Every now and then, we discover the weirdest facets of fate and history. We’re all familiar with Carrier’s major break through in creating air conditioning in the early 1900s, but it turns out, he wasn’t exactly the first. There were working, mechanical refrigerators before we had working air conditioners.
The Ground Work
The first artificial refrigeration was done by a Scottish professor in the 1755. He used a vacuum chamber and ether to lower the temperature inside the chamber. When the ether boiled, it removed energy from the chamber, cooling it down. The effect was just powerful enough to produce some ice inside. In 1758, Ben Franklin and John Hadley at Cambridge University would conduct similar experiments with volatile liquids. They were able to cool a chamber now to 7 degrees fahrenheit, from an ambient 65 degree starting point. Franklin wrote, “From this experiment, one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”
At that point in time, there wasn’t yet a practical way to actually freeze anyone. This refrigeration involved a vacuum chamber. Anyone cooled down would be all but freeze dried in the process.
Further refinements would come over the next century. In 1820 there was a closed-cycle system that could continuously cool a chamber and condense it’s refrigerant, it would be able to keep cool indefinitely. In the 1860s, German researchers began work on refrigeration for breweries. During the Civil War, enormous ice-making machines were built in the south after Union forces cut off access to fresh ice for the Confederate States. In the 1870s, refrigeration would expand massively into freezing meat for shipping and storage.
For this first half-century of practical implementation, refrigerators were expensive and complex machines. They weren’t something you could casually install in a house or restaurant, they were commercial tools. Making something practical for the home-market wouldn’t be possible until the 1900s.
General Electric was one of the first to release a refrigerator for the home. This was nothing quite like what we have today. It was a gas-powered machine. We can’t find confirmation, but that may well mean it had a physical gasoline motor attached to it to turn the compressor. Electrical refrigerators wouldn’t hit the market until near the 1930s.
These early days were expensive and dangerous times to own a fridge. Early models were easily twice the cost of a car, already an expensive luxury item. And there were safety issues. Early units were prone to seal failures and relied heavily on toxic gasses. One failure at a bad time could kill an entire family in their sleep. This wasn’t such an issue in commercial settings, where beefier gaskets and better training were present. If a worker fell over from exposure, his coworkers could rescue and treat him. There was no such help for sleeping families.
After World War II, the booming US economy would help make the refrigerator a household item. More jobs, better pay, and a few decades to improve on the design finally made the refrigerator a household item.
Before AC, but Not AC
In 1758 Ben Franklin envisioned what we have today: the ability to make a room so cold, you could freeze to death inside. The principals were there, but for those first hundred years or so, the market and technology wasn’t quite ready. People weren’t ready to adopt refrigerators, let alone consider trying to chill an entire home. It was all a matter of timing. Booming industry made the first commercial refrigerators a success in the 1800s. Advancing technology and the ‘wow’ factor of experiencing cooled working environments helped fuel air conditioning nearly a century later. In our modern times, it might seem common sense to use the refrigeration technology not just for food, but for people, but sometimes the technology beats demand.