Evolution of the refrigerator

Today it’s one of the America’s most used appliances, an essential piece of every household. We can’t imagine our lives without ice-cream or ice cold beer but how much do we know about this incredible machine? What’s the story behind the invention of the refrigerator?

Multiple procedures for preserving food cool were being used in ancient times. One of the methods included freezing food in lakes and rivers during cold weather. The Greek and Roman civilizations transported a large amount of snow and ice from the mountains, put it into storage pits and covered it with insulating material.

As a result, packed snow and ice could be preserved for months. Meanwhile, the Egyptians used earthen jars filled with water and put it on their roof during night time. Although the air didn’t fall below freezing temperatures, by controlling the conditions of evaporation they managed to form ice.

Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine at the University of Glasgow in 1755.

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The history of artificial refrigeration started when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine at the University of Glasgow in 1755. However, it didn’t have any practical use. Later on, in 1805, American inventor Oliver Evans designed the first refrigeration machine that instead of liquid used vapor to cool.  But, it wasn’t until 1834 that the first machine for practical refrigeration was built by Jacob Parkins. Based on Evan’s design, US physicians John Gorrie built a refrigerator to produce ice.

Schematic of Dr. John Gorrie’s 1841 mechanical ice machine.

The ice boxes were introduced in the 1800s, as a way of keeping food and drinks cool and fresh. They were made of wood with an interior lined with tin or cork. The ice boxes were similar to modern refrigerators, only instead of generating their own cold air, they used a big ice block. Eventually, the ice would melt, so a drip tray was placed underneath the icebox to catch the water, which needed to be frequently emptied.

In 1876, the German scientist Carl von Linde patented the method of liquefaction of gasses. Ammonia, sulphur dioxide and methyl chloride were used for the formation of this gas which led to many fatal accidents.

Finally, it was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that General Electric Company produced the first home refrigerator in 1911. They were quite expensive, around $1 000, nearly twice as much as an automobile at that time.

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Throughout the late 1920s, most refrigerators still used combinations of toxic gasses as refrigerants.  The gas compounds had to be changed with safer ones since accidents involving gas leaks continued to occur. This led to the development of Freon- colorless, odorless, nonflammable, noncorrosive and nontoxic.

General Electric “Monitor-Top” refrigerator, introduced in 1927. Photo Credit


Basic functioning of a refrigerator. Photo Credit

During World War II refrigerator became more frequent at home, with a massive production in the 1940s. Albert Einstein designed his own refrigerator, known simply as “Einstein’s Refrigerator” which required no electricity. Einstein’s invention used pressurized ammonia, butane, and water to keep food cool and was used in the early forms of refrigerators.

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But, with the evolution of technology and the introduction of Freon, his invention was dropped. Nowadays, many electrical engineers from Oxford are leading projects to restore Einstein’s refrigerator that requires no electricity.

Einstein’s refrigerator patent application.

The 1950s brought improvements in style and performance, so consumers could choose different designs of refrigerators. In the early 1970s, Freon was labeled as not environment-friendly and affected the ozone layer, so it was replaced. Since then, modern refrigerators use variations of tetrafluoromethane as a refrigerant.

Modern refrigerators.


The inside of a home refrigerator containing a large variety of everyday food items.

Modern domestic refrigerators are manufactured in different sizes. The smallest can hold six cans of beer, while a large refrigerator can stand as tall as a man and are the most common in American homes. Also, there are luxury refrigerators produced to the highest standards with materials of best quality. Despite the size and design, the purpose remains the same: to preserve food.