The refrigerator is one convenience that we just accept as part of our lives. It is always there, switched on and working without us really understanding how. This has been a life changing appliance but it is also a fairly recent one as it has only become a popular item since1950. It is fairly safe to say that none of us could manage without one now.
Refrigeration as a way of preserving food has been around for thousands of years. Blocks of ice were used in specially built houses where food was stored in order to help it last a little longer. This led to the development of the ice box.
These started life in the 19th century in England and were wooden boxes which had been lined with a metal such as zinc or tin and then had other materials added such as sawdust or seaweed which helped to prevent the ice from melting. The boxes also had drip pans which caught any water from the box which had melted.
The development of commercial refrigeration has been attributed to an American by the name of Alexander C Twinning in the middle of the 19th century. The system he developed was combined with others and a refrigeration system based on vapour compression was developed for industries such as meat packing and brewing. This particular system used air as a coolant but a different system was developed by a Frenchman named Ferdinand Carré which used ammonia. The problem with using ammonia is that it is a toxic substance and after decades of development of these original ideas, an alternative appeared in the form of Freon as a coolant.
2oth Century Fridges
Manufacturers have used Freon for a long time but because it is not environmentally friendly there are efforts to find an alternative. Albert Einstein worked on an alternative system which was never produced but which is now being considered by researchers.
In the US a number of different systems became commercially available but the first one which was self-contained was developed by Alfred Mellowes in 1915. This product went on sale in 1916 but did not sell well. However, when the company was purchased by the president of General Motors it was renamed Frigidaire – a name we can still recognise today. The appliances were suddenly being mass produced and became good sellers.
Over time the product was refined and they became both more efficient and more affordable. As a result they had sold more than 1 million refrigerators by 1929. Manufacturers added various gadgets to the fridge too such as ice cream cabinets and milk coolers and have continued to develop refrigeration units ever since.
Mass production really took off after the Second World War. Since then the fridge has had a tremendous impact on diet as people were no longer restricted to eating foods which had been produced locally. Food could be transported in trucks that were refrigerated so refrigeration helped farmers to find larger markets for their produce. By 1955 around 80% of homes in the USA had refrigerators. This figure is now just below 100%.
The Modern Fridge
The fridge now comes in a variety of forms. It can be purchased in a combined unit so that there is a fridge and freezer in the one appliance, which is now the preferred form for many families, although the first combined unit was actually produced in 1939 in the USA.
They can be produced in a range of sizes and shapes and now they have all kinds of added extras such as a drinks dispenser or ice maker built in.
In recent yearsm as energy costs have risen, development has focussed on making the units more efficient and using different coolants rather than the ozone depleting CFCs that were used for decades. Ease of use is also increasingly important with auto-defrost frost free fridges and freezers now available.