Air conditioning was invented in the United States in 1902. Prior to that, there weren’t many options in terms of interior climate control. Heat during the summer would slow down agricultural or industrial production and still does in underdeveloped countries. When now we turn to the thermostat for cool air to beat the heat, older civilizations looked elsewhere.
The ancient Egyptians were always coming up with new and innovative ways to solve problems including how to beat the heat. With access to the Nile and other sources of water, Egyptians would soak reeds and then place them in their windows. As air blew across the reeds a natural form of forced convection happened to help to cool the individuals who were indoors. They would also place pots of water in hallways in the home so that as the water evaporated, the heat was used up in the phase change.
Across the ancient Middle East, builders used to get very inventive on how to cool homes. Many Mediterranean homes are designed with courtyards and have been for a long time. Builders would add wind towers to the top of buildings that would direct air down into courtyards, leading to a cross breeze through homes. Fabrics and clothing in the Middle East are still designed to withstand high temperatures. Natural, light cotton fabrics are intended to wick sweat away from the body and enhance the body’s own cooling abilities.
The Romans were always coming up with something new and inventive. In order to cool homes in ancient Rome, architects would run water from the aqueducts and circulate it through homes. Water has a very high heat capacity and by doing this, the water would draw the heat out of the homes during the hot summer months.
Also along the Mediterranean, the Moors were focusing their heat reduction in their architecture. Many Moorish buildings throughout Southern Spain and Northern Africa that still exist are littered with fountains and reflecting pools. The breezes that passed over these pools helped to cool the air in the surrounding courtyards and buildings. A perfect example of this at work would be the Alhambra found in Granada, Spain. Look at the doorways and windows as well and you will see that they designed very deep-set entrances to help shade from the sun during different times of the day.
Siesta is still a common practice all through the Mediterranean and Latin America. The practice began due to the hot summer afternoons. Shops would close down and people would use this hour or two during the hottest parts of the day in order to cool off and rest. Along with siesta, the love of lakes, rivers, and swimming holes around the world is still a favorite for those who may not have air conditioning or who wish to not use it.
Lastly, shortly after air conditioning was invented for commercial uses, architectural designer Francis Abreu would install cement window grates in homes in Florida as a means to stay cool. They were intended to provide shade and security while still allowing airflow into the home. Each grate weighed over 200 pounds when installed.
So when your air conditioning goes out this summer and you’re waiting for your maintenance person to arrive, just remember all the ways people have survived the heat throughout the centuries.