Chillin’ Out, 17th Century Style

After a chilly spring, summer has finally arrived where I live in New England…with a vengeance! Thank goodness for air conditioning…

Speaking of which, did you know that the first building to be air conditioned was in London…back in the year 1620? No? Well, it’s a little out of my beloved 19th century, but it’s such a fun story!

James I was King of England then. He was getting on in years and suffered from several health complaints, among them an extreme sensitivity to sunlight. He was also deeply paranoid after surviving several assassination attempts and always wore thickly padded doublets, even in summer. So he probably didn’t much look forward to the advent of warmer weather, even though England’s summers tend to the more temperate–which is why he had a discussion about the weather with his court magician, one Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633) who offered to make a room as cold as winter in the midst of summer for his majesty. James jumped at the offer, and chose the room he wanted cooled–namely, the Great Hall of Westminster Abbey.

Yup. That one.

Drebbel was an interesting fellow, much closer to a Leonardo da Vinci than to a magician, though he often found it easier to get people to listen to him about his scientific studies if he pretended they were magic. He was a pioneer in the study of submarines (for all intents and purposes discovering oxygen in the process, 150 years before Joseph Priestley) and took King James for a ride in one in the Thames, making James the first British monarch to travel underwater. It’s even speculated that he was the model for Prospero in The Tempest.

Drebbel did not leave a detailed account of how he cooled Westminster on that July day in 1620, but cool it he did–in fact, James had to leave after becoming chilled. But according to accounts left by some of the courtiers who were there, it’s possible to reconstruct what Drebbel did: he and his assistants brought several long, low metal troughs and set them around the edges of a narrower part of the Hall, filling them with salt and ice cut from the Thames in winter and stored in ice houses. They also added nitre, today called saltpetre or potassium nitrate, to the troughs, which in combination with the salt and icy water created a compound that was actually below the freezing point of water. Drebbel had doubtless observed that cold air sinks and displaces warm air upward, so by carefully selecting his location in that narrow part of the hall, was probably able to cool the lower part of the air (and force the warm air up toward the lofty ceiling) to a relatively chilly sixty five degrees or so…which would certainly feel like winter if you’d just stepped inside from 80 degree heat.

I hope James was suitably grateful.

Author

Share

Comments

Chillin’ Out, 17th Century Style — 3 Comments

  1. James I/VI was a piece of work with his obsessions and paranoia. I knew he commissioned a new translation of Bible and relentlessly persecuted witches, which explains having a court magician, but this science thing is new to me.

  2. At the time magic and science could not be so clearly divided.

    You get a writer complaining about how witches are unscientific for neglecting the astrological side of medicine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.