It isn’t a surprise to walk into the modern kitchen and see a refrigerator or walk-in cooler. Yet hidden behind its mundane appearance is an amazing history that stretches from the Australian outback to the laboratory of Albert Einstein.
Throughout most of human history, food has been stored in ice-filled holes or wood-lined rooms packed with insulating straw. The history of artificial refrigeration began when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine in 1755. His experiment created a small amount of ice, but no one saw any practical application for his invention as lake ice and mountain snow was plentiful and free.
Over the next hundred years scientists, including such notable figures as Benjamin Franklin, would attempt to develop forms of refrigeration. But it would fall to Jacob Perkins, an American expatriate living in Great Britain in 1834, to develop the first working vapor-compression refrigeration system in the world — and Australia couldn’t have been happier.
Australia, with its vast herds of sheep, had long struggled with how to export fresh mutton to England’s distant meat markets. The new refrigeration units ideally solved their shipping problem when installed in the fastest sailing clipper ships, known as reefer ships.
These elite cargo ships were so named not because of any marijuana aboard but because, with speed as the premier goal, the ship’s crew were constantly rolling and unrolling or “reefing” the sails to obtain maximum speed and so protect their perishable meat cargo. Even their all-weather wool coats became known around the world by the same name: reefer jackets.
The next innovative use of refrigeration was critical to the development of America. After the American Civil War (1861-1865), agriculture pushed westward. Soon farmers encountered the same difficulties the Australians had — how to transport perishable produce across long distances.
Enter the American refrigerator train car. Prior to commercial refrigeration, trains had used blocks of lake ice placed at either end of their cars to chill its cargo. But rapid industrialization had led to rapid population growth around many of America’s ice-producing lakes, making consumers uneasy about the purity of the ice utilized.
Food transported in the cleaner refrigerator cars calmed their fears. These cooler and safer cars also enabled the isolated regions of Texas, Arizona and southern California to develop as major agricultural areas no longer limited by distance or heat.
Average American consumers, however, were not at this point enjoying refrigerators in their homes and restaurants. Refrigerators were still too large (often weighing between five and 200 tons) and too expensive (costing twice as much as a new car in 1910) for either the average home cook or restaurant chef to utilize.
Also, refrigerators were dangerous. When a refrigerator unit leaked aboard a train moving cross country, little harm was done. However, when the units leaked liquid chemicals inside an enclosed commercial or home kitchen, the result could be a deadly fire or explosion.
After several fatal accidents involving leaks, Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont joined forces to provide consumers with a safer solution. Their solution resulted in the creation of a new cooling agent named Freon. Unlike former cooling solutions, Freon was colorless, odorless, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and most important of all, nontoxic. Frigidaire patented the substance and General Motors and DuPont began Freon production in 1930.
Little known is the fact that Albert Einstein, along with Leo Szilard, designed his own version of the refrigerator, which required no moving parts or electricity. He sold his energy efficient patent to Electrolux, who bought the patent mainly to keep it out of their competitors’ hands. Few were ever produced, but Einstein used his patent royalties to help fund his involvement in the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb.
After the end of World War II, many returning American soldiers and sailors happily moved to suburbia, purchasing there a newly made home, complete with a modern kitchen equipped with a shiny refrigerator. New and innovative restaurants opened from coast to coast, equally equipped with refrigerators and walk-ins. All these units were cooled by the “safe wonder” compound Freon.
By the 1970s and 1980s, scientists discovered that CFC-compound gases (such as Freon) were destroying the vital ozone layer overhead. As worldwide concern mounted in the early 1990s, the use of Freon was banned in order to protect the world’s atmosphere. Ever since then, modern refrigerators all use variations of tetrafluoroethane as a safe refrigerant.
Today, refrigerators are a daily necessity in kitchens from commercial restaurants to studio apartments. For over 100 years, the amazing technology and innovation of science have made refrigerators more affordable, energy-efficient, safe and environmentally sensitive. Once massive and dangerous but now compact and convenient, refrigerators truly deserve to be called the kitchen’s enduring “magic box.”