Staying Cool: The History of the Refrigerator
We enjoy many conveniences in our homes. They are the result of years of innovation by dedicated inventors. We take many of them for granted. Some—like the refrigerator—have significantly 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. They did their best to store the ice year-round in icehouses and cellars, so they had a supply to keep their food cold. Even with ice, people were often limited to eating locally grown foods. These foods had to be purchased fresh and used daily.
The Egyptians, Chinese, and Indians were some of the early people to use ice in food preservation. As early as the 15th century, people studied refrigeration, but progress took time. Until the beginning of the 20th century, snow and ice served as the primary means of refrigeration.
One of the next steps between storing ice underground and modern refrigeration was the icebox. Wooden iceboxes were introduced in 19th century England. They 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. This fueled the need to create a better refrigeration system.
In 1856, an American businessman, Alexander C. Twinning, experimented with refrigeration. Later, Australian James Harrison reviewed Twinning’s work and developed vapor-compression refrigeration. 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 poisonous if it leaked. Engineers worked until the 1920s to come up with better alternatives, one of which was Freon.