A technological history of the White House

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.


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.


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?"

Positivism was funny until Gödel and Popper shat on it.

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".

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!

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

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

Brazil is the home of all irony Boys!

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

Is Brazil the hero of every story you tell?

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.

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.

Gas and electricity. What a great combo.

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:

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

Would the headline be 'Explosively Shocking' or 'Shockingly Explosive'?

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.

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.

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!

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.

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:


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.

"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

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.

Didn't Garfield die in New Jersey?

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

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

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

I'll see myself out.

Comments for this post are closed