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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 07/20/2010

Heat waves, then and now plus...

By Don Lipman

... how air conditioning has changed our lives

* Heat wave continues: Full Forecast | Tropical Update *

After the warmest June on record at Reagan National Airport (DCA) and, as of mid-month, on track for one of the warmest Julys, even the Baltimore/Washington National Weather Service Forecast Office at Sterling, Va. has seen fit to make comparisons. According to the official Washington weather record and as verified by a Sterling meteorologist in a recent forecast discussion, the summer of 1930 was one that we definitely don't want to repeat, even though we do seem to be well on our way.

During that scorching pre-dust bowl summer of 80 years ago, all sorts of heat records were broken throughout the mid-Atlantic, including four daily high temperatures of 100, 102, 103, and 106 in July here. The latter temperature (106) still stands as the highest official temperature* ever recorded for Washington, and without air conditioning at that!

Keep reading for more on the heat in 1930 and the evolution of air conditioning...

Also, the low temperature of 81 on the morning of July 27, 1930 remains as DC's highest low temperature, a record that seems all the more improbable considering the fact that the 1930 DC infrastructure was much smaller and the corresponding "heat island" effect presumably much weaker then.

August of 1930 continued July's pattern, with 3 days between the 4th and the 9th reaching a temperature of 102. Despite the seemingly unrelenting heat during that summer, however, there probably were a number of significant breaks, as July 1930 barely ranks within the top 20 warmest Julys and August 1930, within the top 50 of its namesake.

As often happens with months or seasons of extremes, however, the mean temperature for the year 1930 was very close to average, based on today's normals, or averages, of the past 30 years. However, if one were to use the averages around 1930 instead, the year would have averaged more than 2 degrees above normal.

With only 21.66 inches of precipitation--barely 55% of today's normals and just 52% of the 1930 normals--1930 turned out to be the driest year on record for Washington, DC, mainly due to the extremely arid conditions from August through November. Not one of those months exceeded an inch of rain.

Trees and vegetation bake in the sun at Fort Reno in the District Sunday. By CWG photographer Ian Livingston.

Undoubtedly, this summer's heat is taking its toll, particularly on those who must work outdoors and who may be unaccustomed to such a prolonged heat wave. But for others it's even worse. Lack of home air conditioning or broken systems can affect the very young and the elderly disproportionately. Even so, the great majority of today's U.S. population does enjoy a relatively comfortable home and work environment, thanks to Willis Carrier, who not only "cooled" our lives but made it possible for the eventual migration of millions of people from the "rust belt" to the desert Southwest.

Carrier wasn't the first to successfully cool a structure but he was the first to design a practical cooling unit. Ironically, he did this not to cool his home but to cool and dehumidify the printing plant where he worked in 1902 so that, in summer, the printing paper wouldn't curl up from the humidity. Not bad for the $10 per week salary that he then received. (I think he must have received a raise after that.)

Prior to Carrier, all sorts of Rube Goldberg contraptions were devised over the years, some more effective than others. Arizona pioneers, for example, knew enough about evaporative cooling to hang a wet sheet on the back porch and let the wind blow a cool breeze into the house. Later, "swamp boxes" (wooden boxes with moisture-laden wood shavings held together by chicken wire with a fan inside) were devised.

Although industry rapidly retooled to take advantage of Carrier's invention, it wasn't until the 1920's that movie theaters, department stores, etc. began to use it. The very first of the latter may have been the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit (1924). But it wasn't until the post World War II era that home air conditioning** became practical and affordable for the average family.

Despite the advances in air conditioning's commercial use during the 1920's, by the beginning of that stifling summer of 1930, most office buildings and government agencies were still not air cooled. Try to imagine what it was like working in such a torrid office environment. It bears repeating, as I mentioned last year in "It's Not The Heat....", what the federal government's guidelines were regarding heat-related early dismissal:

Not always noted for its progressive policies in such matters, even the federal government, for the well-being of its own workforce, long ago decided to recognize the danger of working in high heat and humidity. Therefore, in the past (and possibly even now in non-air conditioned environments), early dismissal was allowed when any of the following combinations of temperature and relative humidity were recorded: 95°/55%, 96°/52%, 97°/49%, 98°/45%, 99°/42% and 100°/38%.

Was someone standing by to take these readings? As mentioned in the earlier article, I believe these were outdoor readings. Does anybody know? If they were, what were conditions like indoors? Somehow, I don't believe anyone waited for the dismissal bell, nor would they now.

Early Auto A/C. Courtesy Eddie Stakes

By the way, the first factory-installed air conditioned car was a 1939 Packard, so crude and inefficient by today's standards that one had to turn off the engine, open the hood, and remove the a/c drive belt to turn it off. The reason: it had no clutch or controls.

*Also recorded on at least one other occasion

**The original term "air conditioning "was associated with neither the cooling nor the dehumidification of the air at all. If anything, it was related to humidifying the air because textile engineer Stuart Cramer coined the term in his 1906 patent filing for a mechanism that would moisturize the air--and condition the yarn--in textile plants.

By Don Lipman  | July 20, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Extreme Heat, Lipman, Local Climate  
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They were indoor readings:

I do recall, as a kid in teh early '80s, people still talking about the "misery index". By then, all the Federal offices were, I think, a/c cooled. But not every elementary school in the area was, so we'd sometimes get sent home if it was too hot.

Posted by: McGee3 | July 20, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Evaporative cooling devices have tended to work fine in desert climates such as Arizona and neighboring states.

They don't work so well in our humid climate, since any evaporation tends to add humidity to the indoor air. Fans work better by circulating the indoor air.

BTW the air conditioner at "fan" setting works fine in the winter by circulating air and cutting back on drafts. This distributes the heat evenly throughout the room and reduces the tendency for heat to rise towards the ceiling.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 20, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

McGee3: Thx for the reference. I missed Causey's column in which he referred to the indoor "misery index," As Causey says, very little, if any, documntation remains on the subject. I looked everywhere. (It just so happened that I did have the formula, however, which was originally included in an article I wrote about 20 years ago and referenced last summer as well.)

Don Lipman,
Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 20, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

No A/C almost makes it seem a little nuts to talk about "the good old days."

A/C used to be an option (not standard) in cars and my dad was one of the few people in Virginia who chose not to get it. I remember a lot of family vacations getting out of the hot car peeling my t-shirt from my back.

Posted by: spgass1 | July 20, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

People where my Dad lives in Cedar City Utah still use swamp coolers. They work quite well out there. Right now in Cedar it's 90, with a dew point of 53, which is a bit humid for there. But it is monsoon season out there.

Posted by: wiredog | July 20, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Still a few old timers in Warren County without A/C.

Posted by: eric654 | July 20, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Arcola, VA - I had reported yesterday's storm registered about 2.5 inch in my home made gauge which got us all excited. Well that's questionable now. NWS reported only 0.52 inch at nearby IAD. I had to believe what I saw, unless neighbor's cat has been tampering with the evidence.

Posted by: LoudounGeek | July 20, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

SP, I'm sure the vinyl seats didn't help. We didn't have A/C in the house or car, but growing up around Boston we didn't really need it.

Posted by: eric654 | July 20, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Loudoun Geek - it seems high, but the absolute heart of the cell popped right over you and then redeveloped there as well - there were lesser amounts to the south and just east (ie IAD) for sure...Im about 3 miles due south of Arcola and had about .40 in the gauge, but it was undoubtedly heavier where you were.

Posted by: DullesARC | July 20, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Hello, I am a Registered Nurse and recently launched HeatHealthWave on Twitter

This site is designed to:

1) Educate the public on the health related risk factors from extreme heat events or heat waves,
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As a nurse advocate, my goal is to protect our vulnerable citizens during heat waves. By raising awareness, I hope to save lives because each life lost and each heat-related illness is PREVENTABLE.

It requires a more attentive community to identify the signs and symptoms and implement action that is focused on prevention to effectively reduce heat-related illness and heat-related deaths.

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Posted by: Linda05 | July 20, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

81 is not the record warm low temperature. On Saturday, July 16, 1983, DCA's low was a stifling 84! The high that day reached 96; the next day's high and low were 99/80.

Posted by: HenryFPotter | July 20, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Hi again,

The new HealthHeatWave Twitter site is

Join me to increase your awareness on heat waves and prevention strategies!!

Posted by: Linda05 | July 20, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

HenryFPotter: You're right about DC's record min. temp. I was relying on the NWS Sterling observer, who mistakenly said it was 81. Good call.

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 20, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

[repeat] HenryFPotter: You're right about DC's record min. temp. I was relying on the NWS Sterling observer, who mistakenly said it was 81. Good call.

Don Lipman
Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | July 20, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

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