From classical Greece to the beaches of California…after years of painstaking research or by accident…blessed by the gods or by Hollywood stars…in a train station or in the laboratories of NASA…this is how some of these inventions essential for the arrival of summer have emerged and evolved.
Air conditioning: air + water
On July 17 we celebrate the anniversary of one of those inventions that make summers less long and hard for the inhabitants of the first world: air conditioning. On that day in 1902, the young engineer from the Buffalo Forge Company, Willis Haviland Carrier, completed the design drawings for a piece of equipment with a very different initial objective. He hoped it would be the answer to the request made by the head of a publishing house in Brooklyn for a system to control the humidity and ambient temperature. Their variability caused the expansion and contraction of the paper, which affected and harmed the quality of the output by causing the pages to wrinkle.
According to the account of Carrier himself, the solution presented itself on an unpleasant foggy spring night in the train station of Pittsburgh. It was there that he realized how the presence of water in the atmosphere cooled the air, an idea that he incorporated into his “Apparatus for Treating Air“. In essence it was a huge chamber in which some electric fans generated a current of air that passed through a shower or curtain of water flowing from a pipe. The saturated air left the chamber at the desired temperature through a screen that trapped the droplets.
Shortly thereafter, the first 30-ton unit was installed in the printing press. The result was so successful that on September 16, 1904 Carrier applied for a patent for his invention. The ingenious device was found to be especially useful in factories, especially textile ones, where the lack of humidity caused the fibers to become charged with static electricity, making their handling difficult.
Starting from 1924, air conditioning systems, still enormous beasts, began to be used for the comfort of customers in cinemas, theaters and department stores. It wasn’t until after World War II that these devices would shrink enough in size and cost to be able to be installed in family homes.
The origin of sunglasses dates back to thirteenth-century China, when dark lenses (smoked, but not tinted) were used that reduced the brightness but didn’t protect against solar radiation. This wasn’t needed because the glasses were mainly used by judges to avoid betraying their emotions during the exercise of their responsibilities. It wasn’t until around 1430 that glasses with darkened lenses appeared in the West, in Italy, to alleviate photosensitivity. By the mid-eighteenth century, James Ayscough was experimenting with tinted lenses, which he obtained by introducing different compounds into the composition of the glass under the mistaken assumption that he could treat vision problems with them.
Sunglasses in their modern conception did not make an appearance until the beginning of the twentieth century, thanks to the work done by the eminent British scientist William Crookes. In 1908, the British government, concerned about the glare and eye damage caused by the use and abuse of the newly invented electric lamps and other radiant electrical appliances, urged its scientists to come up with a solution. After eight years of painstaking efforts, the octogenarian Crookes managed to produce a slightly tinted lens that filtered 90% of the infrared radiation and all the ultraviolet. It didn’t take Crookes long to realize that his invention could have endless applications, both in the most diverse professions as well as for outdoor enjoyment. He tested hundreds of different formulations, each one for a particular use. For example, Crooks Glass 414 was intended for glassblowers. It was a pale-green lens that incorporated ferrous oxalate, which removed 98% of the incident infrared radiation.
Sunglasses became popular in the 1930s when Hollywood actors began to use them to protect themselves from the powerful lights of the studios, and also –as did the Chinese judges– to avoid displaying emotions and excesses. Sam Foster was the first to launch them in the US market in 1929. Their final breakthrough came in 1936 when, following a request by the US military, Ray Ban introduced polarized lenses, invented by Edwin Land for Polaroid cameras, into glasses designed to protect the vision of pilots when flying at high altitude. Just one year later they were being sold to the general public and soon anyone could boast of owning aviator model sunglasses.
Sunscreen: A tan becomes fashionable
Sunscreen was invented in the 1930s by four different chemists independently. In the much less globalized world of that time, new inventions and products had a much more localized impact. After Coco Chanel made having a tan fashionable after a wonderful holiday on the French Riviera, it went from being the skin colour of farmers to becoming a status symbol. And this was affirmed with the invention of colour film, in which film stars sported fake makeup tans.
In chronological order, we owe the first sunscreen to the Australian chemist Milton Blake, at the start of the decade. In 1936, Eugene Schuelles, the founder of L’Oreal, launched his Ambré Solaire suntan lotion, an oil incorporating a sunscreen, in the French market. However, none of them was actually effective in filtering sunlight.
For the first authentic sunscreen, we had to wait until 1938. It was created by the young Austrian chemist Franz Greiter after suffering severe burns while climbing Mount Piz Buin in the Alps. He began experimenting until he obtained a product that incorporated compounds that absorbed UV radiation and re-emitted it in a less energetic form. In 1946, his product, called Glacier Cream, would finally go on sale. Greiter would go on to introduce the concept of the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) in 1962.
The first sunblock, i.e. a substance that when applied to the body reflected the incident radiation, was invented by pharmacist Benjamin Green during the Second World War to prevent the Marines destined for the South Pacific from getting sunburnt. His Red Vet Pet (Red Veterinary Petrolatum) was a thick and unattractive reddish-coloured paste made from paraffin wax. Shortly thereafter, in 1944, the same Green launched a new and improved product –Coppertone suntan cream– that became a huge success.
Vending Machine: A blessed invention
Although vending machines may not be a typical summer invention, it is nevertheless undeniable that finding one of them during a visit to an amusement park or zoo on a stifling summer day can be a blessing.
Ironically, the first vending machine in history dispensed… holy water. It was created by Hero of Alexandria in the first century of our era for use in temples. This was not a tax collection device, but rather an effort to control how much water the faithful were taking after having paid religiously.
The machine in question was a kind of box or container with a slot through which the coin was inserted, which was deposited in the slot of a rocker or lever type bar. The weight of the coin bar tipped the bar forward in such a way that the opposite end, by rising, pulled a cord that opened the water tank and allowed the water to flow. When the coin fell under the action of gravity, the bar recovered its original position and the tap closed. It was a sophisticated mechanism that was maintained in the first modern vending machines, until the arrival of electric models.
These machines appeared in the late nineteenth century in England. In 1883, Percival Everett designed a machine that dispensed postcards. Soon after that the bookseller Richard Carlisle adapted them to provide books. Current vending machines that dispense sweets, candies, snacks, soft drinks etc. have their forerunners in the gumball machines installed by the Thomas Adams Gum Company in New York subway stations starting from 1888.
Arm floats: Swimming with full lungs
Like so many other truly beach gadgets, arm floats were invented, or at least introduced, on the beaches of California. In 1931, the first examples, either inflatable or made of rubber, began to be seen in those waters. They were probably a playful adaptation of a similar design that emerged during the First World War so that teams of divers could more easily transport their tools and equipment. The current design of arm floats, as a triangle with two inflatable sides, was introduced in 1964 by the German Bernhard Markwitz under the trade name of Bema Schwimmflügel.
The invention of the inflatable beach ball is credited to Jonathon De Longe in 1938, also in California, an occurrence that led to the creation of a lucrative market in inflatable toys and accessories, from floats to wading pools. These became very popular starting in 1947 when the Plastic Division of the Doughboy Company began to produce them on a large scale.
It’s not an inflatable toy, but it has been a bestseller every summer since its appearance on the market: the Super Soaker water gun. It was invented in the early 1980s by Lonnie G. Johnson, a systems engineer at NASA who participated in the Galileo, Cassini and Mars Observer missions. In his spare time he devoted himself to working on his own projects, which included an ecological heat pump using water instead of Freon. In 1982, after completing the prototype, he locked himself in the bathroom of his home to try it out and ended up soaking the whole room with a powerful jet of water. As a pump it may not have been successful but as the base for a toy it was perfect. In 1989, under the wing of Hasbro, Inc., it became the definitive water gun. As a result, Johnson became a millionaire and founded his own technology company, Johnson Research and Development, so as not to have to lock himself in his bathroom any more.