People have been around for about 10,000 years, but we’ve had reliable refrigerators for less than 100. What took us so long?
The first refrigerators were ice houses built into the sides of hills and insulated with straw or cork. Starting around 500 BCE, the Greeks and Romans carried snow and ice from nearby mountains to keep their meats, dairy, and beverages chilled. No one wanted to be the jerk who served their guests warm wine and rancid meat. It wasn’t until 1802 that an indoor model was manufactured by American farmer and cabinetmaker Thomas Moore, who built a mobile icebox to take his butter to market still hard-cold instead of squishy.
By 1830, people in the U.S. and Europe were flocking to the cities for work. Those former farm kids demanded fresh food, not just the pickled, salted, smoked, and canned stuff that city people ate. It was up to some science dudes to figure out how to keep fresh food fresh, not just for the trip to the city to sell the consumables but also in private homes. Millions of families were on the precipice of a sea change in home cooking.
Back in 1755, a Scotsman named William Cullen (no relation to the fictional vampire) designed a small refrigerating machine. It used a pump to create a partial vacuum over diethyl ether, which, because it’s a lab solvent, I’m certain the science dudes at least tried to sniff. Cullen was a little like the first guy to put a Mentos into a Diet Coke: Sure, that was a ton of fun, but there’s no practical use and now the Diet Coke is gone, so back to drinking Scotch whisky!
Cullen’s machine caused a few ice crystals to form, which got some people really excited. Other dudes (not in his dude group) were also playing around with closed compression systems, which eventually leads us to James Harrison.
Another Scotsman, Harrison was a successful journalist who lost most of his money inventing things that didn’t work properly. You only need one good idea though, right? Harrison traveled back and forth between England and Australia making ice machines and refrigerators until one day in the late 1850s, he got them right. In 1860, he applied for a patent for the first large-scale refrigerator at the London patent office, a cultural hotspot for British Empire influencers. He returned to Australia and promptly sold the machine to Bendigo brewery Glasgow, Thunder, and Co. Anything to drink a cold beer.
However, during the Third International Congress of Refrigeration in Chicago in 1913, the director of the Central Markets in Paris presented a paper that claimed an application for a refrigerator patent was filed in 1859 by Eugene Velten for his brewery in Marseilles—one year earlier than Harrison. Vive la France! It is possible, of course, for two people to have the same idea at roughly the same time, especially since the question of how to keep things cold had been a matter of increasing urgency for decades. And while each country has its own patent office, there is no agency that keeps track of them worldwide.
The first consumer refrigerator, the Monitor Top, was introduced in 1927 by General Electric. Its compressor was on top and made it look a little like a sci-fi robot, which is objectively cool. The compressor churned out a ton of heat as it worked to cool the fridge; it was noisy and used about three times as much energy as modern units. The first units also made use of poisonous gases like sulfur dioxide, methyl formate, or ammonia gases. Methyl formate isn’t stable in the presence of water and hydrolyzes to give off methanol and formic acid. Even if you don’t know the dangers those substances pose to the human body, you’ll probably have heard of the next one: At high temperatures, methyl formate will decompose and give off carbon monoxide.
General Electric only used methyl formate as a coolant for two years, and in that time the refrigerator caused a number of fatalities when the unit leaked while people were sleeping. At this time, a GE Monitor Top cost twice as much as a Ford Model T, so only the very rich could afford one. When the company swapped out its toxic refrigerants for a new coolant called Freon, an added benefit was that costs came down; the women of working-class families now had the luxury of not only a way to store fresh food but also a means of turning their daily trip to the butcher into a semiweekly one.
In the 1930s a freezer shelf was introduced for ice trays, because you can’t have a cocktail party without ice. During this time, inventor Clarence Birdseye began testing the optimal way to freeze vegetables to sell in grocery stores. Paired with the newfound ability to keep foods frozen once they were brought home, Birdseye’s innovations paved the way to our modern convenience foods—even the ones without any traces of vegetable in them, which is probably the majority of them.
In the United States, the post-WWII economic boom, combined with the extension of credit lines and full electrification, meant that 90% of American homes had a refrigerator by 1950. Compare that to England: by 1959, after well over a decade of wartime rationing had been lifted, only 13% of homes had refrigerators, and shopping continued to be a daily chore.
Frigidaire, GE, and Kelvinator celebrated the boom times of the 1950s introducing pastel-colored appliances for a fashionable, totally up-to-date kitchen that would make the neighbors jealous (the only reason to do anything). The 1960s soon saw modern space-age designs, just in time for the Jet Age and the Space Race, with defrosting and ice-making functions available for the first time. Yes, people used to have to defrost their fridges frequently, and it was a pain in the ass. You might understand this slog if you’ve ever owned a mini fridge.
Even as the functions and designs of refrigerators continued to change, it would be another 30 years before any more progress was made in the way of energy efficiency. And what, in 2020, do you need from this machine except to keep food consistently cold without running up the electric bill? I’ll tell you what else (or LG and Samsung will): units with Wi-Fi, interior cameras to keep track of food on the verge of spoiling, and a Sabbath function that allows the light to remain off when the door’s open for observant Jews who cannot do any work on that day. Refrigerators can help you search for recipes and build a shopping list. They can be controlled by the sound of your voice and connect to apps on your phone in order to, well, I’m not sure what, but something indispensable, I’m guessing. My friend Michael uploads pictures of his home-cooked meals to display on his refrigerator screen. My fridge is the same one my mom had, from the ’90s. It’s clunky and not fancy, but it keeps my food cold. And that’s more than almost anyone from human history could dream of.