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2009-08-06 digital edition

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2009-08-06 / General Stories

How Early Texans Beat the Heat

by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn

Texans are no strangers to hot summers. This year's record temperatures, however, are causing even the most seasoned Texans to find creative ways to beat the heat. From freezing their sheets, taking cool showers, wearing wet bandanas around their necks, and installing patio misters—the name of the game is staying cool.

Perhaps we should take a cue from our predecessors, who—minus the luxury of air conditioning—took heatsquelching techniques to an entirely different level.

The first evidence of a "home cooling system" in Texas was the construction of adobe houses in Spanish Texas. This type of house had four thick walls and a door or opening that could be shut in each wall. While the doors and openings were kept shut from dawn until dusk, during the evenings families would keep them open to create a cross-ventilation system that kept air flowing throughout the house.

Early Texans also used well water to cool their homes. They pumped water from the well to fan radiators, which were installed in spaces they wanted to keep cool. The practice of using well water as a coolant proved costly and not entirely effective. Unless homeowners used the water for other purposes after they cooled their homes, it was an expensive effort that didn't yield significant results, with the well water typically only reaching 62 to 72 degrees.

In the 1800s, German dairy farmers in central Texas began practicing evaporative cooling as a means of keeping their dairy products cool. The system involved placing the evening milk in metal cans, covering those cans with wetted blankets and using fans to blow air through the blankets. This typically cooled the milk to 70 or 75 degrees, and the practice was eventually modified and used to cool homes.

Soon Texans were able to purchase natural ice from northern states that was cut from frozen lakes and rivers and shipped to Texas. When this supply was cut off during the Civil War, Texans used their ingenuity and resourcefulness to produce ice mechanically. In 1865, Daniel Livingston Holden of San Antonio installed a Carre absorption machine, which had been shipped from France to Mexico, and eventually made its way to Texas. Holden made several improvements to the machine, which previously used a combination of ammonia and water as a refrigerant. Holden fastened steam coils to the machine and used distilled water to make clear ice. His practice became popular and by 1867, three companies in San Antonio were manufacturing artificial ice.

As early as 1870, Texas cities began manufacturing cooling devices, which opened the door to a new industry in Texas. Manufacturers developed creative ways to use ice, as it became more readily available, combined with fans and air ducts. By placing a 300-pound block of ice in a vault, and then using a fan to blow air through the vault and into an outlet duct, cool air was emitted into a room or space that needed cooling. By 1920, Texans placed large blocks of ice in enclosed pools. From there, the ice water circulated to fan radiators that then cooled rooms, restaurants and other spaces. For many years, this process kept churchgoers cool at the First Baptist churches of Dallas and Austin, along with Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Rice Hotel cafeteria became the first refrigerated air-cooled building in the Houston area in 1922. San Antonio was home to the Milam building— the first air-conditioned high-rise office building in the country in 1928.

Texas soon became the nation's leading manufacturer of air-cooling machines and devices—from advanced evaporative coolers to reversed cycle refrigerators to air-cooling units for automobiles.

Today, we can be thankful for the many advances that have been made over the course of Texas' history to keep us cool and comfortable during the summer months. Some Texans, however, cannot afford the costs associated with cooling their homes. Thankfully, organizations like Meals on Wheels and TXU energy are partnering to deliver "Beat the Heat" bags to those in need and check on elderly individuals who are at risk during periods of extreme heat. I hope we can all do our part to check on our neighbors, especially the elderly, to help each other stay cool and safe this summer.

Source: Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas Online.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Agriculture, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

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