A technological history of the White House

by on June 30, 2017 at 3:17 am in History, Political Science, Science | Permalink

A modern central heating system wasn’t installed until Harry S. Truman’s term, but the AC comes first.

Navy engineers built America’s first air-conditioning system in a desperate attempt to save President James Garfield’s life. Garfield was actually on his way to escaping the heat and humidity of Washington when he was shot by an assassin in a train station on July 2, 1881. In her bookDestiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” Candice Millard describes a contraption comprising a fan pumping air through screens of cheesecloth bathed in ice water. The cooled air was then piped into Garfield’s room, bringing the temperature down to about 80 degrees. Garfield died anyway.

And:

When electricity was installed in the White House in 1891, then-President Benjamin Harrison was so afraid of being shocked that he refused to touch the circular switches controlling the current in each room. Gas lighting was still used in conjunction with electric for some time.

The article, by Gillian Brockell, is interesting throughout.

1 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 5:47 am

Meanwhile, the Positivist Temple was the first building in Rio de Janeiro with electric illumination. Neither anyone there feared being shocked nor asked “Wherefore this demonic inſtrument? By what ſorcery does it produce ſuch light?”

2 Axa June 30, 2017 at 6:30 am

Positivism was funny until Gödel and Popper shat on it.

3 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 6:53 am

Brazil adopted the so-called orthodox Positivism, created by A. Comte himself. Brazil’s flag (called “flag of justice and love!” by our forefathers) was inspired by Positivism, particularly the collors and the motto “Order and Progress”.

4 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 7:14 am

The funny Thing is Brazil has neither Order nor Progress so Brazil’s true brilliance lies in creating the world’s first irony-based flag!

5 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 7:25 am

It is not true. Brazil has both. In Brazil, Order and Progress roll down like waters and Righteousness like a mighty stream.

6 The Other Jim June 30, 2017 at 8:33 am

Sure, but don’t bathe in the stream, because the entire population uses it as a toilet.

7 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 8:41 am

Brazil is the home of all irony Boys!

8 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 8:41 am

It is an honor for every Brazillian to bathe in the fraternal urine of our countrymen!

9 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 8:43 am

It is not true. Neither Brazilians use Righteousness as a toiled nor the entire popularion uses streams as toilets. Suffices to say São Paulo City has one of the most modern sewage system the worls has ever seen.

10 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 8:46 am

Not that I would know about any sewage system in Brazil as I have spent my life in Ohio!

11 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 9:45 am

No, I would never spend even a hour in a place like tour Ohio. Never intereating never happened there.

12 TMC June 30, 2017 at 12:06 pm

The Wright brothers were from Ohio, not Brazil as you claim.

13 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 12:11 pm

It does not matter where they were from, rhey did not invent the airplane, they stole Santos Dumont’s project and instead of donating it to mankind, as Dumont did, they wanted to make it a tool of death and profit from it.

14 Willitts June 30, 2017 at 9:07 am

Is Brazil the hero of every story you tell?

15 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 9:47 am

In a certain way, isn’t the history of manking the history of Brazil? The airplane, the telephone, the radio, the pion, etc. Anyway, Brazil is relevant for Mr. Harrison’s sfory as a proof not everyone int the 18 th Century thought electricity was a kind of sorcery.

16 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2017 at 9:47 am

In a certain way, isn’t the history of mankind the history of Brazil? The airplane, the telephone, the radio, the pion, etc. Anyway, Brazil is relevant for Mr. Harrison’s sfory as a proof not everyone int the 18 th Century thought electricity was a kind of sorcery.

17 Rich Berger June 30, 2017 at 6:45 am

Gas and electricity. What a great combo.

18 liberalarts June 30, 2017 at 7:29 am

For a good decade or so around the turn of the century, gas and electric light was combined into the same fixture! These fixtures had gas jet lights pointing up and electric sockets pointing down. You could use the cleaner and more fashionable electricity when it actually worked (typically not 24 hour service) and light the much more reliable gas jets when the electricity wasn’t working. Here is an example on ebay:
http://www.ebay.com/itm/Victorian-Gas-electric-Chandelier-Gasolier-RARE-with-shades-/162561554677

19 Slocum June 30, 2017 at 9:53 am

And this was coal gas (nasty, poisonous stuff), not natural gas

20 prior_test3 June 30, 2017 at 7:06 am

Would the headline be ‘Explosively Shocking’ or ‘Shockingly Explosive’?

21 So Much For Subtlety June 30, 2017 at 7:24 am

I think it would be more interesting to link the air conditioning not with the air conditioners everyone in Washington uses now, or heating in general, but to the growth of the medical use of machines to supplement or replace failing body functions.

This does not look like the growth of middle class comfort but a step towards the iron lung, the dialysis machine and the forest of screens and tubes that surround modern death.

22 Art Deco June 30, 2017 at 9:18 am

the forest of screens and tubes that surround modern death.

We’ve buried eight close friends and relations in the last 30-odd years (between the ages of 55 and 92 at the time they died). Two died in a hospital, three in a nursing home, one in a hospice, and two at home. Just one had a multiplicity of tubes in her.

23 Li Zhi June 30, 2017 at 8:23 am

Pretty sure that the first air conditioning used in the White House was the icebox in the kitchen. I wonder though which came first: ice for drinks or ice for keeping food fresh? My bet alcohol (and for the women, lemonade and iced tea). Drinking drives technology!

24 Li Zhi June 30, 2017 at 8:38 am

Also, her comment on the risk of electrical shock just indicates her ignorance. Back then electrical systems were 1. poorly designed 2. made with faulty (pun) components, with little, if any, quality control 3. subject to spikes and shorts. Instead she uses (by implication) our modern Western Technological expectations about electrical power. She chose to ridicule rather than understand. Sad.

25 Slocum June 30, 2017 at 9:50 am

Given that this was an Edison company project, it would have been a low-voltage DC system and not dangerous — unlike the cheaper but potentially hazardous AC systems promoted by Westinghouse:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_Currents

26 JWatts June 30, 2017 at 11:08 am

Off course the War of Currents was still underway and in the public consciousness at that time. So it’s not surprising that President Harrison would be nervous.

Also, it’s interesting, the US (and EU) industrial systems are gradually migrating from AC to DC because low voltage DC is inherently safer. Edison is winning the War of Currents a century later.

27 Jeff June 30, 2017 at 10:25 am

“Navy engineers built America’s first air-conditioning system…”

Using cool water to lower room temperature dates back to the Romans — this crude White House contraption was not “air conditioning” by any modern sense of that term… and certainly no remarkable technology breakthrough

First true electric air conditioner was invented by Carrier in 1902

28 chuck martel June 30, 2017 at 12:28 pm

The system used to cool Garfield’s room is an example of what’s known as a “swamp cooler”, of ancient origin and even today ubiquitous in the low-humidity areas of the American west.

29 JW June 30, 2017 at 9:54 am

Didn’t Garfield die in New Jersey?

30 Bob from Ohio June 30, 2017 at 10:08 am

Yes, but he was shot in DC on July 2 and not moved to NJ until September 5. At White House until the move.

31 JW June 30, 2017 at 2:41 pm

I remembered that he was shot in DC, but I didn’t realize that he stayed in DC for so long. Thanks!

32 msgkings June 30, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Garfield was shot during a botched lasagna robbery attempt if I’m not mistaken. On a Monday.

33 msgkings June 30, 2017 at 2:51 pm

I’ll see myself out.

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