Many of the conveniences we enjoy in our homes are the result of years of innovation by dedicated inventors. Though we take many of them for granted, some—like the refrigerator—have hugely affected the way we live our lives. Who invented the refrigerator, and how has it evolved over time?
Preserving food has not always been easy. Centuries ago, people gathered ice from streams and ponds and did their best to store it year-round in icehouses and cellars, so they had a ready supply to keep their food cold. Even with ice, people were often limited to eating locally grown foods that had to be purchased fresh and used daily, notes the Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century Web site.
The Egyptians, Chinese and Indians were some of the early people to use ice in food preservation. In 1626, Sir Francis Bacon was also testing the idea that cold could be used to preserve meat; his chilly experiment caused him to develop pneumonia, from which he died on Easter Day, April 9, 1626.
Even Peter Mark Roget, compiler of Roget’s Thesaurus, studied refrigeration, suggesting a design for a “frigidarium.”
Progress took time, however, and snow and ice served as the primary means of refrigeration until the beginning of the 20th century.
According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, one of the next steps between storing ice underground and modern refrigeration was the icebox. Introduced in 19th century England, wooden iceboxes were lined with tin or zinc, and filled with sawdust, seaweed and other materials to keep the ice from melting. Drip pans caught the water that melted and had to be emptied daily.
In the United States, warm winters in 1889 and 1890 caused ice shortages that fueled the need to create a better refrigeration system.
A Encyclopedia Britannica entry attributes the beginning of commercial refrigeration to Alexander C. Twinning, an American businessman, in 1856. Later, an Australian named James Harrison reviewed the refrigerator used by Twinning, and another made by physician John Gorrie, and developed vapor-compression refrigeration for the brewing and meatpacking industries.
In 1859, France’s Ferdinand Carré created a more advanced system that used ammonia as a coolant; the earlier vapor-compression machines used air. The ammonia worked well, but was toxic if it leaked. Engineers worked until the 1920s to come up with better alternatives, one of which was Freon.
Sources in this Story
- Greatest Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century: Air Conditioning and Refrigeration History
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Refrigeration
- findingDulcinea: Happy Birthday, Sir Francis Bacon, Historian, Lawyer, Politician and Philosopher
- findingDulcinea: Happy Birthday, Peter Mark Roget, Compiler of Roget’s Thesaurus
- Wright State University: Frigidaire Historical Collection
- Time magazine: Time’s Best Inventions of 2008: Einstein’s Fridge
According to a paper published by Wright State University, Fred W. Wolf invented the first commercially viable electric refrigerator in the United States. Sold for the first time in 1913, the DOMELRE, an air-cooled refrigeration unit, was mounted on top of an icebox.
In 1915, Alfred Mellowes designed an electric refrigeration unit that differed from other refrigerators because it was self-contained; the compressor was in the bottom of the cabinet. Guardian Refrigerator Company started manufacturing and selling Mellowes’ version of the refrigerator in 1916. Despite offering a high-quality product, the company struggled, producing fewer than 40 appliances in two years.
W.C. Durant, who was president of General Motors, eventually purchased the Guardian Refrigerator Company privately, and the business was renamed Frigidaire. Appliances were mass produced much like cars, and the first Frigidaire refrigerator was completed in September 1918 in Detroit.
Continued improvements in how the refrigerator was produced, along with organizational changes in the company resulted in a better product and a reduced price. Frigidaire eventually added ice cream cabinets to models in 1923, soda fountain equipment in 1924, and water and milk coolers in 1927. By 1929, 1 million refrigerators had been produced, a marked improvement from the early years.
Albert Einstein is remembered for many scientific achievements, but, as Time magazine notes, it’s often overlooked that he also made great contributions to eco-friendly refrigeration. In 1930, Einstein and a colleague patented a refrigerator that cools with ammonia, butane and water instead of Freon, a contributor to global warming.
Although Einstein’s original refrigerator was not very energy efficient, researchers from Oxford have adjusted his plans and believe they have a version that could be competitive in the marketplace in the future.