As it turns out, air conditioning and outer space have a history that goes back further than ballpoint pens that write upside down and infrared ear thermometers. Back when artificial atmospheric-processing techniques were first unleashed on urban populations, the West was in the midst of a Martian mania which left few aspects of popular culture untouched.
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By the last quarter of the 19th century, the industrial revolution was making the air in big cities increasingly unpalatable. London was cloaked in smog that a string of public-health acts had done little to abate. The U.S., too, was hearing its first municipal ordinances against smoke emissions from mills, ships, and steam trains. In every case, the effects were at their worst during summer as the hot upper atmosphere hindered circulation. Our will to master nature had begun to make the natural environment itself less hospitable.
Utopian writers like William Morris dreamed of a world without the fog of industrial production. In his News from Nowhere of 1890, one of the first sensations the narrator experiences upon waking up in a future London seemingly returned to a mythical arable past, is “a delicious relief caused by the fresh air and pleasant breeze.” Shorn of mills and engines of all kinds, Morris’s vision of an idealized English capital finds “a fresh feeling in the air” once more.
As it turned out, the ideal for such freshness would turn out to be celestial rather than terrestrial. In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaperelli first dubbed the lines he saw on the surface of Mars “canals,” a term suggestive of possible human use and delight. Mars erupted into newspaper stories, narrative fiction, popular song—even advertisements for hand soap. As the 19th century drew to a close, the human desire for slightly cooler air found its technical acknowledgement—in a utopian dream focused on space in general and the the red planet in particular.
Few imaginary voyages to Mars took place in this period without offering up some sample of the Martian atmosphere. The spacefaring newlyweds from British author George Griffith’s Honeymoon in Space find the air on Mars so “delicious” that it’s like “breathing champagne.” The mysterious titular protagonist of Hugh MacColl’s Mr Stranger’s Sealed Packet would likewise find “the Martian air deliciously refreshing” with an “unmistakable … aromatic odour.” And in 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion would imagine the inhabitants of Mars taking succor directly from the “nutritive” properties of their own atmosphere in his poetic fantasy Urania. If the air down here was increasingly rank and fetid, on Mars it was starting to sound like a three-course reception with full bar service all ready to suck up through your nostrils.
The air on Mars wasn’t just delicious—more importantly, it was cool and not too clammy. The heroes of Robert Cromie’s novel from 1890, A Plunge into Space, wake upon their first morning on Mars to praise the “delightful dryness of the air.” A vision of Mars conjured up in W.J. Colville’s almost contemporary Dashed Against the Rock notes that the air “seemed very clear, bracing.” And the communist revolutionary and science-fiction writer Alexander Bogdanov would later agree that the Martian atmosphere is “pure and clear.” Even in 1949, Robert Heinlein, who really should have known better by then, would speak of how the “thin air of Mars was chill but not really cold” as if somebody up there had got the planetary thermostat at just the right level.