Before the invention of the modern refrigerator, iceboxes were used. Before those, people who wanted to preserve their food did so with spices, salt, and methods of drying. As time goes on, humanity gets better and better at making sure that an essential life source does not rot before its time. But how did we get to where we are now, rather than being stuck at iceboxes or even over-salting everything in an effort to preserve not only the taste but the edibility? The answer is years in the making.
In approximately 1000 B.C., the Chinese cut and arranged blocks of ice for food preservation. This tactic carried over into other cultures (History of Refrigeration), and it could easily be considered the beginning of what would later become iceboxes. It was not as organized as it would later be, but it was a vast improvement over having to eat food acquired the same day or risk it going bad.
Even though the icebox was an early form of the refrigerator, a refrigerator and an icebox are not at all the same thing. They serve the same basic purpose, but an icebox keeps the food cool with the ice that lines its walls and a refrigerator does so by a complicated system of pumps and circulating refrigerant (Lu, 2009, p. 4). Some people still refer to refrigerators as iceboxes, but this is likely because of an adherence to tradition, rather than due to some sort of ignorance. Even so, there are “icebox-type” refrigerators in which the design of the machine mimics certain types of iceboxes. These types are the ones in which the ice did not line the box, but was placed at the top due to the buoyancy effect bringing the cool air down to keep the food underneath cool (History of Refrigeration (2), p. 10).
In 1805, Oliver Evans designed a refrigerator that was powered and cooled using vapor rather than liquid, but he never actually constructed in. In 1911, domestic-use mechanical refrigerators became available and by 2005 99.5% of American homes had a refrigerator (History of Refrigeration). This seems like a very high number, but the high cost of a good, reliable refrigerator in our modern age prevents many people from buying one.
This relatively high number’s missing .5% is a problem because refrigerators do not just preserve food and prevent it from rotting; they actually prevent bacterial growth. Some people believe that bacteria is bacteria and that anything that grows on one’s food is “bad” and life-threatening. However, food bacteria is actually more complicated than this.
Pathogenic bacteria and spoilage bacteria are two types of bacteria that can exist and develop on food. Pathogenic bacteria is the type that causes illnesses brought on by eating infected food, and spoilage bacteria is the kind that turns fruits and vegetables visibly rotten, or that makes food develop odd smells or other observable characteristics (Refrigeration and Food Safety, 2010, p. 1). It is possible for food to look, smell, and taste just fine but to be riddled with pathogenic bacteria. Although there are some cases in which expiration dates may be ignored up to a certain point, it is generally a good idea to pay attention to them.
The reason that all of this talk about bacteria is important is because it is important to understand the sorts of things proper refrigeration prevents. Before such conveniences, people either had to buy their food day-by-day or salt it nearly to the point where it was inedible. There were certainly exceptions, such as those in cold climates who were able to bury their food in the snow or in the cold ground (Refrigeration and Food Safety, 2010, p. 1). However, the rapid historical popularity and usefulness of refrigerators was not only good for individual households, it was good for society as a whole. No longer did people have to desperately forage for food every single day; instead, they were able to small-scale stockpile food and to better provide for groups such as families. This difference meant that food producers were able to keep stocks of their products and that they would not be picked clean every single day. Farmers were able to produce large crops with far less worry about huge parts of those crops being discarded. While it is not the focal point of this paper, it is fairly safe to say that the invention of the domestic refrigerator was a huge boost for the economy of both America and the world.
One problem that arises from the prevalence of refrigerators is how many end up in dumps, landfills, and just rotting away wherever they are disposed of. While they do run their course and do not last forever, there are better ways of getting rid of them than simply throwing them away. In 2008, EnergyStar launched their “Recycle My Old Fridge” campaign, which encouraged consumers to recycle their used appliances whether for resale or just for parts. This endeavor helped to reduce greenhouse gas and save energy, money, and natural resources (History of Refrigeration). By 2020, use of household refrigerators will likely be at one hundred percent or more (meaning households may have more than one refrigerator) and recycling efforts will multiply.
So what does the future hold for refrigeration? Some might say that machines will simply get more efficient and even compact, and some might say that nothing will change but the durability; in the relatively short time since the invention of the modern refrigerator, the technology had come an impressive distance. Whichever way refrigeration goes in the future, it is likely that it will become even better at inhibiting bacteria growth and even sanitizing food in a way that does not affect the quality or taste.
- Lesson 1 history of refrigeration [PDF]. (n.d.). Kharagpur: IIT Kharagpur.
- Lu, Y. (2009, April 20). The story of refrigerator and feedback control [Scholarly project]. Retrieved June 16, 2015
- Refrigeration and Food Safety [Pamphlet]. (2010). Washington, DC: USDA.