Air conditioning and Ronald Reagan

Author Steven Johnson tells a fascinating story about Willis Carrier. Working in a humid Brooklyn printing shop, Carrier needed to find a way to reduce the humidity so the ink didn’t run on the page. So he created a dehumidifier which seemed to also make the air cooler.

Before long, others in the shop wanted to spend time in the printing room because of how cool it was. That then led to the modern airconditioner.

A fascinating side effect of this is how it changed the population spread in the US. Suddenly, people could live in hotter places without worrying about dying of heat. Tucson, Arizona, grew 400 percent in 10 years, Phoenix 300 percent, Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, population double, triple. Carrier’s invention was circulating people, as well as air, changing lives, changing America.

But then something even more interesting happened. People moving to the hot states were older and tended to vote Republican. And the growing population in the conservative South meant more Electoral College votes there. Between 1940 and 1980, Northern states lose an incredible 31 Electoral College votes, while Southern states gain 29.

Enter Ronald Reagan. As Steven Johnson says – “A very important component of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is kind of the Sun Belt bloc of conservative voters that just would not have existed. It sounds crazy to be like, a guy in Brooklyn is trying to stop the ink from smearing on the page and it ends up helping to elect Ronald Reagan. But it’s actually just a couple of steps between those two things.

Just a couple of steps indeed. A wonderful reminder of the power of unintended second and third order effects of past events that shape the forces that we see in play today.

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