Cool Ideas Grow On Trees


Ideas do grow on trees.

Consider the apple, a low-hanging fruit of invention.

Sir Isaac Newton came up with the theory of gravity by watching an apple fall from tree to ground. The apple with a bite missing is the symbol of the company created by Steve Jobs, whose team perfected the home computer and the iPhone.

And it turns out that a simple apple cut into quarters and eighths was the genesis for the human blessing called air conditioning.

Last month when the first heat wave hit, I sped to the appliance store and bought two new air conditioners, one for the living room and one for the bedroom.

They weren’t cheap, but not as costly as a bail bond, criminal lawyer, or shrink that sometimes come with humid summer heat in New York. I remembered covering the great blackout of 1977 when no one could plug in their air conditioners and the sweaty city dissolved into looting and lawlessness.

Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed a young Spike Lee on the Brooklyn set of “Do the Right Thing,” about an inner-city neighborhood that short circuits along race and class lines on the hottest day of the year. The movie has become a classic because everyone can relate to what 100-degree humidity can do to a par-boiled brain.

So, as I sat last week in front of my new 12,000 BTU AC that blew cold air like the frosted-breath Hoor, blind son of Odin from the frozen north, I got to wondering: Who should I be thanking for inventing air conditioning?

I knew Henry Ford gave us the automobile. That the Wright brothers flew the airplane into our lives. That Alexander Graham Bell rang in the telephone and Marconi short-waved us into the world of radio. Thomas Edison charged us with electricity to fuel all our gadgets including the air conditioner.

But nobody in school ever taught me about the man who invented the air conditioner. Maybe because none of my schools were air conditioned.

So, I looked it up.

Turns out that in July of 1902, a guy named Willis Carrier quite by accident designed the first air conditioner for the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithographing and Printing Co. in Brooklyn, not far from where Spike Lee shot “Do The Right Thing.” And a few miles from where I grew up in a sweltering tenement from which we found relief from summer humidity dodging street traffic in the crazy summer spray of an open fire hydrant that we called a Johnny Pump.

Willis Carrier grew up in Angola, NY near Buffalo, where as an only child of working-class parents, he struggled at school with fractions. Until age nine when his mother Elizabeth Carrier cut an apple into quarters and then eighths to show him what the abstract theory of fractions looked like in the real world. Carrier claims that simple lesson from his mom was the most important one of his life because it unlocked the importance of intelligent problem solving.

“She opened up a new world for me and gave me a pattern for solving problems,” Willis Carrier said. “In one half-hour, she educated me. Fractions took a new meaning and I was very proud. No problem would be hard for me after that. I would simple break them into something simple and then they would be easy to solve.”

That cut-up apple led young Willis to an engineering scholarship to Cornell University, where standing six-foot-six he also played football and basketball and excelled in swimming.

According to the Carrier Company website, Willis Carrier stood on a foggy Pittsburgh train platform in 1901 staring through the mist “and realized that he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog. Doing so would make it possible to manufacture air with specific amounts of moisture in it.” Within a year, Carrier completed his invention to control humidity — “the fundamental building block for modern air conditioning.”

In Brooklyn in the summer of 1902, it was so hot in the Sackett & Wilhelms printing plant that the colored ink would bleed off the paper because of the humidity. In lumbered Willis Carrier, a big man with a bigger idea that he patented as “The Apparatus for Treating Air” that blew air over coils cooled by a refrigerant, drawing out the humidity.

Soon Sackett & Wilhelms printers were able to print without the paper expanding or shrinking or the ink running. The amazed workers found that an added side effect of Carrier’s invention was that the air in the square block factory grew magically cooler. Talk about doing the right thing. Carrier’s Apparatus for Treating Air machines were steadily installed in other businesses and factories. The Carrier Company was formed in 1915 and air conditioning soon blew across the land.

A few blocks away, in my part of Brooklyn, I first experienced air conditioning in the RKO Prospect movie theater where my mother was a cashier. Most of the theaters boasted banners with snowy arctic blue letters that read: AIR COOLED. People flocked to the movies on blistering summer nights to get cool on hot dates, sometimes paying to see the same movie two or three nights in a row, creating summer blockbusters.

A few weeks back I read about a great white shark off Montauk, and last weekend a 12-foot shark invading Penniman Creek off Quogue. I read of people dying of flesh-eating diseases from swimming in polluted lakes, rivers, and oceans. When last week’s heat wave broiled us like human burgers on the grill, the only safe refuge was retreating to the great indoors and the cool miracle of Willis Carrier’s Apparatus for Treating Air that had evolved to the modern air conditioner, with WiFi remote controls.

And so, on Sunday, July 21, as temps hit 110, I was cool as a penguin as I walked to the fridge and grabbed an apple. I put it on a plate and cut it into eighths in honor of Mrs. Elizabeth Carrier who taught her son Willis the magic of fractions that he somehow square rooted into that air conditioner jammed in my window.

Some 117 years after the invention of the Apparatus for Treating Air I bit into one-eighth of my apple, thankful that ideas grew on trees.

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