The history of the refrigerator

From ancient ice houses to today’s Internet-connected fridges – take a tour through the history and development of the refrigerator.

Primitive times – 500 B.C.

One of the earliest forms of refrigeration was called an ice house. These were commonly used to store ice throughout the year, usually cut from nearby lakes and rivers. Hebrews, Greeks and Romans were also known to use snow placed in storage pits, and Egyptians placed jars out overnight to cool.

1740s

The first form of artificial refrigeration was invented by William Cullen, a Scottish scientist. Cullen showed how the rapid heating of liquid to a gas can result in cooling. This is the principle behind refrigeration that still remains today. Cullen never turned his theory into practice, but many were inspired to try to realize his idea.

1802

Thomas Moore, an American businessman, created an icebox to cool dairy products for transport. He called it a “refrigiratory” until he patented “refrigerator” in 1803.

In the early 1800s, more and more Americans moved into cities, expanding the distance between the consumer and the source of the food. The need for refrigeration was growing day by day.

1830s

Consumer demand for fresh food was growing, leading to dietary changes between 1830 and the American Civil War of the 1860s. These were fueled by general economic growth and dramatically growing cities.

1834

American inventor Jacob Perkins, living in London at the time, built the world’s first working vapor-compression refrigeration system, using ether in a closed cycle. His prototype system worked and was the first step to modern refrigerators, but it didn’t succeed commercially.

1840s

The first iceboxes were made by carpenters, designed to take advantage of the regular household delivery of large blocks of ice. They were insulated wooden boxes lined with tin or zinc and used to hold blocks of ice to keep the food cool. A drip pan collected the melt water – and had to be emptied daily.

1876

German engineering professor Carl von Linde patented the process of liquefying gas that has become part of basic refrigeration technology. His findings led to his invention of the first reliable and efficient compressed-ammonia refrigerator. Refrigeration rapidly displaced ice in food handling and was introduced into many industrial processes.

The popular use of ice refrigeration was coming to an end, as using natural ice posed health problems because of pollution and sewage dumping. The solution became ice mechanically manufactured, leading the way for electric fridge-freezers.

1913

The first electric refrigerator for domestic use was invented by American Fred W. Wolf and was called the Domelre, or the DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator. His model was a flop, but one of his innovations – the ice cube tray – caught on and was included in competitors’ models.

1918

William C. Durant started the Frigidaire Company to mass-produce refrigerators based on Alfred Mellowes’ invention of a self-contained refrigerator, with a compressor on the bottom of the cabinet. Meanwhile, the Kelvinator Company introduced the first refrigerator with any type of automatic control.

1927

General Electric introduced the “Monitor-Top,” which became the first refrigerator to see widespread use – more than a million units were produced. The compressor assembly, which emitted a great deal of heat, was placed above the cabinet. These refrigerators used either sulphur dioxide or methyl formate as a refrigerant.

1920s

Electric fridges were not yet mass-produced and were mainly owned by the wealthy, costing around USD 1,000.

As the cost started to drop, the market expanded. Sales rose from 200,000 in 1926 to 1.5 million in 1935. By the mid 1930s, the number grew to around 6 million.

1922

Swedish inventors Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters come up with the absorption refrigerator, which is put into mass production by AB Arctic in 1923. Two years later the company is acquired by Electrolux.

1930

In an attempt to prove that Munters’ and von Platen’s design was potentially dangerous, Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd patented the “Einstein refrigerator.” The new design had no moving parts and operated at constant pressure using only a heat source.

1930s

Up until 1929, refrigerators with vapor compression systems had caused several fatal accidents when the toxic gases leaked. Research was initiated to develop a less dangerous method of refrigeration, leading to the discovery of Freon, which became the standard for almost all domestic refrigerators.

The introduction of Freon played a major role in expanding the refrigerator market.

1940s

Home freezers as separate compartments (larger than necessary just for ice cubes) were introduced as frozen foods, previously a luxury item, became commonplace.

1945

Full mass production of modern refrigerators began after World War II. The 1940s brought the bottom-cooling refrigerator we recognize today. It brought efficient food storage to the American home, setting a new standard of food safety.

1950

1950 More than 80 percent of American farms and more than 90 percent of urban homes had a refrigerator. Focus turned to design with new pastel colors such as turquoise and pink.

Meanwhile in Britain, austerity ruled and just 2 percent of households owned a refrigerator. In 1959, as the country bounced back to prosperity, the number rose to a mere 13 percent. Housewives stored meat in a wire mesh “safe” in the pantry, and vegetables wilted on a rack.

1960

With mass production of refrigerators in full swing, Sandvik began, in cooperation with customers, to develop tailored compressor valve materials to meet the ever-stricter requirements from the industry.

1970s

Focus turned to more energy-efficient refrigerators and elimination of chlorofluorocarbons in refrigeration sealed systems.

The environment became a top priority in the 1970s and 1980s, when Freon was seen to pose a threat to the ozone layer.

1980s

The first energy labelling programs were launched in many countries around the world, allowing consumers to compare the energy efficiency of products such as refrigerators.

1990s-2000s

Companies started to apply the Internet of Things to home appliances. LG launched the world’s first connected refrigerator, and Samsung released models with Wi-Fi and cameras that help keep track of when food is about to become spoiled.

2017 and beyond

Environmentally friendly designs are on the rise once more. A Russian designer imagined a future fridge with the Zero-Energy Bio Refrigerator concept using a cooling gel that suspends and cools food.