Keeping things cold as a means of preserving and prolonging their life has long been understood. However, the means of doing that has presented some considerable challenges over the years and led to a good deal of invention and innovation.
From the commercial bottle coolers used in bars and restaurants to the humble domestic freezer, refrigeration technology is something we now take for granted, yet it’s a relatively recent invention.
Even as late as the first decades of the 20th century, keeping things cold relied on ice. Country houses would have insulated ice houses, usually underground, where ice harvested from lakes and ponds in the winter could be stored for use in the warmer months.
On a commercial level, transporting and storing ice gave birth to a whole industry. Commercial ice-making machines first appeared in the 1850s and made it possible to manufacture ice to be distributed to food processing and storage businesses, though these machines were too large for anything other than industrial use. It also became possible to freeze meat for transport by sea – the first practical application of this being a shipment of New Zealand lamb to London in 1882.
Ice as a cooling system began to make its way into homes in the 1800s too, and even as late as the 1930s most homes in the US would have had an insulated ice box kept cold by regular deliveries of ice produced by factories.
Cold as Ice
The history of artificial refrigeration goes back as far as 1755, when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a refrigerating machine. However, it was 100 years before commercial refrigeration became a practical reality.
The first domestic refrigerator as we would recognise it was introduce by the General Electric company in 1911, though it was powered by gas. The first domestic fridge powered by electricity didn’t appear until 1927.
In 1930 Frigidaire produced the first fridge using synthetic chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant, which made it possible to produce smaller, cheaper machines. However, by the 1970s CFCs were discovered to be damaging the ozone layer, and their use was banned by the Montreal Protocol of 1989.
The ready availability of fridges from companies such as Fridge Freezer Direct now means that they’re in reach of pretty much everyone. Houses no longer need to have larders with tiled floors to store food and keep it cool, and the ice house is a historical curiosity..
Current fridges and freezers aren’t all that different from the 1930s models. All that could be changing, though, as researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California are experimenting with magnetic refrigeration systems. These rely on an effect that means changing the magnetic field of a material causes it to get colder. Fridges based on this technology wouldn’t need any gasses, would use less energy and would be quieter than current technology.
Whatever the future holds, there’s no doubt that the ability to keep things cold has changed the way we live our lives, and it’s now hard to imagine being without the humble fridge.