Historically Speaking: How We Kept Cool Before Air Conditioning

Wind-catching towers and human-powered rotary fans were just some of the devices invented to fight the heat.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

What would we do without our air conditioning? Given the number of rolling blackouts and brownouts that happen across the U.S. each summer, that’s not exactly a rhetorical question.

Fortunately, our ancestors knew a thing or two about staying cool even without electricity. The ancient Egyptians developed the earliest known technique: Evaporative cooling involved hanging wet reeds in front of windows, so that the air cooled as the water evaporated.

The Romans, the greatest engineers of the ancient world, had more sophisticated methods. By 312 B.C. they were piping fresh water into Rome via underground pipes and aqueducts, enabling the rich to cool and heat their houses using cold water pipes embedded in the walls and hot water pipes under the floor.

Nor were the Romans alone in developing clever domestic architecture to provide relief in hot climes. In the Middle East, architects constructed buildings with “wind catchers”—tall, four-windowed towers that funneled cool breezes down to ground level and allowed hot air to escape. These had the advantage of working on their own, without human labor. The Chinese had started using rotary fans as early as the second century, but they required a dedicated army of slaves to keep them moving. The addition of hydraulic power during the Song era, 960-1279, alleviated but didn’t end the manpower issue.

There had been no significant improvements in air conditioning designs for almost a thousand years when, in 1734, British politicians turned to Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a former assistant to Isaac Newton, and begged him to find a way of cooling the overheated House of Commons. Desaguliers designed a marvelous Rube Goldberg-like system that used all three traditional methods: wind towers, pipes and rotary fans. It actually worked, so long as there was someone to crank the handle at all times.

But the machinery wore out in the late 1760s, leaving politicians as hot and bothered as ever. In desperation, the House invited Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists to design something new. Their final scheme turned out to be no better than Desaguliers’s and required not one but two men to keep the system working.

The real breakthrough occurred in 1841, after the British engineer David Boswell Reid figured out how to control room temperature using steam power. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool is widely considered to be the world’s first air-conditioned building.

Indeed, Reid is one of history’s unsung heroes. His system worked so well that he was invited to install his pipe and ventilation design in hospitals and public buildings around the world. He was working in the U.S. at the start of the Civil War and was appointed inspector of military hospitals. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1863, leaving his proposed improvements to gather dust.

The chief problem with Reid’s system was that steam power was about to be overtaken by electricity. When President James Garfield was shot by an assassin in the summer of 1881, naval engineers attempted to keep him cool by using electric fans to blow air over blocks of ice. Two decades later, Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first all-electric air conditioning unit. Architects and construction engineers have been designing around it ever since.

Fears for our power grid may be exaggerated, but it’s good to know that if the unthinkable were to happen and we lost our air conditioners, history can offer us some cool solutions.

WSJ Historically Speaking: When Blossoms and Bullets Go Together: The Battles of Springtime

Generals have launched spring offensives from ancient times to the Taliban era

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

‘When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding; Sweet lovers love the spring,” wrote Shakespeare. But the season has a darker side as well. As we’re now reminded each year when the Taliban anticipate the warm weather by announcing their latest spring offensive in Afghanistan, military commanders and strategists have always loved the season, too.

The World War I poet Wilfred Owen highlighted the irony of this juxtaposition—the budding of new life alongside the massacre of those in life’s prime—in his famous “Spring Offensive”: “Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled / By the May breeze”—right before their deaths.

The pairing of rebirth with violent death has an ancient history. In the 19th century, the anthropologist James George Frazer identified the concept of the “dying and rising god” as one of the earliest cornerstones of religious belief. For new life to appear in springtime, there had to be a death or sacrifice in winter. Similar sacrifice-and-rejuvenation myths can be found among the Sumerians, Egyptians, Canaanites and Greeks.

Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures saw spring in this dual perspective for practical reasons as well. The agricultural calendar revolved around wet winters, cool springs and very hot summers when almost nothing grew except olives and figs. Harvest time for essential cereal crops such as wheat and barley took place in the spring. The months of May and June, therefore, were perfect for armies to invade, because they could live off the land. The Bible says of King David, who lived around 1,000 B.C., that he sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites “in the spring of the year, when kings normally go out to war.”

It was no coincidence that the Romans named the month of March after Mars, the god of war but also the guardian of agriculture. As the saying goes, “An army fights on its stomach.” For ancient Greek historians, the rhythm of war rarely changed: Discussion took place in the winter, action began in spring. When they referred to a population “waiting for spring,” it was usually literary shorthand for a people living in fear of the next attack. The military campaigns of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) into the Balkans, Persia and India began with a spring offensive.

In succeeding centuries, the seasonal rhythms of Europe, which were very different from those of warmer climes, brought about a new calendar of warfare. Europe’s reliance on the autumn harvest ended the ancient marriage of spring and warfare. Conscripts were unwilling to abandon their farms and fight in the months between planting and harvesting.

 This seasonal difficulty would not be addressed until Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), a great military innovator, developed principles for the first modern army. According to the British historian Basil Liddell Hart, Gustavus made the crucial shift from short-term conscripts, drawn away from agricultural labor, to a standing force of professional, trained soldiers on duty all year round, regardless of the seasons.

Gustavus died before he could fully implement his ideas. This revolution in military affairs fell instead to Frederick the Great, king of Prussia (1712-1786), who turned military life into a respectable upper-class career choice and the Prussian army into a mobile, flexible and efficient machine.

Frederick believed that a successful army attacks first and hard, a lesson absorbed by Napoleon a half century later. This meant that the spring season, which had become the season for drilling and training in preparation for summer campaigning, became a fighting season again.

But the modern iteration of the spring offensive is different from its ancient forebear. Its purpose isn’t to feed an army but to incapacitate enemies before they have the chance to strike. The strategy is a risky gambler’s throw, relying on timing and psychology as much as on strength and numbers.

For Napoleon, the spring offensive played to his strength in being able to combine speed, troop concentration and offensive action in a single, decisive blow. Throughout his career he relied on the spring offensive, beginning with his first military campaign in Italy (1796-7), in which the French defeated the more-numerous and better-supplied Austrians. His final spring campaign was also his boldest. Despite severe shortages of money and troops, Napoleon came within a hair’s breadth of victory at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

The most famous spring campaign of the early 20th century—Germany’s 1918 offensive in World War I, originated by Gen. Erich Ludendorff—reveals its limitations as a strategy. If the knockout blow doesn’t happen, what next?

 At the end of 1917, the German high command had decided that the army needed a spring offensive to revive morale. Ludendorff thought that only an attack in the Napoleonic mode would work: “The army pined for the offensive…It alone is decisive,” he wrote. He was convinced that all he had to do was “blow a hole in the middle” of the enemy’s front and “the rest will follow of its own accord.” When Ludendorff’s first spring offensive stalled after 15 days, he quickly launched four more. Lacking any other objective than the attack itself, all failed, leaving Germany bankrupt and crippled by July.

In this century, the Taliban have found their own brutal way to renew the ancient tradition—with the blossoms come the bombs and the bloodshed.

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Psychology and History of Snipers

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.

With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: ‘A Brief History of Brinkmanship’

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, explaining how America could use the threat of nuclear war in diplomacy, told Life Magazine, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art…. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” President Donald Trump recently seemed to embrace this idea with his warning that if North Korea made any more threats to the U.S., it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Lemonade

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The lemonade stand has symbolized American childhood and values for more than a century. Norman Rockwell even created a classic 1950s drawing of children getting their first taste of capitalism with the help of a little sugar and lemon. Yet like apple pie, the lemonade stand is far older than America itself.

The lemon’s origins remain uncertain. A related fruit with far less juice, the citron, slowly migrated west until it reached Rome in the first few centuries A.D. Citrons were prestige items for the rich, prized for their smell, supposed medicinal virtues and ability to keep away moths. Emperor Nero supposedly ate citrons not because he liked the taste but because he believed that they offered protection against poisoning. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Perils of Cultural Purity

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: On the Trail of Art Looters

A relief from Rome’s Arch of Titus showing the spoils of Jerusalem. PHOTO: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Since 2014, Islamic State has been doing its best to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture in Iraq and Syria. Hammers and explosives aren’t its only tools. The antiquities trade is worth billions, and the self-styled caliphate is funding itself in part by looting and selling ancient treasures.

In late May, the Journal reported that U.S. and European Union authorities were scrutinizing a pair of art dealers as part of a wider investigation into who has been facilitating the market for ancient coins, statues and relics stolen by Islamic State. The dealers say they have done nothing wrong.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Sledding

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Beyond Frosty: A History of Famous Snowmen

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Americans have their raucous Frosty; the British, their beloved children’s book about a flying snowman; and Disney, its goofy Olaf from “Frozen.”

Like Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip, these friendly mass-market snowmen only vaguely resemble their many more subtle predecessors. It’s lovely to bring winter cheer to children, of course, but snowmen have often served more serious aims.

Some of the world’s most famous people have built notable snowmen—from Prince Albert, who built a 12-foot snowman for his wife, Queen Victoria, to Michelangelo, who made one for the Medicis. In 1494, the artist’s patron was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate. This Medici prince was a pale imitation of his famous father—weak where Lorenzo was strong, spoiled where he was generous. Having invited his father’s former protégé to live and work at the palace, Piero gave Michelangelo only one commission: to build a snowman in the courtyard. Continue reading…