you were at. Kind of like a t-shirt, but a bit more “real”.

    The band Phish also encouraged piracy. They grasped that the record companies benefited the most from record sales, while they could make a lot more on touring and associated merchandise.

    And then there is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which, initially, and then for many many years, became widely know because of people videotaping their shows and getting others to see them, especially in areas where their shows were unavailable. Do that right and you expand the market for them.

    The trick today is figuring out how to monetize it sufficient that it is worth the effort for the various groups and individuals involved. Yet another benefit of the modern era is “smaller is better”.

    While there will always be blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame, the smaller effort is more likely to manage a decent ROI. Nearly all the other film blockbusters this year, outside of a couple other Disney properties, have tanked, or at least disappointed.

  16. }}} Come to think of it, why the heck am I living here?


    Scribble toon of a kid all bundled up against the cold… breath coming out in a fog…
    “The air hurts my face. Why am I living where the air hurts my face?
    (Picture of a home doorway with a giant-ass snake slithering up it)
    “THIS is why I live where the air hurts my face.”
    (Picture of another doorway, with a 4′ alligator climbing up against it)
    “THIS is why I live where the air hurts my face.”
    (Picture of a doorway with a giant spiderweb with a big-ass spider across the approach walk)
    “THIS is why I live where the air hurts my face.”


  17. Dan,

    I am curious why you would have water running through your heat exchanger in a closed loop system. My water in central PA is so hard you have to hammer it to drink. But the geothermal has a closed loop of glycol, or something, that runs through the yard and into the heat exchanger. I never get native water into my system except for the humidifier in the winter.

    I have 2 acres, so it was easy to install. But if you are in an existing house on a small lot, it is not feasible.

    Where one has access to Marcellus natural gas, geothermal probably does not make sense. But if it is electric/propane/oil, I think geothermal should be mandated in new construction. The up front cost is high, but I have more than recovered the up front investment in my 15 years, but I could afford it. And if the house can not be sold with geothermal as part of the cost, it should be built where there is access to natural gas. My only complaint in 15 years is replacing a coil and condenser. But I guess you get that with any air conditioner. I love having my a/c in the basement instead of outside. I can not imagine that does not help system longevity. And I love my electric bills instead of oil.

  18. Mrs. Davis – agreed, it is a closed loop. But you have to get the original water from somewhere, and it has to be treated properly. Or you can use inhibited glycol as your system seems to have.

  19. When I moved to Tucson, we bought a house that had had a swamp cooler. The wiring was there but it had been removed,. Our A/C is getting old and I will probably have to replace it in the next three years. Is a swamp cooler worth it now? Would it augment the A/C so that a smaller unit would be adequate ? Tucson is higher than Phoenix and does not have all the pavement as a heat sink so tends to be 10 to 20 degrees cooler in summer.

  20. Mike – my knowledge of swamp coolers is pretty limited so I would say your best bet is to get three contractors to come out and look at the project and see what they say. One usually stands out.

  21. Mike:

    I am hardly an expert, but I was reading up on them.

    This seemed to be pretty good:

    It even details a means to test if they are likely to be effective, the wet bulb and dry bulb temperature difference (easy enough to test for yourself, then check with a legit source to validate). You want a significant difference in the wb-db temps, and ideally the wb should be less than 66 degrees, I believe. The general rule appears to be you can get 80-95% of the difference via evaporative cooling (one of the reasons why the 66 deg matters, as comfortable temp is ca. 72-75 deg). The biggest issue aside from that is that it does require a notable supply of water.

    That may give you some info you can use at least as a “truth check” against claims by a sales person…

    I’m curious if you could implement more of a closed-cycle evaporative cooling system using Freon or other… That’s closer to actual AC, but “not really” because you’re not using a pump to do any compression, which is central to modern “Air Conditioning”. Just something with a high energy evaporation cycle…

  22. Mike:

    P.S., no, you can’t use the two together, according to the above link, they are acting at cross-purposes essentially. I could see some kind of hybrid system perhaps that pre-cools stuff using evaporative cooling, then an AC unit finishes the job, but I dunno if there’s a way to do that, or if anyone has really tried.

    I see mention of “geothermal” above, but that doesn’t seem to be so much “geothermal” energy as just using the cooler temps of deep underground for part of the cooling process rather than the atmosphere. Kind of like the way ocean thermal uses lower deeper water temps to generate energy…

    Be interesting to see if you could put all three together somehow at a reasonable expense — e.g., not a massive deep hole or anything, but using cooler temps of (say) 30′ down for a closed-cycle evaporative part and then tacking an AC on it to get it the rest of the way…

  23. Thanks for the link. I keep the house temp at 80 in summer (105 outside) and 75 at night.

    The swamp cooler might have preceded the A/C but the A/C is 18 yers old. This should be an ideal climate for them but I would still need a heating unit for winter. We use heat only from October to April. I have seen it 14 degrees here at night in December.

  24. Mike, I looked into evaporative cooling back when I was looking to buy real estate in Phoenix in 2009. I was warned off because of the Jul/Aug/Sep monsoon season that pushed relative humidity up over 40% making swamp coolers ineffective. That happens maybe one or two days per year in Denver so it’s not an issue. It may not be an issue in Tuscon either but I don’t know.

    While I was looking into it I ran across a company that does two-stage evaporative cooling, headquartered in Scottsdale: Air2O. It looks impressive. Probably pretty expensive though.

  25. I was warned off because of the Jul/Aug/Sep monsoon season that pushed relative humidity up over 40% making swamp coolers ineffective.

    Yes, that’s the best argument against them. Monsoon season is just beginning now with rain two days last week.

  26. Mike,

    My home up here in Prescott has a swamp cooler, as did my rental home in Morenci near 40 years ago.

    While I have never measured how much chill they produce, I would guess it is on the order of 10 degrees.
    Summer days up here generally run in the upper 80s-lower 90s. Unless you really hate writing checks to TEP,
    I think you will find Tucson too hot for a swamp cooler.

    From time to time I think about installing AC. But I always fall back on the thought that I paid Fanny Mae less than $20/SF
    for my home. What I really hate is having my money tied up in real estate. Been there, done that. No more.

  27. Raymond, last month I installed a new swamp cooler replacing a 25-year-old unit that was working fine but getting expensive to maintain. Yesterday the outside temp was 87°, RH was 32%, and the swamp cooler was putting out 67° air. On a hot mid-afternoon of 98° and 15% RH the swamp cooler will produce a 25° temperature drop.

  28. When I was growing up in West Texas in the late 1960’s everyone had swamp coolers and they worked well enough that you ended up under a blanket every night. As the amount of irrigated farmland increased, the humidity went up and the swamp coolers became less effective. By the time I graduated high school in 1974 almost everyone had at least one window air conditioner and many had opted to install central heat pump systems.

  29. CR- There is a reason why I paid less than $20/SF for my home (2011). It started out as a 700 SF single-wide
    in 1980. Over the years, the 1st owner made 4 additions to bring the total up to 2400 SF under roof.
    If the original swamp cooler was adequate for 700 SF, then it is woefully inadequate for the current 1800 SF
    living space (600 SF attached garage not connected to air exchange).

    As I am unmarried with no dependents, the house suits me. Trying to make upgrades would be a never-ending
    task. It does sit on a 2+ acre wooded parcel with a good well. Down the road, some owner will likely
    knock the structure down and build new. Just not me.

    One thing I could usefully do, if and when my swamp cooler fan motor expires is replace it with a larger motor
    that drives the squirrel cage faster, and a larger capacity water pump to increase chilled air throughput.
    That would help.

  30. Raymond, I bought a park model travel trailer, 8′ x 35′, to live in during college. I was perfectly comfortable in it for the four years I owned it. IMHO mobile homes are great in non-tornado places that don’t get below zero, as long as you own the land.

    IDK about AZ but my local utility company (Xcel) ponied up a $250 rebate on that $550 swamp cooler I recently bought, link above. It works just as well as the 35-year-old rotobelt cooler it replaced and the nice thing is it’s really easy to service being mostly made out of plastic. The biggest advantage for me is that I can take it out of the window by myself when winter comes. The old squirrel cage/belt/motor cooler was too heavy to do that so I had to winterize it in position.

    Reliability remains to be seen; the new cooler was designed and built in Australia and has a three or four year track record with good reviews. So far so good and it’s got a remote which is nice.

  31. Another impact was how it changed the electric grid.

    On the West Coast, it led to the construction of the Pacific Intertie, a transmission system that starts in British Columbia and ends at the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant switchyard near Phoenix.

    The Pacific Northwest used electric heat and was chilly so was a winter peaking system. California and Arizona had some very hot territory and so was a summer peaking system. The Intertie could shift power north in the winter and south in the summer, allowing for better utilization of generating plants, include the awesome hydroelectric capacity of the Columbia River Basin.

    Did anyone else know that the Grand Coulee Dam is NOT in the Grand Coulee?

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