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Keeping Cool at the White House, Pre-Air Conditioning

President William Taft built a sleeping porch on the White House roof to beat the summer heat at night. (Library of Congress)

More and more people seem to forget, or don’t even know (because they weren’t born yet), how oppressively hot it felt during our nation’s capital’s formative years, before the age of air conditioning.

Throughout history, there were hundreds of legendary efforts to cool and dehumidify the air during the torrid heat waves that enveloped the region. Most of these efforts, however, fell short, as they were impractical, of limited value, or quite expensive.

Consider the “device” which helped to cool the dying President James Garfield in 1881. It involved air blown through ice water-doused cotton sheets. Although this worked in that it cooled the room substantially, it required an expensive half-million pounds of ice every two months.

The website chronicles attempts of other pre-central air presidents to keep cool, most of which were unsuccessful. For example, it describes President William Taft’s futile effort:

President William Howard Taft served as US President from March 4, 1909 – March 4, 1913.

President William Howard Taft also attempted to install a type of air conditioning in the expanded West Wing in 1909. The experimental system consisted of electric fans that blew over great bins of ice in the attic, cooling the air, which was forced through the air ducts of the heating system. This never worked well enough and was soon abandoned. Taft also built a sleeping porch, a screened-in room on the roof of the White House for a cool place to sleep amid breezes on summer evenings.

Subsequent presidents through the 1920s had no better luck. “[Woodrow] Wilson found it so difficult to keep cool during early summer 1914 that he moved his office into a tent on the southwest corner of the White House at the end of the Rose Garden,” writes. And “President Calvin Coolidge fought the humid summer months by making sure ‘a gadget filled with chemicals supposed to purify, or at least deodorize, the air’ was on his desk at all times,” it notes.

President Wilson's office tent in the Rose Garden, 1914. (Library of Congress)

Baking Government Buildings

Although air conditioning was installed in the U.S. Capitol as early as 1928, widespread installation of air conditioning systems in government buildings did not occur until the mid-1950s and even 1960s. Until then, the policy was to dismiss federal employees when the combination of temperature and humidity — that’s relative humidity (RH) — reached a certain combination, as the heat index had not yet been developed.

This temperature/RH combination was established by the former Civil Service Commission (or possibly one of its oversight agencies) as the following:

95 degrees/55 percent RH

96 degrees/52 percent RH

97 degrees/49 percent RH

98 degrees/45 percent RH

99 degrees/42 percent RH

100 degrees/38 percent RH

What this means is that, in theory, whenever the outdoor temperature/RH combination reached one of those oppressive combinations, equivalent to a heat index (not yet invented at the time) of around 109 degrees, employees were dismissed. Unfortunately, we have not uncovered records referring to this formula, and certainly none referring to whether the measurements were made indoors or outdoors; and it’s unlikely that indoor RH sensors were being used at that time.

Under the above index, dismissal was not allowed when the outdoor temperature was below 95 degrees, no matter what the humidity was, but once it reached 95, an allowance was made for a lower RH because it was recognized that, as the temperature continued to rise, it didn’t take as much RH to make one feel “miserable.”

Remember that “relative” humidity signifies the amount of moisture in the air compared with how much moisture the air can hold at any given temperature. So, other things being equal, as the temperature rises, the RH decreases because the air can hold more moisture. Therefore, a temperature of 100 degrees with a RH of “only” 38 percent — but not 37 percent — was oppressive enough for government dismissal.

Consider that the modern-day heat index indicates that a temperature of 100 degrees with an RH of 37 percent causes the feel-like temperature to be 107 degrees. Those would be some oppressive conditions to work in, but the government remained open.

Enter Willis Carrier, the inventor of the modern air conditioning system, although he didn’t start out with that in mind. In 1902, Carrier, the engineer, was working in the cooler environs of Buffalo. But he was known to the owners of a Brooklyn, N.Y., lithography plant which, in the sweltering summer heat, was having problems keeping muggy air from wrinkling magazine pages. Carrier was asked if he could find a way to cool and dehumidify the plant. Using a system of “cooling coils,” he solved the problem, and without realizing it at first, invented the modern air conditioning system. notes “construction of the West Wing in 1930 after extensive damage by a Christmas Eve fire in 1929 included a central air-conditioning system installed by the Carrier Engineering Company.”

Written by By Don Lipman, The Washington Post, which can be viewed here.

Click here to view the original story by the White House Historical Association.

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