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Willis Carrier’s hot idea: Has it cheated us of enjoying the heat of summer?

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POSTED July 12, 2012 7:58 p.m.

Old Man Sol has the Northern San Joaquin Valley in a Half Nelson.

It’s a suffocating hold that can bring you to your knees if you let it. Not as much for the triple digits. The low humidity makes it somewhat tolerable. It is due more to the rustling of leaves having gone silent while the cry of air conditioning laboring in the heat is the only thing slicing the stagnant air.

It doesn’t help that a blanket of dirty air Thursday obscured the Altamont Hills giving high noon an eerie twilight feel.

So what is there to complain about?

As summer heat goes, the Northern San Joaquin Valley is considerably low on the miserable index.

That may sound like blasphemy to someone who has lived in San Francisco or on the Coast and immigrated eastward. Mark Twain captured the irony of the stark contrast of weather between The City by the Bay and the San Joaquin Valley less than 60 miles apart when he inked the words, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” There has been a full 40-degree difference in the highs between San Francisco and Manteca.

But there are times when San Francisco’s natural air conditioning fails. Stubborn high pressure systems in tandem with the heat have sent temperatures in the summer on rare occasions into the mid-90s in San Francisco. While we’d scoff at that, it feels like Dante’s Inferno when the mercury inches that high in San Francisco.

Most who deal with the valley heat probably view Willis Carrier as a patron saint. Back in 1902, he’s the chap from Buffalo, NY, who invented modern air conditioning.

In many ways his invention helped transform not life just in the valley but in much of the United States. In years past, days like Thursday resulted in many stores being virtually deserted when afternoon temperatures soared toward the century mark. We have no problem today shopping on a 105-degree day. We simply leave our air conditioned houses, get into our air conditioned vehicle - 99 percent of all cars sold today have the technology - and then step into air conditioned shopping venues.

How amazing air conditioning technology is perhaps reflected best in the fact not too many generations ago our nation’s capitol had the perfect climate for Satan and his angels of darkness. The searing heat coupled with oppressive humidity made Washington, D.C., a virtual ghost town in the throes of summer. Today government runs year-round. Politicians can get hot under the collar without collapsing. Even modern marvels like air conditioning have their downsides.

Air conditioning, at least here in the San Joaquin Valley, makes us forget just how important heat is to us. It is one of the reasons why this valley is the most productive in the world when it comes to growing food.

The latest version of Carrier’s creation 110 years ago has made the modern hustle and bustle of the valley possible. That is not necessarily a good thing.

There was a time, perhaps as little as 50 years ago, when the summer heat meant taking it easy during the heat of the day under a shade tree fanned by Delta breezes. You savored the breeze. You could hear nature. There was no universal whirl of air conditioning drowning it out.

You learned to savor the cool nights. Sleeping on summer porches allowed you to delight in the coolness before dawn and enjoy a wake-up serenade from birds going about their chores before Mother Nature turned on the furnace full blast.

If you were a kid, being bored during the heat of the day if you weren’t working wasn’t an issue. You’d retreat to the nearest swimming hole to stay cool helping spend the notorious excess energy of youth before night fell keeping you - for the most part - out of trouble,

Our modern lifestyle from the way homes are built right down to our daily schedule is designed as if summer is the enemy. It isn’t.

Air conditioning - for good or bad - has allowed us to go from adapting to summer to practically ignoring it.

There was a time when summer work was split between morning and early afternoon and in the hours before twilight. In some cultures it was once referred to as the afternoon siesta. It makes perfect sense to live with nature instead of waging war against it.

Battling the elements into artificial submission is what we have done with our ability to go from one to another while encased in an air-conditioned vehicle.

We have done our best to marginalize summer when it comes to heat.

And it was all made possible because of a man by the name of Willis Carrier.

 

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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