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It's Summer, Listen to the Wind Sing!

Evolution of Tools that Help Us Cool Off (Buchae-Fan-Air Conditioner)

When the first full moon of the Lunar New Year shone, our ancestors shouted “Buy my heat!”
This is a traditional custom called “heat-selling.” Although “heat-selling” has faded from our memories over time,
don’t we all still long for a cool summer, away from the heat?
Let me walk you through the history of how our ancestors enjoyed a cool summer using buchae (handheld fans), electric fans,
and air conditioners.
Article: Editor’s Office

Beauty of Buchae with a Long History

Buchae is the oldest tool in existence that has helped us beat the heat. In both the East and West, humankind has been using these handheld fans for thousands of years. In 2,000 B.C., the Hittites, who were pioneers of the Iron Age in ancient India and Asia Minor, used buchae; and an Egyptian wall painting from 1,500 B.C. shows a fan-bearer holding a fan made of palm leaves behind the king.

Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is the earliest textual evidence of handheld fans in existence. It is recorded that Gyeonhwon sent a round handheld fan trimmed with peacock feathers as a gift to congratulate the founding of Goryeo.

There are mainly two types of buchae. First, “Bangu buchae (方球 in Chinese characters)” are round fans made by gluing silk or paper onto the ribs. Bangu fans take different forms according to the shape of their ribs and how the background is decorated. Some examples are Oyeopseon, which is made by twisting the end of the ribs to make it resemble a Paulownia tree’s leaf, Taegeukseon which has the Taegeuk pattern in the background, and Gongjakseon, which is made of peacock feathers. The second type of buchae is “Jeobseon,” or foldable fans made by attaching paper to the ribs. According to "Tu Hua Jian Wen Zhi," published in China in 1076, envoys from Goryeo used these folded fans with pictures of the landscape, flowers, birds, and figures on them, which were beautiful and fascinating. Similar to Bangu fans, Jeobseons are also called different names depending on the number of ribs and the shape of the pivot. To name a few, Jukjeolseon is made using sticks with joints and Hapjukseon, by putting together two pieces of bamboo bark sharpened until thin like paper.

There is a tragi-comic story related to folded fans. In the Joseon Dynasty period, not all people were allowed to use the same fans. The number of ribs in a fan was directly associated with the person’s social class. Only the royal family could use Oshipsal Baekjeopson, a fan with fifty ribs and one hundred folds. Only the aristocrats were allowed to use fans with forty ribs and the middle class and merchants could only use fans with fewer ribs.

Our Ancestors’ Admiration for Buchae

Despite its meaning of “a tool held in the hand for creating wind, “the use of buchae is not just limited to warding off the heat. Our ancestors praised buchae for having so many advantages, referring to them as the eight virtues, which were as follows: They help chase the heat away; block sunshine; keep out the rain; chase flies and mosquitos away; used as mats to sit on; and as a dining table; for carrying things on the head; and lastly to even hide or cover their faces.

And that’s not all. In a Pansori performance, the singer utilized a handheld fan to evoke a feeling of excitement or suspense and the Seonbi, or scholars, either wrote down their favorite passage or drew pictures on them. The proverb that goes “Fan is the best gift for Dano Festival and Almanac for Dongji”, is evidence that buchae was a part of our ancestors’ lives. Although not used as often today, buchae will never quite disappear from our lives. Why not give your loved one a buchae on Dano Day to help them chase away the heat as well as their frustration with COVID-19? For reference, Dano this year is June 14.

Winds of Change

If someone told you that there was a time when people had to pay taxes for owning an electric fan, you probably wouldn’t believe them. Although this sounds absurd today, people with fans were levied the so called “miscellaneous local taxes” from the end of the Japanese occupation period to a short while after Korea gained independence. As the name suggests, the taxes were imposed on all kinds of stuff, with fans being one of them. Fans must have been luxuries back then, considering that these miscellaneous local taxes were imposed on vaults and pianos as well.

The world’s first fan was invented in the 1600s in the West. The weight of the pendulum hanging from the ceiling was used to spin the rotation axis of the gear, thereby making the fan swing in the form of a clock pendulum. It was in the early 1800s when “Punkah,” the world’s first mechanized fan, was introduced in the Middle East. With the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, fans that create wind from belts that move on electrical power generated by the spinning wheels at plants were invented. Thomas Edison was the first to invent the earlier version of fans today that run on electricity in 1882, and fans with guards were introduced for the first time around the Second World War.

Goldstar (now LG Electronics) introduced Korea’s first fan in 1960. Goldstar named the fan “D-301” and published an advertisement titled “Goldstar fans, offering a cool breeze at an affordable cost“ in the newspaper. Although the “D-301” model was discontinued within just a year, the wind sparked by it spread far and wide. Practically every household in Korea began to have fans as they were mass produced, with industrialization in full swing. Technological advancement later on gave people the ability to control the speed of the fans and led to the invention of remote controls. Fans also started to take various forms, including table fans, ceiling fans, and pedestal fans. However, the designs of the fans did not change much, in the sense that they basically consisted of spinning blades, until Dyson rolled out its “bladeless fan” in 2009, shocking the world. This marked a watershed moment in the industry and from then on, fans began to have a variety of designs. Fans launched these days are evolving as they meet technology and have new features such as air purification, humidification, and even LED lights.

Air Conditioners, at the Forefront of Advancement of Civilization and Industry

Do you know where the first air conditioner in Korea was installed? Surprisingly, the answer is Seokguram grotto. Owing to the wisdom of Silla craftsmen, Seokguram was designed to naturally control moisture and humidity. However, the unsuccessful attempt by the Japanese to dismantle and reassemble the structure of the grotto led to dew forming on the sculpture of Buddha and the erosion of granite. The Korean government investigated Seokguram again in the 1960s, but failed to find a fundamental solution. In the end, the first air conditioner in Korea was installed in Seokguram to control humidity.

The reason behind the introduction of air conditioners in Korea is a sad story indeed, but now they are also home appliances essential to the entire humankind. This is because it was thanks to air conditioners that human beings could escape from disastrous heat. Then, who invented the world’s first air conditioner? It was Willis Carrier, an American engineer, in 1902. The company that he was working for back then received a request from a publishing office for a device that could control both humidity and temperature. The publishing company was having a hard time in summer, because the printer paper got damaged due to the high temperatures and humidity.

Carrier, who was trying really hard to solve the problem, was at the Pittsburgh railroad station that was covered in a blanket of fog one day when suddenly a lightning bolt of inspiration hit him. This is how the world’s first air conditioner was invented. The inventor then left his company and formed his own corporation. In 1922, he went on to invent the world’s first “centrifugal water-chilling refrigeration machine.” This technology is what enabled the adoption of air conditioners in department stores, theaters, hotels, and hospitals.

Since then, air conditioners have continuously been upgraded, in pursuit of higher efficiency, eco-friendliness, and low noise, backed by technology. We now have smart conditioners, a combination of an air conditioner and AI, which can purify air, heat the space, and be used all year round. As a significant number of people began to enjoy camping in recent years, the market for portable mini air conditioners is growing, and wearable air conditioners are garnering much interest as well. With people’s lives and life patterns changing, air conditioners will keep evolving in unimaginable ways.

Air conditioners are not just about warding off the heat. They also have a huge impact on the development of the medical industry, and industry as a whole. The words of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, a country famous for its scorching heat, seem to reflect the same view. “Singapore would not exist were it not for air conditioners. Air conditioners are the most important invention of the 20th century.”

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