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Column: American know-how tames ‘dog days’ of summer

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Here they are again, those “dog days” of summer, when the sun sizzles in the sky, and heat and humidity create a sauna for folks on the ground.

I used to think that the sweltering days in July and August were called “dog days” because the old hound dogs out on the farm would spend steamy afternoons flattened out under shade trees with their tongues lolling out.

Turns out that hound dogs are not involved. Summer’s dog days go way back in history.

The ancient Romans spent a lot of time gazing into the heavens. They associated the hot weather of July and August with the star Sirius. This one they called the “dog star” because it is the brightest one in the constellation Canis Major (large dog).

In those times the dog star rose with the sun in the summer months, and the hot combination was hard to ignore in the halls of the Forum.

Lightweight togas were definitely in order on dog days.

The dog star ruled summer weather without much competition for a couple of thousand years.

All most people could do to fight the heat was fan themselves with palm leaves.

My childhood memories include hot, stuffy church meetings and the rhythmic whishing of a hundred hand fans as worshipers sweated through the sermons. I also have recollections of sultry, sleepless nights when underwhelmed little electric fans tried to stir the heavy air.

Most of us have air conditioning these days because late in the 19th century someone got “sirius” about challenging the dog day heat. Like so often in history, fate joined two seemingly unrelated events to create a new outcome.

Believe it or not, modern air conditioning systems can be traced to the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881. He was shot at the Washington, D.C., train station by a deranged office seeker. Taken to the White House, Garfield suffered for weeks, not only from the pain and infection of his wounds but from the oppressive heat of the city.

Navy engineers worked hard to find a way to cool the air in the president’s bedroom. They installed a device that blew air through cloth saturated with melted ice water. The air was then dried by conduction through a long box filled with cotton connected to the room’s heat vent. What they had was effectively the world’s first air conditioner.

It worked pretty well, reducing the room temperature by 20 degrees. The machine used more than 500,000 pounds of ice for two mournful months at the White House before Garfield died in September.

The next advance in air comfort came from a Buffalo, New York, mechanical engineer named Willis Carrier. In 1902, he designed an “apparatus for treating air” that used cooling coils to lower temperature and humidity.

Legend has it that Carrier conceived his understanding of temperature and humidity while waiting for a train on a foggy night.

In 1904, the St. Louis World’s Fair introduced visitors to the refreshing idea of “manufactured air.”

However, the average person did not really begin to experience the joy of air conditioning until theaters started installing cooling systems in the 1920s. For several decades, the best relief for summer heat was to take in a movie. It didn’t much matter what was playing. Any film was “cool” on a hot summer night.

In the 1950s, room air conditioners became available for the home, and it wasn’t long until central air became a common household option.

Today, most of us have easy relief from the agony of dog days. We are never too far away from our comfort zone.

How the ancient Romans would envy our cool luxury.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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