An Ice Cold Epic: The History of Commercial Refrigerators
Imagine a world without commercial refrigerators. No fresh produce at the market. No ice cream on a hot summer day. No cold sandwiches at the cafeteria. Food spoilage. Sick people. Unhappy customers. Zero sales.
There was a time.
Commercial refrigerator history touches business, health, safety and the environment.
The Secret Behind Commercial Refrigerators
People have preserved food in ice for millennia. However, mechanical commercial refrigeration became vital as people moved away from food sources and into big cities.
Compression is the secret weapon behind commercial refrigerators. Liquid is turned into gas and draws energy from the space around it. Heat is removed and the space becomes cooler.
The physics sound simple, but creating a viable mechanical refrigerator proved challenging. Pollution made using water hazardous. Identifying the right chemical alternative was tricky. Scientists and businessmen worldwide experimented until they produced today’s indispensable commercial refrigerators.
Breakthroughs in Commercial Refrigeration
The first breakthrough occurred in 1748 when Scotland’s William Cullen developed the basic technique behind artificial refrigeration. He demonstrated it in 1756, boiling ether into a partial vacuum to create ice. In 1820, English scientist Michael Faraday advanced Cullen’s work when he turned ammonia gas into liquid.
In 1802, Maryland engineer Thomas Moore invited President Thomas Jefferson to see his new invention – a small insulated box used to chill butter. He called it a “refrigiratory” until he patented “refrigerator” in 1803.
American inventor Oliver Evans designed the first vapor compression refrigerator in 1805 but never constructed a model. His colleague, Jacob Perkins, patented a machine based on Evans’s concept in 1809. Perkins built a prototype using ether in 1834 but it was more of an ice machine.
In 1844, John Gorrie, an American doctor, built a refrigerator based on Oliver Evan’s design for medical purposes and patented his unit in 1851.
Then, in 1856, American businessman Alexander Twinning designed a machine to mass produce ice for breweries. Lack of financing and the Civil War stalled Twinning’s progress.
However, that same year, Australian James Harrison used Gorrie’s and Twinning’s models to construct a commercial refrigerator using ether as a coolant. These were used by the Australian brewery and meat packing industries.
In 1859, France’s Ferdinand Carre developed a refrigeration system using ammonia as a coolant based on Faraday’s and Gorrie’s earlier work.
Twelve years later, German engineer Carl von Linde began work on a commercial refrigeration system for breweries. He built a system that liquefied ammonia, sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride but not an actual machine.
Commercial Refrigerators: Progress and Peril
By 1914 nearly all U.S. meat packing plants were using vapor compression commercial refrigerators with ammonia as a coolant.
That was until refrigerators leaked out toxic ammonia.
Then, in 1928, Frigidaire introduced a new synthetic refrigerant – chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The odorless coolant was given the brand name, Freon. Its widespread adoption allowed household and commercial refrigeration to grow exponentially.
Commercial Refrigerators: From Crisis to Sustainability
Progress came to a halt, however, when scientists discovered that CFCs had an alarming side effect that threatened all of humanity.
In 1974, scientists hypothesized that CFCs deteriorate and release chlorine atoms when they reach the stratosphere. This depletes the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Ten years later, British scientists located a hole in the ozone layer. The world responded in 1986 with the Montreal Protocol, which began phasing out CFCs.
Since then, the commercial refrigerator industry has developed several alternative refrigerants. Today’s commercial refrigeration systems are environmentally friendly, energy efficient and highly durable.