12 June 2009
An electrically powered and hermetically sealed
food-storage appliance that replaced iceboxes, improved production,
and lowered food-storage costs.
The people behind the invention:
Marcel Audiffren, a French monk
Christian Steenstrup (1873-1955), an American engineer
Fred Wolf, an American engineer
Ice Preserves America’s Food
Before the development of refrigeration in the United States, a
relatively warm climate made it difficult to preserve food. Meat
spoiled within a day and milk could spoil within an hour after milking.
In early America, ice was stored below ground in icehouses that
had roofs at ground level. GeorgeWashington had a large icehouse
at his Mount Vernon estate. By 1876, America was consuming more
than 2 million tons of ice each year, which required 4,000 horses and
10,000 men to deliver.
Several related inventions were needed before mechanical refrigeration
was developed. James Watt invented the condenser, an important
refrigeration system component, in 1769. In 1805, Oliver Evans
presented the idea of continuous circulation of a refrigerant in a
closed cycle. In this closed cooling cycle, a liquid refrigerant evaporates
to a gas at low temperature, absorbing heat from its environment
and thereby producing “cold,” which is circulated around an
enclosed cabinet. To maintain this cooling cycle, the refrigerant gas
must be returned to liquid form through condensation by compression.
The first closed-cycle vapor-compression refrigerator, which
was patented by Jacob Perkins in 1834, used ether as a refrigerant.
Iceboxes were used in homes before refrigerators were developed.
Ice was cut from lakes and rivers in the northern United States
or produced by ice machines in the southern United States. An ice
machine using air was patented by John Gorrie at New Orleans in
1851. Ferdinand Carre introduced the first successful commercial
ice machine, which used ammonia as a refrigerant, in 1862, but it
was too large for home use and produced only a pound of ice per
hour. Ice machinery became very dependable after 1890 but was
plagued by low efficiency. Very warm summers in 1890 and 1891 cut
natural ice production dramatically and increased demand for mechanical
ice production. Ice consumption continued to increase after
1890; by 1914, 21 million tons of ice were used annually. The high
prices charged for ice and the extremely low efficiency of home iceboxes
gradually led the public to demand a substitute for ice refrigeration.
Refrigeration for the Home
Domestic refrigeration required a compact unit with a built-in
electric motor that did not require supervision or maintenance.
Marcel Audiffren, a French monk, conceived the idea of an electric
refrigerator for home use around 1910. The first electric refrigerator,
which was invented by Fred Wolf in 1913, was called the Domelre,
which stood for domestic electric refrigerator. This machine used
condensation equipment that was housed in the home’s basement.
In 1915, Alfred Mellowes built the first refrigerator to contain all of
its components; this machine was known as Guardian’s Frigerator.
General Motors acquired Guardian in 1918 and began to mass produce
refrigerators. Guardian was renamed Frigidaire in 1919. In
1918, the Kelvinator Company, run by Edmund Copeland, built the
first refrigerator with automatic controls, the most important of
which was the thermostatic switch. Despite these advances, by 1920
only a few thousand homes had refrigerators, which cost about
The General Electric Company (GE) purchased the rights to the
General Motors refrigerator, which was based on an improved
design submitted by one of its engineers, Christian Steenstrup.
Steenstrup’s innovative design included a motor and reciprocating
compressor that were hermetically sealed with the refrigerant.
This unit, known as the GE Monitor Top, was first produced in
1927. Apatent on this machine was filed for in 1926 and granted to
Steenstrup in 1930. Steenstrup became chief engineer of GE’s electric
refrigeration department and accumulated thirty-nine addi-
tional patents in refrigeration over the following years. By 1936, he
had more than one hundred patents to his credit in refrigeration and
Further refinement of the refrigerator evolved with the development
of Freon, a nonexplosive, nontoxic, and noncorrosive refrigerant
discovered by Thomas Midgely, Jr., in 1928. Freon used lower
pressures than ammonia did, which meant that lighter materials
and lower temperatures could be used in refrigeration.
During the years following the introduction of the Monitor Top,
the cost of refrigerators dropped from $1,000 in 1918 to $400 in 1926,
and then to $170 in 1935. Sales of units increased from 200,000 in
1926 to 1.5 million in 1935.
Initially, refrigerators were sold separately from their cabinets,
which commonly were used wooden iceboxes. Frigidaire began
making its own cabinets in 1923, and by 1930, refrigerators that
combined machinery and cabinet were sold.
Throughout the 1930’s, refrigerators were well-insulated, hermetically
sealed steel units that used evaporator coils to cool the
food compartment. The refrigeration system was transferred from
on top of to below the food storage area, which made it possible to
raise the food storage area to a more convenient level. Special light
bulbs that produced radiation to kill taste- and odor-bearing bacteria
were used in refrigerators. Other developments included sliding
shelves, shelves in doors, rounded and styled cabinet corners, ice
cube trays, and even a built-in radio.
The freezing capacity of early refrigerators was inadequate. Only
a package or two of food could be kept cool at a time, ice cubes
melted, and only a minimal amount of food could be kept frozen.
The two-temperature refrigerator consisting of one compartment
providing normal cooling and a separate compartment for freezing
was developed by GE in 1939. Evaporator coils for cooling were
placed within the refrigerator walls, providing more cooling capacity
and more space for food storage. Frigidaire introduced a Cold
Wall compartment, while White-Westinghouse introduced a Colder
Cold system. After World War II, GE introduced the refrigeratorfreezer
Audiffren,Wolf, Steenstrup, and others combined the earlier inventions
of Watt, Perkins, and Carre with the development of electric
motors to produce the electric refrigerator. The development of
domestic electric refrigeration had a tremendous effect on the quality
of home life. Reliable, affordable refrigeration allowed consumers
a wider selection of food and increased flexibility in their daily
consumption. The domestic refrigerator with increased freezer capacity
spawned the growth of the frozen food industry.Without the
electric refrigerator, households would still depend on unreliable
supplies of ice.