by Kevin Walsh

It’s getting to be that time of year when all of us, or those of us who despise humid air, should genuflect in the direction of East Williamsburg, or southern Greenpoint, or whatever the area gatekeepers prefer to call it these days. It happens every spring…when we get the odd day when temperatures jump into the mid and upper 80s a few weeks before they’re due every day, television anchors chirp with delight, no doubt egged on by their managers. You may well imagine what would happen to a TV talking head who proclaimed, bold as brass, that they preferred cool, brisk weather in April and May. They would quickly be ushered into HR, where they’d be informed that the vast majority of their audience prefers it warm, and therefore, their advertisers prefer it warm.

Air conditioning was invented in eastern Brooklyn. The first air conditioned building — in the world — was located at 1024 Metropolitan Avenue at Morgan Avenue at what was printing plant, Sackett & Wilhelms. When NYC was in the midst of a blistering heat wave in July 1902, the just-completed plant was turning out the then-popular magazine Judge, which featured color photos and thus used a four-color printing process. The printing plant’s management didn’t take into account that Newtown Creek would make the air sticky and humid, causing the paper to expand, the four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) fail to line up properly, and the ink fail to dry quickly enough. 

A junior engineer from a furnace company, Willis Carrier, was the first to figure out that the problem wasn’t, as the now hackneyed phrase goes, the heat, but the humidity. Carrier built a device that used fans, ducts, and perforated pipes to dehumidify the second floor of the printer, where the presses were, and in 1903 added a refrigerating machine to both cool and dry the air. The printing problems were solved with the added benefit of providing a comfortable working environment in the summer months. Thus began a worldwide enterprise that made parts of the United States, the equatorial belt, and much of the Southern Hemisphere much more comfortable to work in and, in some cases, habitable. 

And it all happened because of Newtown Creek, and running ink.

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Peter May 4, 2021 - 9:52 pm

We can thank/blame Charles Guiteau for the first air conditioning prototype. President Garfield lingered desperately ill for weeks after Guiteau shot him in the summer of 1881, a situation which the president’s doctors had made far worse by probing the wound channel with their unwashed fingers. It was a hot summer in Washington, and in an attempt to make the White House bedroom less hot Navy engineers rigged up a form of primitive air conditioner in which fans blew air over ice and then through wet sheets. By most accounts it lowered the room temperature about ten degrees. Unfortunately the massive infection in Garfield’s body grew worse and worse, and after being moved to a seaside cottage in New Jersey he died.
Fun fact: Guiteau claimed in his defense that the doctors’ incompetence was the real cause of Garfield’s death, however it wasn’t enough to save him from a necktie party.

Alan May 5, 2021 - 10:08 am

A great nugget of information! First, I did not realize four-color printing was even around that early. And the solution to a problem expanded way past its original intent to greatly benefit the world.

Edward Bloomberg May 6, 2021 - 7:46 am

Willis Carrier worked for Buffalo Forge in, wait for it, Buffalo, NY, where he invented air conditioning. The first installation of a rudimentary system was, in fact, at the Sackett & Williams plant in Brooklyn

TomR June 30, 2021 - 8:21 pm

Grew up a long block away, I passed this building daily. Fascinating history.


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