WHEN THE WEATHER is detestable, it's always gratifying to learn that it was not merely normally unpleasant but spectacularly and triple-digit terrible. Yesterday has now been memorialized with the weatherman's equivalent of an Olympic medal: the temperature hit 100 at 2:56 p.m. It was the hottest day in nearly four years. History was being made out on those deserted sidewalks.

The true Washingtonian takes a deep and gloomy pride in the awfulness of the city's summers. It gives the place character. Perhaps you thought that this was a city of careful, middle-of-the-road habits, pleasant in its way but a bit bland. If you thought that, you haven't come to know Washington summers. The other seasons generally follow the rule of moderation. But the classic Washington summer is dire, extreme and harsh -- a time of testing of the spirit and sanity, not to mention the air conditioner.

Speaking of the air conditioner, this city owes a monument to all the anonymous tinkerers and engineers who developed the ingenious machinery that creates October indoors while July rages outside. Washington is full of statues of people who have done less for mankind than the inventors of the air-conditioning machine. Where were you at 2:56? Indoors, no doubt, trying to think of ways to avoid going out. Air conditioning is synonymous with refuge. Without it this city would be uninhabited three months a year. In the old days, on afternoons like yesterday's, the federal government closed the offices and sent everyone home on the reasonable grounds that no one was getting any work done anyway. Brains turned to blotting paper and inspiration died before lunch time. The next time someone tells you that life was better in the old days, think gratefully of your air conditioner.

But outdoors, in the shimmering haze, there are further records to be set. The excitement and the challenges are by no means over. There's a chance, the weatherman says, that Washington will achieve more 90-degree days this July than in any month since the thermometer was invented. A little luck and a little more effort could turn this summer into the all-time worst in the city's history.