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Health, Science, Environment

How St. Louis is tied to the hot and cold past of the air conditioner

The Missouri State Building at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The St. Louis Republic reported at the time: “Entrance into the Missouri building from the glaring heat outside will be instantly followed by the most delightful relief from the oppressive weather encountered in promenading the grounds.”
Missouri History Museum / Public Domain
The Missouri State Building at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The St. Louis Republic reported at the time: “Entrance into the Missouri building from the glaring heat outside will be instantly followed by the most delightful relief from the oppressive weather encountered in promenading the grounds.”

Editor's note: This story was originally published by Science Friday.

In the Northeast and some part of the Midwest, the leaves have started changing colors, heralding the season of pumpkins, sweaters, and the smell of woodsmoke. But in some parts of the country, the heat hasn’t let up. In cities like Dallas, Phoenix, and Miami, temperatures were up in the high 80s and low 90s this week—and with climate change, the U.S. is only getting hotter.

But humans have come up with an ingenious way to keep the heat at bay: air conditioning.

Widely considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, the technology has transformed how and where people live—and it’s prevented countless deaths. But it comes at a cost, and if we’re going to keep up with a warming climate, we’re going to need some other tricks to stay cool.

Hear how the history of air conditioning is explicitly tied to St. Louis history
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Further Reading

This story was produced by Elah Feder, in collaboration with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan. We had production help from Johanna Mayer. All of our music and sound design is by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had research and fact-checking help from Lauren Young. Charles Bergquist was the voice of refrigeration engineers from 1904.

Special thanks to Andrew Alleyne, professor at the University of Illinois and director of POETS, for explaining to us how air conditioners work; Salmaan Craig, assistant professor of architecture at McGill; Komali Yenneti, lecturer in geography, urban planning and environment at the University of Wolverhampton; Wendy Novicoff, professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine; and Adam Kloppe, a public historian with the Missouri Historical Society.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.