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What is the History of the Refrigerator?

Before refrigeration was invented, people stored vegetables and food under ground in a root cellar.
Modern refrigerators come equipped with ice makers, water purifiers, freezers and many other options.
An antique refrigerator.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 April 2014
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Today in the US, about 99.5% of households contain a refrigerator. The idea of keeping foods cool to prevent spoilage is not a new one, but it may be surprising to understand that the appliance, a fixture in most homes, is relatively new to the world. Refrigerators, as we know them now, have only been mass-produced since the late 1940s.

There were a number of ways to keep food cool in earlier times, and humans made use of a diverse number of natural surroundings. Placing food in cold streams, secreting it in the backs of caves, or digging underground to create cellars were all early methods of cooling foods. People also cut ice in the wintertime, and stored it in deep cellars or icehouses. Such ice could keep for a significant period of time, especially if it was covered in salt.

The first kitchen “appliance” that bears some resemblance to the refrigerator is the icebox. These were developed just before the 19th century. They were simply wooden boxes, often installed in a home, and sometimes lined with metal or other materials. People would purchase ice, place it in the box, and then store foods with it that needed to be kept cool. The ice would slowly melt, so most ice boxes featured drip pans, which could be removed and dumped.

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Many studies on the aspects of refrigeration were developed before the icebox, but simply hadn’t been put into practice yet. Dr. William Cullen is often thought of as a pioneer in refrigeration technology since his scientific experiments in the early 18th century observed how liquids evaporated in a vacuum-like setting. Other scientists set out to study aspects of cooling and chemicals. Dr. John Goorie created an ice-making machine to help address the needs of patients with yellow fever, and Michael Faraday studied the properties of ammonia. Faraday realized ammonia had a cooling effect.

These early studies, and the ideas of many other scientists, led to the development of the first refrigerator in 1876 by the German engineer Carl von Linde. He had perfected a process by which large amounts of liquids could be converted into gas in order to keep a defined environment cool. Linde continued to perfect his invention, and others followed suit. By 1920, over 200 companies were manufacturing different models, and at this same time, many companies had developed technologies to produce them with combined freezers. They were still very much luxury appliances, and many people continued to use the old standby of the icebox instead.

Over the few next decades, refrigeration technology improved but some of the chemicals used to create a cold environment caused problems. For instance, Freon® was frequently used to cool or freeze foods. While this may have been effective, it released chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were later shown to be hazardous to the environment. Additionally, early appliances used a significantly higher amount of electric energy than their modern counterparts. Efforts on behalf on conservationists and environmentalists were eventually successful, and by the 1980s, most models ran on less power and did not use or release CFCs.

Along the way, other features were added to refrigerators, and automatic defrost capabilities and ice-making components were added bonuses. The cost also became more affordable for most families, though there are still luxury models that are well out the price range of the average middle class family. Basic fridges can now be purchased for about half their selling prices in the 1920s.

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Discuss this Article

anon942075
Post 25

Thank you so much for this information. I really needed this for my research project and this is one of the few places I could find a picture of a root cellar. Not even google had it.

SarahGen
Post 21

@anamur-- A fridge is convenient more than anything. But even before the fridge was invented, people found ways to work around it.

If you ever go on a picnic near a stream or a lake, you can take advantage of the natural refrigeration the cold water provides. I did that once and it was great. I put sodas and a watermelon in the stream. It was ice cold in less than an hour! It worked better than any fridge I've used so far.

Of course I'm glad we have this great invention but I still think that we can do better. I'm waiting for an invention that can cool things in seconds or minutes. I guess I'm waiting for the opposite of a microwave.

serenesurface
Post 20

I wouldn't care so much if I didn't have a television or a hair dryer. But a refrigerator is so vital and I can't imagine living without it. Once after a tornado, we lost our electricity for a couple of days. It was summer and it was very hot. I could manage the heat but the worst part was that everything in the fridge spoiled. We couldn't eat perishable food at all.

It was then that I understood the value of a fridge. I wish I could thank the inventors, they did us a huge favor.

turquoise
Post 19

My mom also remembers the icebox. Her family used to have one up until she was seven years old. That's when the refrigerators had started becoming popular and they eventually got a refrigerator.

She told me that it was a wooden box, just like the article described. Apparently, people would actually deliver ice to homes daily to be placed in the icebox. The only bad part was collecting all the water and throwing it out everyday. But aside from that, apparently iceboxes worked quite well. I guess the size of the box might have been a problem too.

lluviaporos
Post 18

@croydon - I think it was always inevitable that we would invent refrigeration. I mean, even the idea that keeping food cold makes it last longer took a while to be discovered, but once it was the task of discovering a method of generation cold temperatures seems natural.

It's amazing how recently it happened actually. My grandmother can remembering using an icebox rather than a fridge, whereas I can barely imagine being without the two fridges we have in my house.

croydon
Post 17

It's so nice to see so many polite students thanking the author of the article for their work! I actually think it's really great that they are getting kids to learn about this in school, because refrigeration is one of those things that we all take completely for granted these days, but it's really revolutionized the world, for good and for bad.

Before they could cool down transport containers, they couldn't ship food around the world as much as they do today, so economics were very different. In some ways its wonderful that we can get cheap meat now, but in others it's terrible because, for example, that encourages destruction of rainforests to provide the meat that otherwise wouldn't have had a market.

anon138131
Post 13

Thank you for your information. I needed it for my sixth grade research project and this worked great! Thank you!

anon72567
Post 11

very helpful because i had to write about an invention or person that had a great influence on society today. Your website gave me all the information. thank you!

anon61799
Post 9

i really need pics of a 1920 model refrigerator for a history project.

anon54205
Post 7

very useful information.

anon52818
Post 6

thanks. I'm using this for history.

anon46831
Post 4

This was great and so helpful! It was great help for my research paper!

anon46268
Post 3

Very helpful information.

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