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The History of Refrigeration and Freezing

Updated on May 10, 2012
Cre8tor profile image

Dan has been in the HVAC industry for 22 years with experience ranging from installation and service to sales and distribution.

Let's take a trip back in time about 3,000 years ago. Of course we'll have to get rid of our cell phones, I-Pods and computers; these cool toys won't do us any good here. It's likely if I posed the question, "What would you miss the most if you lived in ancient times?", the top responses would be "electricity", "running water" and "transportation". With good reason, these answers top the list in most cases but there is one that seems to elude the top of the list and gets little respect for its' impact on the world we live in...refrigeration.

How often do we stop to think about how important the discovery of refrigeration was to mankind?

There is no doubt that many inventions have had an impact on our lives but refrigeration and the ability to control our environment has had a much deeper impact than we give it credit for. From ancient food storage techniques to the modern day central air conditioning system, the following will provide you a whole new appreciation for the science and importance of refrigeration.

It All Started With This...

...okay, not exactly this but food in general is what fueled the invention of refrigeration and air conditioning as we know it.
...okay, not exactly this but food in general is what fueled the invention of refrigeration and air conditioning as we know it.

Ice Making In the Desert???

How Man Made Ice Without Electricity

Roughly 3,000 years ago, man wasn't driven to create cooling so that he could escape the summer sun. He was driven by the need to survive. Being able to survive rested greatly in the hands of man's food supply. Preserving man's food supply rested greatly in the hands of being able to keep the food cool.

The first evidence of man made ice comes in the Middle Eastern Region and seems to show it was made using the process of evaporation. Straw woven mats would be pulled over and secured to posts a few feet off the ground. Small clay plates would be filled with water and placed on the mats overnight. As the water would leak through the plates into the straw mats, it would begin to evaporate. Sparing the long science lecture, because the relative humidity was so low, the evaporative cooling power was enough to freeze the small amounts of water left in the plates. This ice would then be taken into straw lined caves called "icehouses" where it would help to cool the cave for food storage.

Now while there were those who lived in colder climates where frozen lakes could be harvested for large amounts of ice, they still had summers to deal with and used the "icehouse" techniques much the same. The idea of the ice house would eventually take on many forms including smaller household ice boxes like the Coolgardie Safe later in the 1800's.

Ice harvesting and housing would grow into an industry of its own and thrive well into the 1900s.

The Good Old Days

Which good old days chore would you prefer?

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Air Conditioning the Capitol Took "Tons" of Effort

In 1909, the U.S. Capitol Building used ice for its' air conditioning. It is said that when heated debates would take place in our capitol, an additional ton of ice would be needed to keep up with the heat in the building. This was where the term a "ton" of air conditioning comes from.

The First Air Conditioning Techniques

The desire to beat the heat isn't something that we nowadays have a reserved right to. Long ago, it wasn't as easy as walking in the house and kicking on the A/C.

The Romans were thought to have packed double walls with ice. This would obviously cause the interior room of these walls to be much cooler than the surrounding area, like a walk in cooler but, not everyone had access to this amount of ice.

Adopting the cooling by evaporation technique, many would hang wet tapestries in their windows and/or doors so that the natural draft would cause evaporation thus cooling the air coming into the home. Talk about efficient! I might just give this a try sometime.

2,000 Lbs. of Ice is equal to 1 Ton of Air

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The Origin of Mechanical Refrigeration

Mechanical refrigeration was discovered much by accident. In the late 1800's, coal mines in England were pumping fresh air into the deep shafts of the mines using steam driven compressors. After running these compressors for a long period of time, ice would begin to form on the nozzles of the hoses that carried the air. Here is where the possibilities became endless.

Again sparing the in depth science involved, this is where it was discovered that the temperature, more specifically the boiling points, of certain liquids and gasses could be manipulated by changing the pressure under which they are kept. Now aside from using a fan to blow air over a bucket of ice, this became the science behind mechanical refrigeration and how we could produce it without the direct involvement of ice.

The window air conditioner. Many of which end up here because of improper storage and maintenance.
The window air conditioner. Many of which end up here because of improper storage and maintenance.
The condenser in a central air system.
The condenser in a central air system.
A stack of roof top units for mid-sized commercial buildings.
A stack of roof top units for mid-sized commercial buildings.

Dr. Willis Carrier Invents Air Conditioning

So here we are in the early 20th century when Dr. Willis Carrier comes along. In 1906, Willis Carrier patented what he called the "Apparatus for Treating Air". Unlike the other reasons we've covered as to why we wanted to condition our air, Dr. Carrier wasn't too hot or wanting to store food.

Willis Carrier worked in the printing industry. In those days, printing in multiple colors would be done a layer at a time. When printers would press their first color layer, the ink's inability to dry quickly would cause the paper to stretch. This stretching would then cause the second layer of ink to be misaligned with the first. Carrier's need to control the humidity in the air drove him to create the "Apparatus for Treating Air". The cooling effect of his creation was also a sort of accident. Having perfected the science behind the temperature/pressure relationship and its' effect on certain gasses, Carrier gave birth to air conditioning as we know it.

By the 1950s, the window air conditioner had been introduced to the general public and became the first mechanical air conditioning systems to be used in individual homes. From there, split system central air conditioning systems were created in the 60's and evolved into the systems we now use today.

Useless Fun Fact...

When air conditioning was first used "mainstream", businesses used to post signs in their doors and window that they were "air conditioned". This did wonders for their businesses as people would stay a bit longer to make their purchases while staying cool. Of course the longer the customer is in the store, the more likely they are to buy more. How's that for business tactics?

Air Conditioning is One of the World's Greatest Inventions

Sure, electricity deserves it's respect among the world's greatest discoveries, as does the car and the telephone, but just think of all the reasons that refrigeration, freezing and air conditioning is one of the best inventions ever. Yes, ice cream is one of them but in case you need a little help, here are a few things that A/C and Refrigeration help us do.

Air Conditioning
Storing Food
Home Comfort
Material Climatization
Storing Beverages
Hosptial Sickroom Temp Control
Mold Growth Prevention
Food Transportation
Discourage Insects

Thank You Dr. Willis Carrier!!!

The next time you are asked what one of the greatest inventions of man is, I hope you'll consider what Willis Carrier and his "Apparatus for Treating Air" has meant to us. I don't know about you, but living in the Northeastern U.S. doesn't exactly have me wanting to harvest ice after shoveling out the driveway in January. Nor does the thought of my groceries rotting away in the kitchen sound appealing in the least. For that, I say "Thank you Mr. Carrier." and wish you all a cool summer and fresh food.


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    • profile image

      bleedercleaners 5 years ago


    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 5 years ago from UK

      Like Allie I’ve seen ice houses around and wondered how the ice was made and stored, so this was very interesting.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      I have always wondered how people made ice years ago - i knew it was done, because I've read stories that mention ice, frozen delicacies and other indicators. I wasn't sure what answer to list for your Good Old Days quiz. After reading the selections, was really hoping for something like Royal Queen Being Waited On By Others. How about gathering eggs - can I do that one? It's not too bad, unless you get an angry hen chasing you.

      Voted up and up, and socially shared!

    • Turtlewoman profile image

      Kim Lam 5 years ago from California

      How interesting! I might have to hang some wet tapestries on all my windows this summer to save on the AC bill. I wonder if my family in Vietnam used some of these methods?

    • Nare Anthony profile image

      Nare Gevorgyan 5 years ago

      Oh wow, really interesting! I wish there were still those old times!

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      I loved this one! Thanks for sharing...voted up and interesting.

    • Horatio Plot profile image

      Horatio Plot 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, England.

      Interesting history. Enjoyed this. My parents lived in Argentina from 1938 - 1952. The ice man would call every week and they would buy a lump of ice that sat in a pod on top of the fridge. No internal cooling back then!

      Tahoe Doc beat me to the joke of the day.

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 5 years ago from London

      Interesting hub thanks for writing about airconditioning. Essential in summer.

    • profile image

      idratherbe 5 years ago

      Well written and interesting! voted up.

    • TFScientist profile image

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      Interesting indeed. I also enjoyed the ancient history nuggets! We don't have much call for air con over here. I suppose one can't understand the fascination with it unless you are living in an area of high temperature and high humidity - is it not expensive to keep these units running in the height of summer?

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 5 years ago from Scotland

      This is really interesting. There are the ruins of old ice houses at several locations around Scotland, some dating back hundreds of years so it is fascinating to read about this. Voted up.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      interesting hub about something I wouldn't normally think about.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      What an interesting and timely Hub, as spring is about to turn into a hot summer. Great thinking for a hub to share!

    • TahoeDoc profile image

      TahoeDoc 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

      Very cool hub --- hahaha, couldn't resist. But, seriously this was very interesting and fun to read! I really find the ancient history stuff fascinating!

    • profile image

      Sooner28 5 years ago

      Dr. Willis Carrier is a genius! Voted up and sharing.