The history of Refrigeration-Earliest forms of cooling

ice cellars
ice cellars

Refrigeration is a process in which work is done to move heat from one location to another. Refrigeration has had a large impact on industry, agriculture and lifestyle of people. The increase in food sources has led to a larger concentration of agricultural sales coming from a smaller percentage of existing farms. Farms today have a much larger output per person in comparison to the late 1800s. This has resulted in new food sources available to entire populations, which has had a large impact on the nutrition of society.

What is the earliest forms of cooling? The seasonal harvesting of snow and ice is an ancient practice estimated to have begun earlier than 1000 B.C. A Chinese collection of lyrics from this time period known as the Shih king, describes religious ceremonies for filling and emptying ice cellars. However, little is known about the construction of these ice cellars or what the ice was used for. The next ancient society to harvest ice may have been the Jews according to the book of Proverbs, which reads, “As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them who sent him.” Historians have interpreted this to mean that the Jews used ice to cool beverages rather than to preserve food. Other ancient cultures such as the Greeks and the Romans dug large snow pits insulated with grass, chaff, or branches of trees as cold storage. Like the Jews, the Greeks and Romans did not use ice and snow to preserve food, but primarily as a means to cool beverages. The Egyptians also developed methods to cool beverages, but in lieu of using ice to cool water, the Egyptians cooled water by putting boiling water in shallow earthen jars and placing them on the roofs of their houses at night. Slaves would moisten the outside of the jars and the resulting evaporation would cool the water. The ancient people of India used this same concept to produce ice. The Persians stored ice in a pit called a Yakhchal and may have been the first group of people to use cold storage to preserve food. In the Australian outback before a reliable electricity supply was available where the weather could be hot and dry, many farmers used a “Coolgardie safe”. This consisted of a room with hessian “curtains” hanging from the ceiling soaked in water. The water would evaporate and thereby cool the hessian curtains and thereby the air circulating in the room. This would allow many perishables such as fruit butter and cured meats to be kept that would normally spoil in the heat.

Before 1830, few Americans used ice to refrigerate foods due to a lack of ice-storehouses and iceboxes. As these two things became more widely available, individuals used axes and saws to harvest ice for their storehouses. This method proved to be difficult, dangerous, and certainly did not resemble anything that could be duplicated on a commercial scale.

Despite the difficulties of harvesting ice, Frederic Tudor thought that he could capitalize on this new commodity by harvesting ice in New England and shipping it to the Caribbean islands as well as the southern states. In the beginning, Tudor lost thousands of dollars, but eventually turned a profit as he constructed icehouses in Charleston, Virginia and in the Cuban port town of Havana. These icehouses as well as better insulated ships helped reduce ice wastage from 66% to 8%. This efficiency gain influenced Tudor to expand his ice market to other towns with icehouses such as New Orleans and Savannah. This ice market further expanded as harvesting ice became faster and cheaper after one of Tudor s suppliers, Nathaniel Wyeth, invented a horse-drawn ice cutter in 1825. This invention as well as Tudor s success inspired others to get involved in the ice trade and the ice industry grew.

Ice became a mass-market commodity by the early 1830s with the price of ice dropping from six cents per pound to a half of a cent per pound. In New York City, ice consumption increased from 12,000 tons in 1843 to 100,000 tons in 1856. Boston s consumption leapt from 6,000 tons to 85,000 tons during that same period. Ice harvesting created a “cooling culture” as majority of people used ice and iceboxes to store their dairy products, fish, meat, and even fruits and vegetables. These early cold storage practices paved the way for many Americans to accept the refrigeration technology that would soon take over the country.


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