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In 1902 Willis Carrier invented air-conditioning in Buffalo, New York. Carrier didn’t know it yet, but he’d just reversed the outcome of the Civil War, producing the single greatest weapon in the history of the American South, the ability to be cool in our long, hot, sultry summers. Four years later, in 1906, inventors in Belmont, North Carolina modified Carrier’s system and coined the term ‘air conditioning.” Slowly, the invention spread across the country. In 1954, air conditioning made its debut in automobiles courtesy of the Nash Ambassador. By 1960, 20% of all cars had air conditioning and 18% of all Southern homes had it. Already air conditioning was beginning to reverse the population drain that had continued in the South for every decade since the Civil War. Indeed, the 1960’s was the first decade since the American Civil War that more people moved in to the South than out. By 1968 air conditioning was standard in automobiles.
The next decade, the 1970s, saw twice as many people arrive in the South as left. The economic engine of the South — and West, also benefiting from air conditioning — roared to life. Since 1960, 70% of all American economic growth has been in these two regions.
The demographic shift that would remake the country was a direct link to air conditioning making the South more inhabitable, and one state stood to gain, the most — Florida.
In 1950, the sleep and sun-drenched state of Florida had a population of 2.7 million. To put that in context, that was less than the population of most other Southern states. Tennessee, 3.29 million, Alabama 3.0 million, Georgia, 3.4 million, and Kentucky, 2.9 million, all had more population than Florida. While Louisiana, 2.7 million, South Carolina, 2.1 million, and Mississippi, 2.3 million, all had similar or equal populations. But as air conditioning spread, Florida boomed. By 1960, the population of the state rested at 4.9 million. Successive decades saw the population surge from 6.8 million to 9.7 million to 12.9 million to 16.0 million, until the 2010 census when the state of Florida weighed in at a colossal 18.8 million.
All Southern states have benefited from air conditioning, but none have benefited like Florida.
Back in 1950, Florida had less residents than Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky, and a bit more than Mississippi. In 1951 the first window air conditioning unit for the home was introduced and by 2010, Florida had more people than all four of those states combined.
This seismic shift in population brought on by the advent of air-conditioning redounded to the South’s benefit in hundreds of thousands of ways. If you’re a native Southerner like I am — as far back as we can trace it none of us have ever lived above the Mason-Dixon line — ask your parents or grandparents how hot it was in their youth. My dad slept on a porch on hot summer nights and remembers waking up drenched in sweat. My mom remembers driving in a car with a large block of ice in a bowl at her feet to cool her down. The heat, like no other geographic or atmospheric factor in our region, embedded itself in the culture. Slow-talk and slower movement? Designed to lessen the sweat. Sitting on the front porch and talking to everyone who passes? The porch was the coolest part of the house.
There weren’t very many of us down here, and we all baked through the long, hot summers. And Florida baked the worst of all. There were no hills, there were no mountains, there was no respite from the heat at all. Just to challenge yourself, try to spend a day in Florida without air-conditioning now. It’s maddening, stultifying, impossible to breathe. I don’t think most of us can make it a day without air conditioning. So the sudden onslaught of Willis Carrier’s invention into the midst of the steamy, humid South revolutionized the region in many ways.
But sports provides the perfect microcosm to illustrate the change wrought by air conditioning in one particular facet of life.
That’s because air conditioning made the state of Florida a sports behemoth. The influx of population made Florida the most fertile recruiting ground in the entire country. Year round sunny weather meant the glut of children arriving in the state could hone their talents for many more days and months than their peers elsewhere. Put simply, Florida’s demographic explosion made possible by air conditioning, remade the state’s sports landscape.
Consider — prior to 1950 the state of Florida had won zero national titles in any sports. Since 1950? Try 54, 52 of which have come since 1970, the year when a majority of homes in Florida first had air conditioning. The population explosion transformed three erstwhile collegiate backwaters: Florida State, Florida, and Miami into athletic leviathons. What’s more, air conditioning, perhaps more than any other sport, has fundamentally altered the landscape of college football, the nation’s second most popular sport. Prior to 1983, the three Florida schools had won a grand total of zero national titles in football. Since 1983? The trio has combined for ten college football titles: 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, and 2001 for Miami, 1993 and 1999 for Florida State, and 1996, 2006, and 2008 for the Florida Gators.
The next closest state in terms of producing national champions? Alabama and Nebraska have each produced three national champions over the past 28 seasons.
Since 1983, the state of Florida has snagged more than one in every three national titles in football. Along the way, the programs have also garnered seven Heisman trophys, six of them coming since 1983.
But while football may crystallize the rise of a new air-conditioning overlord, it’s not just football that has benefited. Florida State has won 12 national titles since air conditioning came to the automobile, none before. Two of those came in men’s gymnastics in 1951-52. Toss out those as outliers and ten of FSU’s titles have come since 1981. Miami won its first title in women’s golf in 1970. Since then the Hurricanes have notched fifteen additional national championships. Meanwhile the Florida Gators have benefited the most of all. Prior to 1968, the Florida Gators had zero national titles. Since 1968, the Gators have won 26 national titles in 11 different sports.
Post air conditioning the state of Florida’s three primary teams have won a grand total of 54 national titles. Pre-air conditioning in cars, they’d won a grand total of zero.
Athletics in Florida, therefore, offers the perfect window into an invention that transformed the American South. The entire South has been transformed, but no state has benefited like Florida.
Indeed, if you could travel back to Buffalo, New York in 1902 and find a young 26 year old engineer tinkering with an invention that would eventually lead to the creation of the Rust Belt, a vast migration of minds, talent, and people to the South, and bring about an economic reversal of the Civil War, you might as well go ahead and teach him the Gator Chomp. Willis Carrier is the most valuable Gator of all time.
In fact, the University of Florida recently put up statues for its three Heisman Trophy winners. But if it really wanted to honor the man responsible for those awards, the Gators really should have a Willis Carrier statue as well.
Heck, the man most responsible for the state of Florida’s athletic renaissance isn’t even in the state of Florida’s sports hall of fame. It’s time for a Wllis Carrier wing — chilled to a teeth-chattering 54 degrees — to honor the championships his invention has brought to the state.
It’s truly the least Gators, Seminoles, and Hurricanes could do for the man whose invention remade our collegiate sports landscape.
Willis M’f’in Carrier