It’s Hot, Hot, Hot! Ancient Methods of Keeping It Cool

summer sunIt’s August, and that means the summer days are dwindling. Yet the soaring temperatures, hazy skies and dripping clothing tell another story. Summer still has us in its grip. Yes, it’s really sweltering out there. And if there’s one thing we modern folks love during these dog days of summer, it’s our air conditioning.

We may smugly assume that modern ingenuity has it all over the ancients in cooling down, but think again. The ancients knew how to use green technology to lower temperatures and make living all the easier, even without electricity or today’s newfangled devices. Let’s look at three examples of how the ancients were really “cooler” than we knew.

Roman Aqueducts

The Roman-built Pont du Gard in modern-day southern France.

The Roman-built Pont du Gard in modern-day southern France.

Roman aqueducts dot landscapes across Europe, reminders of both Roman ingenuity and the scope of their Empire. Aqueducts were designed to use gravity—with no pumps—to funnel water through conduits of brick, stone or concrete over hundreds of miles. The Romans constructed these water channels on gradient or sloping terrain. Mountains were tunneled through or circumvented. Most of the aqueducts were underground, with lead or ceramic pipes carrying the flow. The open-arched bridge system that is so recognizable today fed the water over valleys and open areas. In keeping with Roman customs even in the far reaches of the empire, the water was primarily used for bathhouses. However, it was also brought into some homes, notably of the wealthier citizens, for household use. And during those hot days when temperature rose, pipes in the walls of these houses carried water to cool the brickwork—an efficient and ingenious air conditioning system with no carbon footprint.

Chinese Fans, Fountains and the Dawn of the Air Conditioner

Eastern Han tomb painting, by an Anonymous Chinese artist. Scanned from Anil de Silva's book The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting (1968).

Eastern Han tomb painting, by an Anonymous Chinese artist. Scanned from Anil de Silva’s book The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting (1968).

Ding Huan may not be a household name today, but his contribution to modern “cool” is obvious. A craftsman and inventor living during the Han Dynasty in China nearly 2,000 years ago, he constructed a three meter wide human-powered rotary fan with seven wheels to refresh members of the Emperor’s court. Five hundred years later the Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty had a “Cool Hall” built in his palace. This adapted technology called a Tang-Yulin, combined rotary fans, this time water-driven, with the effects of the spray from huge water-spewing fountains, producing the first air conditioning system with evaporative cooling.[1]

A Page From Ancient History:  Pearl Academy of Fashion, Jaipur, India

Award-winning architect Manit Rastogi had a vision: how to create an aesthetically dynamic structure that would be environmentally sustainable and draw on the unique artistry of the ancient culture of the Jaipur region.  In designing the remarkable Pearl Academy of Fashion, Rastogi decided to take “ten steps back and one step forward.”[2] His use of serpentine hallways to shield from the sun’s rays, decorative screening or “jaali” that allow breezes and filtered sunlight throughout the building and “baoli” or stepwells, which are pools of water cooled in descending steps, all draw from ancient architecture conceptualized as protection from the brutal heat of the region. Rastogi contends that green sustainability and financial considerations are quite compatible when combined with ancient wisdom. Indeed, they are all “integral to the process of design.”[3] His point of view is well taken. His eco-designs have now influenced new regulations for all new Indian government buildings. View Manit Rastogi’s description of integrating ancient and modern design in harmony with natural forces, and take a tour of an inspired and inspiring architectural paean to human ingenuity.


[1] Taco C.R. van Someren, Shuhua van Someren-Wang, Innovative China: Innovation Race Between East and West, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2013, ISBN-978-3-642-36237-8


[3] Ibid

Other References

2 responses to “It’s Hot, Hot, Hot! Ancient Methods of Keeping It Cool

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Asia | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: Throwback Thursday! Ancient Ways to Cool Off | AntiquityNOW

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