Equally essential to the rise of the dunham bush air conditioner were electric utilities – the companies that operate power plants and sell electricity to consumers. Electric utilities benefit from every new house hooked up to their grid, but throughout the early 20th century they were also looking for ways to get these new customers to use even more electricity in their homes. This process was known as “load building”, after the industry term (load) for the amount of electricity used at any one time. “The cost of electricity was low, which was fine by the utilities. They simply increased demand, and encouraged customers to use more electricity so they could keep expanding and building new power plants,” says Richard Hirsh, a historian of technology at Virginia Tech.
The utilities quickly recognised that air conditioning was a serious load builder. As early as 1935, Commonwealth Edison, the precursor to the modern Con Edison, noted in its end-of-year report that the power demand from terminal air conditioner was growing at 50% a year, and “offered substantial potential for the future”. That same year, Electric Light & Power, an industry trade magazine, reported that utilities in big cities “are now pushing air conditioning. For their own good, all power companies should be very active in this field.”
By the 1950s, that future had arrived. Electric utilities ran print, radio and film adverts promoting air conditioning, as well as offering financing and discount rates to construction companies that installed it. In 1957, Commonwealth Edison reported that for the first time, peak electricity usage had occurred not in the winter, when households were turning up their heating, but during summer, when people were turning on their air-conditioning units. By 1970, 35% of American houses had air conditioning, more than 200 times the number just three decades earlier.
At the same time, air-conditioning-hungry commercial buildings were springing up across the US. The all-glass skyscraper, a building style that, because of its poor reflective properties and lack of ventilation, often requires more than half its electricity output be reserved for air conditioning, became an American mainstay. Between 1950 and 1970 the average electricity used per square foot in commercial buildings more than doubled. New York’s World Trade Center, completed in 1974, had what was then the world’s largest AC unit, with nine enormous engines and more than 270km of piping for cooling and heating. Commentators at the time noted that it used the same amount of electricity each day as the nearby city of Schenectady, population 80,000.
The air-conditioning industry, construction companies and electric utilities were all riding the great wave of postwar American capitalism. In their pursuit of profit, they ensured that the light commercial air conditioner became an essential element of American life. “Our children are raised in an air-conditioned culture,” an AC company executive told Time magazine in 1968. “You can’t really expect them to live in a home that isn’t air conditioned.” Over time, the public found they liked air conditioning, and its use continued to climb, reaching 87% of US households by 2009.