How air conditioning helped Ronald Reagan become president

Everyday objects and ideas have, through history, often had fascinating and unexpected consequences, as a new BBC Two series reveals…

How We Got To Now With Steven Johnson. (Robert MacAndrew/Nutopia)

Best-selling author Steven Johnson tells Jonathan Wright, BBC History Magazine’s TV editor, about the weird and wonderful revelations that feature in his new show, How We Got To Now, including how air conditioning helped the election of Ronald Reagan as American president…

Q: Can you tell us a little about the series? An important element seems to be unexpected heroes, researchers who don’t become famous through their work.

A: That’s important and there are two other elements. We’re trying to look at these innovations or inventions that are so common now that we don’t think of them as being about technology or new ideas, so a glass of clean water coming out of a tap that doesn’t give us cholera a few hours later, for example. That’s an extraordinary invention: that you can do that in a city of 10 million people and not worry about epidemic diseases.

We also look at the unintended consequences of all these inventions and technologies as they ripple through society, so you think you’re solving one problem but you end up triggering a set of changes that you would have had a very hard time predicting. Air conditioning comes to the home through window units after the Second World War, and in the United States that triggers this huge migration of people to the southern states, to the sunbelt, to the desert states.

That in turn ends up changing the political map of the United States, which ends up being crucial to the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 because he builds a sunbelt coalition that didn’t exist 40 years before. At some fundamental level, air conditioning is a big part of Ronald Reagan’s election.

Q: The show on time is fascinating, particularly the way clockmaker Aaron Lufkin Dennison (1812–95) uses production line techniques we usually associate with Henry Ford, to make a watch. So many connections fly off from here.

A: I love that episode, and the idea that the watch Dennison ends up making is kind of like the first high-tech gadget, that a normal person would have this piece of machinery that they would carry around on their person. We completely take that for granted now – we have multiple things like that that we carry around, smartphones or iPads, but that was something that didn’t exist unless you were very wealthy until the middle of the 19th century. Then all of a sudden, he comes up with this mass production technique that makes it affordable.

The big unintended consequence of accurately measuring time is time as tyranny. There’s a whole, largely animated sequence in the show that’s kind of Monty Python meets Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. It’s an optimistic show and it should make you feel like we’ve made a lot of progress over the last 200–500 years, but it’s also trying to point out some things are not always great.

The factory model required a very regimented level of time, and tools that could measure time. Josiah Wedgwood and those folks invented the idea of clocking in, of being paid by the hour, shift work. In some alternate history where accurate clocks weren’t invented, it’s unclear whether the industrial revolution would have happened in the same way. And you look at that and you see people’s lives getting compressed into these dreary, regimented factory hours and you have to say it’s a mixed blessing.

Q: Do you think we’re more open to a view of history that’s more about connections now? We live in a networked world and we can more easily accept the idea, for instance, that Tim-Berners Lee built on other people’s work.

A: Actually, Tim Berners-Lee did invent the web largely on his own – although we should also mention his colleague Robert Cailliau – but he was also completely dependent on the internet. If he’d had to invent a network of computers packet-switching with each other all around the world, he would have never been able to do that in his own time at CERN.

The web was a hobby – he had a day job. The fact that Vint Cerf and other visionaries behind the internet had specifically designed it to be an open platform created the possibility space for Berners-Lee to come along, more or less on his own, and add this new layer that changed everything.

But, yes, we do live in a networked world so we’re much more likely to accept a story of networked innovation.

The next episode of How We Got To Now With Steven Johnson airs on BBC Two on Saturday 21 February at 7.30pm. To find out more, click here.

You can also visit Steven Johnson’s website by clicking here.

To listen to our podcast interview with Johnson, click here.

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