The History of the Refrigerator and Freezers

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Before mechanical refrigeration systems were introduced, people cooled their food with ice and snow, either found locally or brought down from the mountains. The first cellars for keeping food cold and fresh were holes that were dug into the ground and lined with wood or straw and packed with snow and ice. For a while, this was the only means of refrigeration throughout most of history.

The advent of modern refrigerators changed all that.

So how do they work? Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from an enclosed space, or from a substance, to lower its temperature. To cool foods, a refrigerator uses the evaporation of a liquid to absorb heat. The liquid or refrigerant used in a refrigerator evaporates at an extremely low temperature, creating freezing temperatures inside the refrigerator.

Here’s a more technical explanation. It's all based on the following physics: a liquid is rapidly vaporized through compression. The quickly expanding vapor requires kinetic energy and draws the energy needed from the immediate area, which loses energy and becomes cooler. Cooling generated by the rapid expansion of gases is the primary means of refrigeration today.

The first known artificial form of refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748. However, he did not use his discovery for any practical purpose.

In 1805, an American inventor, Oliver Evans, designed the first refrigeration machine. But it wasn’t until 1834 that the first practical refrigerating machine was built by Jacob Perkins. It used ether in a vapor compression cycle.

Ten years later, an American physician named John Gorrie built a refrigerator based on Oliver Evans' design to make ice to cool the air for his yellow fever patients.

 In 1876, German engineer Carl von Linden patented not a refrigerator, but the process of liquefying gas that has become part of basic refrigeration technology.

Side Note: Improved refrigerator designs were patented by African American inventors, Thomas Elkins (11/4/1879 U.S. patent #221,222) and John Standard (7/14/1891 U.S. patent #455,891).

Refrigerators from the late 1800s until 1929 used toxic gases such as ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) as refrigerants. This led to several fatal accidents in the 1920s when methyl chloride leaked out of refrigerators. In response, three American corporations launched collaborative research to develop a less dangerous method of refrigeration, which led to the discovery of Freon. In just a few years, compressor refrigerators using Freon would become the standard for almost all home kitchens. However, only decades later would people realize that these chlorofluorocarbons endangered the ozone layer of the entire planet.

Learn more:

The web site the Great idea finder has a comprehensive timeline of developments that contributed to the invention of the refrigerator. If you want to learn more about the science of how refrigeration works, check out the website The Physics Hypertextbook’s description of the physics behind refrigerator technologies.

Another good resource is HowStuffWorks.com’s guide on how refrigerators work, written by Marashall Brain and Sara Elliot.    

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Refrigerator and Freezers." ThoughtCo, Apr. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/history-of-refrigerator-and-freezers-4072564. Bellis, Mary. (2017, April 30). The History of the Refrigerator and Freezers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-refrigerator-and-freezers-4072564 Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Refrigerator and Freezers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-refrigerator-and-freezers-4072564 (accessed November 23, 2017).