When my daughter's family gave this book to me last Christmas, my son-in-law included this explanation: Because everyone should have a complete Eric Schultz collection. Two years earlier they had given me King Philip's War, Eric's first book. (Which I apparently have not yet reviewed, or that link would be mine, instead of Amazon's.) Do you think I should tell them about his latest, Food Foolish?1
I finished reading Weathermakers to the World last night, just in time to review it for today, the 113th anniversary of Willis Carrier's great invention2 (You can read several excerpts from the book by following that link.) Air conditioning, it turns out, is about a lot more than helping one through a July heat wave—though it does that admirably, for which I'm grateful.
On July 17, 1902, a young research engineer initialed a set of mechanical drawings designed to solve a production problem at the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company in Brooklyn, New York. ... This new design was different—so novel, in fact, that it would not only help to solve a problem that had long plagued printers, but would one day launch a company and create an entire industry essential to global productivity and personal comfort.
Weathermakers to the World was written for Carrier, the corporation, and doesn't pretend to be unbiased. You won't find here the complaints of disgruntled employees, or any suggestion that Carrier's work is anything other than an unmitigated blessing. What you will find is an advanced coffee table book crafted by a historian with a true love for his subject. Actually, it's not so much a book as a portable museum exhibit. If I occasionally wished for a higher word to picture ratio, well, I do that in museums, too. But I love museums, and am usually as attracted to the design of the exhibit as to its content.
I grew up an air conditioning snob. I lived in the northeast, and there A/C was for wimps. Rich wimps. The two weeks out of the year where it didn't cool down enough to make the day bearable? They build character! My thoughts on that subject are for another post, but I'll just say that what Florida didn't teach me about the value of climate control, Weathermakers to the World did.
Air conditioning wasn't invented to make people comfortable, but to control humidity in a printing plant, thereby greatly increasing quality and productivity. That increase is the real story of Carrier and his invention. (Or rather inventions, plural, because the history of the company is also a history of adaptation and improvement.) I vaguely knew that air conditioning made possible the growth of the American South, but I had no idea what a difference climate control made to the economy everywhere. How it changed everything from movie theaters to chocolate making to deep mining to precision manufacturing. How during World War II large stores such as Macy's and Sears donated their air conditioning systems to companies producing necessary war materials, boosting both the quantity and the quality of their output, quite possibly shortening the length of the war. That "clean" was at first as much a feature of air conditioned systems as "cool": the first train cars to benefit from A/C were dining cars, and passengers were delighted not only by the comfort but that flecks of soot no longer decorated their food. That Carrier's invention revolutionized museums, allowing them to conserve art and artifacts while keeping them accessible to the public. That hospital patients would benefit almost as much from a more comfortable environment as from their treatment.
Even in hospitals, however, the personal benefits of air conditioning were surprisingly slow to come. Three quarters of a century after Willis Carrier initialed those drawings, the hospital where I worked still lacked climate control in many of its wings. The only reason we had the benefit of A/C—and that from inadequate and persnickety units—was that our computers would not work without it. Carrier himself realized the comfort potential early on, but how slow businesses were to realize that people, as well as machines, are more productive under comfortable working conditions! Not that I can fault them: it took me a long time to shed my own A/C snobbery.
Finally, too, I understand why The Occasional CEO (the author's personal blog) occasionally complains about people who think innovation is coming up with a new iPhone app. Willis Carrier was an inventor, an innovator, an entrepreneur who created a product useful in almost every human endeavor, and built a still-successful company and an entire industry around it. Now that's the kind of innovation we need more of. And lest our daughters, in their faithful and sometimes frustrating careers at home, miss the importance of their work in nurturing such innovation, here's what Willis Carrier had to say (thanks, Eric, for including this story):
"One day my mother started to question me regarding fractions, which we were then taking up and working according to rule. She found that my idea of fractions was one number written over another, with a line between. In other words, I had no perception of the concrete significance of the fraction; in fact, I have seen college men who didn't have it either. She then proceeded at once, and with much skill, as I now realize, to demonstrate the principles of fractions with an apple, divided in various ways. As a result, my whole idea of numbers was illuminated and fractions became a very interesting game or puzzle."
This lesson, Carrier would later say, was "the most important thing that ever happened to me." It taught him that solving problems by rules and rote contributed little to genuine understanding. ... In later years, when asked how he had solved problems that had stumped so many others, Dr. Carrier was apt to smile and say, "I just reduce them to a pot of apples."
Reading Weathermakers to the World is like taking a leisurely walk through a museum of technology. My kind of museum, that is: one with an eye-catching design, and more words than push-buttons. If you can't read the book yourself, you can see some good excerpts, as well as a short video, at WillisCarrier.com.
And I note that The Occasional CEO has published a post in honor of this day. I forced myself to write this review before reading it, but you can find some additional interesting links there.
1Update: No need! Food Foolish is being supplied from another generous source, and I'm looking forward to reading it.
*The timing was entirely coincidental. If I'd known, I'd have finished the book earlier, to give myself more time to write the review.