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The History of the Refrigerator: The Cold Truth and Hard Facts
by Marjorie Dorfman

(Q.) – How do you thaw a frozen turkey? (A.) – Blow in its ear.
– Johnny Carson

Who invented the refrigerator and what was everybody doing before that to keep food cold? Read on for some chilling answers; that is, if you dare to break the ice.

Eugene O’Neil’s iceman was from another day and age, but the cutting and storage of ice goes back much further to 1,000 BC, in China. Before that time, snow, ice, cool streams, springs, caves and cellars were used to refrigerate food. The first cellars were holes dug into the ground that were lined with wood or straw and packed with snow and ice. Around 500 BC, the Egyptians made ice on cold nights by setting water out in earthenware pots that were kept wet. At some point in history, perhaps in the 14th century in China and the seventeenth century in Italy, it was discovered that the evaporation of brine (salt water) absorbed heat and therefore a container placed in brine would stay cold. (Although no one can say for sure, this may have occurred after the man who invented the recipe for ice cubes died and took his secret formula to the grave).

Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from an enclosed space or from a substance. A refrigerator uses the evaporation of a liquid to absorb heat. The liquid (or refrigerant) utilized for this purpose evaporates at an extremely low temperature, creating freezing conditions inside the machine. The process is based on a fundamental law in physics (which is about as clear to this author as mud). For those who can wade well, it all boils down to the fact that a liquid is rapidly vaporized through a process known as compression. Cooling is created by the rapid expansion of gasses.

In 18th century England, servants collected ice in the winter and put it in "ice houses," where the sheets of ice were packed in salt, wrapped in strips of flannel, and stored underground to keep them frozen until summer. In 1748, Dr. William Cullen, whose studies at the University of Glasgow dealt with the evaporation of liquids in a vacuum, became the first person to demonstrate the principle of artificial refrigeration. He did not, however, do anything about it other than demonstrating it and both food and people remained unchilled for some time to come.

During the nineteenth century, numerous experimental devices were developed in an effort to achieve artificial refrigeration. An American inventor, Oliver Evans, designed the first refrigeration machine in 1805. In 1834 Jacob Perkins, created the very first practical refrigerator by utilizing ether in a vapor compression cycle. His machine did not evoke a great deal of interest at the time as there was already a well established natural ice industry that was big business in the United States. His design was later adapted in 1844 by an American physician, John Gorrie, who used it in Florida to cool the air for yellow fever patients. In 1876, German engineer Karl Von Linden patented the process for liquefying gas, which is an integral part of refrigeration technology. He built the first compressor refrigerator machine in Munich in 1873, which originally used very explosive methyl ether. In 1876, he changed to an ammonia cycle.

The concept of refrigeration was "hot" and rapidly expanding into other American industries. In 1877, Ferdinand Carre designed a system whereby liquids such as ammonia were circulated by a compressor around the container to keep it cold. While refining his invention, in that same year he created a machine for The Paraguay, the world’s first refrigerated ship, which was used to transport frozen meat from Argentina to France. Although Carre’s machine was the first of its kind to be applied commercially, it proved to be ineffective in meeting the needs of the shippers who wished to transport perishables. In 1874, Raoul Picxtet of Switzerland designed a similar compressor system, utilizing sulfur dioxide instead of ammonia as the refrigerant. This same technique was later adapted to create the world’s first artificial skating rink in London.

In England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, "ice boxes" were becoming the vogue in restaurants and in homes. Wooden boxes lined with tin or zinc and insulated with various materials such as cork, sawdust and seaweed were used to hold blocks of ice and "refrigerate" food. A drip pan collected the melted water and it had to be emptied daily. There was usually an insulated compartment for ice and another for food. The ice was replaced periodically by purchasing blocks from that old, cool guy mentioned earlier, the "iceman", whose wagon was a common sight on the streets of towns and cities.

Warm winters in 1889 and 1890 created severe shortages of natural ice in the United States. This prompted the use of mechanical refrigeration for the freezing and storage of fish and in the burgeoning brewing, dairy and meat packing industries. Commercial refrigeration techniques were also applied to railroad cars, "coolers" in grocery stores and in manufacturing. By 1890, the United States was exporting 25 million tons of ice.

Refrigerators from the late 1800s until 1929 used toxic gasses (methyl chloride and sulfur dioxide) as refrigerants. Several fatal accidents occurred in the 1920s when the methyl chloride leaked, causing three American corporations to fund research and develop a less dangerous method. Their efforts led to the discovery of Freon. Over the course of just a few years, compressor refrigerators using Freon became the standard for almost all home kitchens.

Several machines appeared almost simultaneously on the frigid scene. General Electric unveiled one of the earliest refrigerators in 1911, which was actually designed by a French monk. The Dormier was manufactured in Chicago in 1913 and it was the first "non ice box" designed for home use. Frigidaire introduced the Guardian Frigerator, a self contained machine developed by Alfred Mellowes in 1915. It was assembled in a wash house in a backyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana. General Motors Corporation purchased this refrigerator in 1918 and the name was changed to Frigidaire. In that same year, Kelvinator marketed its own practical home refrigerator and everyone and their food were quickly getting cooler by the day.

Kelvinator began in 1881 as The Leonard Refrigerator Company. The company grew to be a leader in wooden icebox cabinets and in 1914 developed its first household mechanical refrigerators under the name of the Electro-Automatic Refrigerating Company. In 1918, it introduced the first refrigerator with any type of automatic control. In 1920 their production numbers went from two dozen to more than two hundred. Compressors were generally driven by belts attached to motors located in the basement or in an adjoining room. The company changed its name to Kelvinator soon after (to protect the cold as well as the innocent), and by 1923 held 80% of the market for electric refrigerators.

Gibson, Electrolux and General Electric all left their own distinctive marks on the refrigerator industry. Gibson, then owned by Frank Gibson (surprise!)goes back to the days of yesteryear when cabinets for iceboxes were handcrafted. In 1932, the company manufactured its own unique line of refrigerators. In 1930, Electrolux launched the first built-in refrigerator. It was the perfect prototype for the kitchenette in the small, modern apartments of the time. The following year they began production on their vacuum cleaner and the very first air-cooled refrigerator in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. (Must have been some cool, clean place!) In 1939, in response to consumers storing more and more frozen foods, General Electric introduced into mass production the familiar dual temperature refrigerator, which contained one section for frozen food and a second for chilled food.

Technological advances created many alterations to the refrigerator industry during the 1950s and 60s. Innovations such as automatic defrost and automatic icemakers first appeared. (Both the old iceman and that guy with the recipe for ice cubes must have rolled over in their graves at this point.) In the 1970s the environment became a top priority to American scientists. This concern led to more energy-efficient refrigerators and the elimination of dangerous carbons in their systems. Today, the refrigerator is America’s most used appliance and is found in more than 99.5% of American homes.

So the next time you open your refrigerator door, do so with renewed respect and say, "thank you for keeping my food cold." You never know who may be listening and who might decide to take it all back, leaving you with one soggy collection of eggs, cheese, meats, vegetables and leftover take-out with no particular place to go.


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