CHSTM Research Seminar: 3 October 2023
Fiona Williamson, Singapore Management University
Controlling Urban Atmospheres: Air Conditioning as a Social Marker in Colonial Singapore
This paper explores the socio-technical experience of climate control in colonial Singapore. By the beginning of the twentieth-century, technical innovations such as wireless technology, electrification, photography, mechanical computing and much more, had ushered in an era of technological optimism whereby technology was considered the salvation of many human problems. In the atmospheric sciences, even the concept of engineering and modifying climates was not out of reach. In tropical towns, the heat and humidity were a continual source of frustration, and possibly even ill-health, that only worsened as urban areas concretised and grew. At around the same time as the motorcar was adding to the problem of urban heat, the advent of air-conditioning systems enabled a vision of a new, cooler urban future.
The paper has two main aims. First, to emphasise the local and the circumstantial in the pursuit and application of micro-weather control. Air-conditioning was an imported technology that relied on another imported technology, electricity. However, As Goh Chor Boon has argued, Singapore failed to develop a significant technological culture (and thus did not industrialise) under British rule. His claim sheds some light on the story of the introduction of air conditioning by arguing that the uptake of imported technologies was minimal, especially amongst the non-European populations. Thus, while knowledge was imported, its applications was culturally specific. This leads on to the second aim, which concerns how the social and the technical were bound together, the uptake of the latter expressed through wealth, status, and culture. The adoption of cooling technologies was also a social identifier, within a socioecological system of urban atmospheric resilience that was as intimately bound to the local and international politics of colonialism, as it was to the individual climatic experience.
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