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History of Refrigeration

The History of Refrigeration

The history of refrigeration spans centuries, evolving from natural preservation methods to modern technological innovations. Refrigeration involves maintaining low temperatures to preserve perishable items, with refrigerators typically operating between 35-38°F (1.6-3.3°C) and freezers at 0°F (-18°C).

Using ice or cold temperatures to preserve food has been a part of our daily lives since ancient times; even so, there was an ice trading industry only consumed by the wealthy for a time. From early ice trade practices to the development of mechanical refrigeration, the evolution and advancements of refrigeration systems have significantly impacted food storage, healthcare, and daily life.

Early methods included ice harvesting and storage in icehouses, leading to commercial ice machines and the widespread adoption of household refrigerators. Innovations like Freon, dual-temp designs, and energy-efficient systems have further transformed refrigeration, balancing efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Early Methods of Cooling

Before the invention of refrigeration machines, traditional methods were used to keep food safe and prevent spoiling. Some methods of preserving food in ancient times were keeping food cold using ice, snow, or cold temperatures or dehydrating the food using salt.

Natural Ice and Snow

Natural ice and snow were some of the natural resources used for cooling by ancient civilizations. Some early cooling methods were transporting ice from mountains, using cold rivers and lakes, and building storage pits filled with snow or ice. Ice houses were a popular and effective way of preserving food in locations where freezing temperatures were available. Opening pits in the ground, covering the food with snow, and covering the pits with straw or sawdust provided insulation and preserved the ice and snow for months.

Yakhchals and Ice Houses

Yakhchals are ice houses used by ancient Persians for ice storage and food preservation in early times. Yakchals are dome-shaped structures with underground storage made of thick, heat-resistant materials that can keep ice for a year.

The structures included shallow ice-making pools filled with water from qanats (freshwater canals) each night and shaded by walls up to six feet (1.8288 m) thick to protect from the winter sun. The high shade of the wall protected the pool from direct sunlight, preventing the ice from melting. They were primarily built in Iran, where they kept ice produced on-site in winter or transported from mountains. Ice was harvested and stored in the yakhchals, often insulated with straw thatch. Like the one in Meybod, the domes were about 15 meters (49.212 ft ) tall and made from adobe with materials like mud, animal hair, and egg white. Records show that these structures were built as early as 400 BCE.

Salting and Spicing

Salting and spicing were two early methods of preserving food before mechanical refrigeration. The preservation properties of salt were first realized by ancient Egyptians and used for centuries in many parts of the world. Dehydrating food using raw salts derived from rock, sea, lake, etc., removes moisture from food, inhibiting microbial growth and preventing spoilage. There are two types of salting to preserve foods. Dry salting is applying salt directly to the surface of the food, mostly used for meats and fish. Brining is submerging food in a saltwater solution, allowing for more uniform salt distribution. It is mostly used to preserve pickles, olives, and some cheese.

The Birth of Mechanical Refrigeration

In 1755, William Cullen, a Scottish professor, invented an early mechanical refrigeration system using a vacuum to lower the boiling point of diethyl ether, which absorbed heat from the air. Although this was a significant scientific advancement, it had no practical applications.

Fifty years later, American inventor Oliver Evans expanded on Cullen’s principles by conceptualizing a closed vapor-compression cycle, which showed how vapor could be used to cool. However, a practical model wasn’t built until 1835 by Jacob Perkins, the father of the modern refrigerator. His system demonstrated the potential for cooling air in a closed cycle.

In 1851, James Harrison improved the technology by using refrigerants like ether, alcohol, or ammonia, which allowed the reuse of the cooling agent and enabled temperatures below freezing. His compressor forced the gas through a condenser where it cooled and liquefied, then vaporized in coils, cooling the surroundings. This compression cycle was crucial in the brewing and meat-packing industries, providing consistent cooling and paving the way for modern refrigeration.

Commercial and Domestic Refrigeration

After the invention of commercial refrigeration, as more people moved into developing cities and further away from food sources, household refrigerators became increasingly necessary. The need for fresh food grew during the 19th century. As the distance between fresh food sources and people’s homes grew, keeping perishable food cool during transit and at home became increasingly vital to extend the shelf life of the goods, leading to the invention of domestic refrigeration.

The Ice Machine

In 1847, Dr. John Gorrie, a physician in Florida, invented a machine to mechanically produce ice, aiming to cool his patients suffering from malaria and yellow fever. He used cold-water pans to cool sickrooms but sought a more reliable solution due to high ice costs and safety concerns with natural ice. After years of experimentation, he built a prototype with Cincinnati Iron Works and received a patent in 1851.

Dr. Gorrie’s core theory is the one most commonly employed in refrigeration today: cooling induced by the fast expansion of gasses. He used two double-acting force pumps to compress and then rarify the air. His system lowered compressed air temperature by injecting a small quantity of water. Despite the innovation, Gorrie’s machine faced ridicule and financial difficulties, leading to his business’s failure. His contributions, however, laid the groundwork for future advancements in refrigeration.

Domestic Refrigerators

The transition to domestic refrigeration began in the early 20th century. In 1913, Fred W. Wolf of Fort Wayne invented the first electric refrigerator for home use, DOMELRE, mounted on ice boxes. Nathaniel B. Wales later contributed with his design, leading to the Kelvinator brand. In 1916, Alfred Mellowes created a self-contained refrigerator with a bottom-mounted compressor, which William C. Durant commercialized under the Frigidaire brand after buying Mellowes’ company in 1918.

The most significant breakthrough came in 1927 when General Electric (GE) introduced the “Monitor-Top” refrigerator, designed by Christian Steenstrup’s engineering team. This refrigerator featured a sealed refrigeration system with a distinctive cylindrical compressor. The “Monitor-Top” became the first commercially successful home electric refrigerator, making refrigeration more practical and accessible and marking a milestone in household appliance history. The introduction of Freon in refrigerators in the 1920s further expanded the market, leading to the widespread adoption of refrigerators in the 1930s and home freezers in 1940.

Technological Advances

Many technological advancements have occurred throughout refrigeration, from using toxic gases in the late 19th century to the invention of Freon and post-war innovations to meet rising demands on refrigeration systems. Design and energy-efficiency improvements have made the systems more user-friendly and sustainable.

Freon and CFCs

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, refrigerators used toxic gases like ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide as refrigerants. After these refrigerants led to several fatal accidents due to leaks, Frigidaire, General Motors, and DuPont collaborated to find a safer alternative. As a result, Thomas Midgley Jr. and Charles Franklin Kettering invented Freon in 1928. Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), was a stable, non-toxic, and efficient refrigerant, revolutionizing refrigeration by enhancing safety and performance.

Post-War Innovations

After WWII, the refrigeration sector expanded rapidly. Refrigeration systems were in high demand across various industries, including supermarkets, restaurants, and food processing companies. This time also saw the debut of commercial walk-in coolers and freezers, which enabled efficient and large-scale storage of perishable commodities.

Dual-Temp Designs

The popularity of frozen foods in the 1940s led to the introduction of freezer compartments. General Electric pioneered the first refrigerator with separate cooling and freezing compartments in 1939 and launched the first two-door unit in 1947. Stand-alone freezers also became common in the 1940s, boosting the frozen food market.

Water dispensers

Water dispensers are one of the technological advancements in refrigerators, providing cold water without opening the fridge door.  They became popular in the 1980s, with an early custom model featuring one in 1969.

Energy efficiency

After World War II, due to the increasing awareness of environmental problems, advancements in refrigerator technology significantly enhanced energy efficiency. In the 1970s, refrigerators used about 3.5 times more energy than modern models. Improvements in cabinet insulation, door sealing, compressor motors, and new refrigerants drastically reduced energy consumption. The introduction of advanced adaptive compressors marked a notable improvement in energy savings.

Modern Refrigeration and Environmental Impact

Modern refrigeration systems are mostly shaped by environmental concerns and shifted towards sustainable solutions. The environmental impact of refrigerants on ozone depletion and climate change poses a serious issue intended to be resolved by transitioning to natural refrigerants. Improving energy efficiency through smart controls and efficient compressors further reduces greenhouse gas emissions, supporting global sustainability goals in refrigeration technology.

Ozone Depletion and Climate Change

Refrigerants are crucial in commercial refrigeration systems, enabling the cooling processes essential for preserving perishable goods. However, traditional refrigerants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) have significantly impacted the environment.

These substances were widely used due to their efficiency and stability but have a high ozone-depleting potential (ODP). When released into the atmosphere through leaks, servicing, or disposal of refrigeration equipment, CFCs and HCFCs rise to the stratosphere, where ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes them to release chlorine atoms, leading to ODP. In addition to ozone depletion, these traditional refrigerants have a high global warming potential (GWP), contributing significantly to climate change. The release of CFCs and HCFCs into the atmosphere traps heat, enhancing the greenhouse effect and leading to a rise in global temperature.

Alternative Refrigerants

Using natural refrigerants with lower ODP and GWP is an effective step in mitigating the environmental impacts of traditional refrigerants. Carbon dioxide (CO2), ammonia (NH3), and hydrocarbons (like propane and isobutane) are the popular alternatives.

These refrigerants have negligible ozone-depleting potential and much lower global warming potential than traditional refrigerants. For instance, CO2 has a GWP of 1, making it a far less impactful option for the environment. While transitioning to these natural refrigerants poses challenges such as system compatibility, safety considerations (especially for flammable or toxic refrigerants), and initial investment costs, the long-term benefits are clear.

You can read our blog “Types of Refrigerants Used in Commercial Refrigeration” to learn more about refrigerans.

Energy Efficiency

Refrigeration energy efficiency is important due to rising energy costs and heightened environmental awareness. Energy-efficient refrigeration systems reduce electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, aligning with global sustainability goals. Technological advancements, including smart controls, energy-efficient compressors, and LED lighting, have further enhanced the performance and efficiency of these systems. By adopting energy-efficient technologies, businesses can lower their carbon footprint and operating costs, contributing to climate change mitigation.

The Future of Refrigeration

Innovative technologies are shaping the future of refrigeration, aiming to reduce energy costs and environmental impacts and improve energy efficiency and user-friendliness. Magnetic refrigeration and solar-powered systems are some of the advancements promoting sustainability and eco-friendly refrigeration solutions.

Innovative Technologies

Magnetic refrigeration, one of the innovative technologies in refrigeration, utilizes the magnetocaloric effect to cool. It is a promising technology due to its low power consumption, sustainability, and water use as a working fluid, avoiding harmful refrigerants like CFCs and HCFCs. However, technical challenges such as temperature limits and power requirements must be addressed for broader adoption.

Solar-powered refrigerators offer another eco-friendly solution. They use solar energy through photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity stored in batteries. This technology ensures continuous operation even during low sunlight or at night, reducing reliance on conventional electric power and making it ideal for remote locations or areas with unreliable electricity grids.

Impact on Global Supply Chains

Innovative refrigerator technologies are reshaping global supply chains with sustainable and efficient approaches. Adopting natural refrigerants and energy-efficient designs promotes sustainability, while innovations like solar-powered systems reduce businesses’ electric usage and carbon footprint. These advancements collectively enhance food security, healthcare delivery, and environmental stewardship worldwide.

FAQs About the History of Refrigeration

Here are the 5 most frequently asked questions about refrigeration systems.

Who invented the first refrigerator?

William Cullen was the first to see and demonstrate artificial refrigeration using evaporative cooling, while Jacob Perkins built the first working vapor-compression refrigeration system in 1834. 

When and Where was refrigeration first used?

In 1842, an American doctor named John Gorrie created a mechanism and utilized his refrigerator, which produces ice, to cool down yellow fever patients at a Florida hospital. In 1851, Gorrie won the first patent in the United States for his method of manufacturing artificial ice.

When did Americans start using refrigeration?

In 1918, William C. Durant mass-produced the first home refrigerator with a self-contained compressor, which gained popularity in the United States by 1927.

Which company is the oldest in the USA?

In 1918, Kelvinator and Frigidaire introduced the first feasible house refrigerators in the United States.

When were ice boxes replaced with refrigerators?

By the late 1930s, iceboxes had been replaced with electric refrigerators


The history of refrigeration involves transitioning from ancient ice preservation techniques to modern, sophisticated systems. Early methods like ice harvesting and yakhchals evolved into mechanical refrigeration with pioneering inventions by William Cullen, Oliver Evans, and James Harrison. After the birth of mechanical refrigeration, numerous advancements and innovations shaped the history of refrigeration. Technological advancements, including Freon, dual-temp designs, and energy-efficient systems, have revolutionized refrigeration, balancing efficiency and environmental sustainability. Modern refrigeration systems focus on sustainable, energy-efficient, user-friendly, and practical solutions with reduced environmental impact.

Ş.Kaya, with a robust foundation in Western Languages and Literature, has been leveraging her expertise in language and communication since graduating with a bachelor's degree in this vibrant field. Her academic background has endowed her with a nuanced understanding of various cultures and languages, skills she has seamlessly transitioned into her professional career. Since 2021, Şebnem has been a key member of the content creation team at Chef's Deal, a company renowned for its comprehensive range of commercial kitchen equipment and services. In her role as an SEO content writer, Şebnem combines her passion for language and culinary arts to craft engaging, informative content. She focuses on the latest trends in commercial kitchen equipment, insights into the foodservice business, and practical tips for those involved in the industry. Her work aims to not only inform but also inspire her audience, reaching professionals seeking to enhance their operations or individuals passionate about culinary innovation. Şebnem's contributions are vital in helping Chef's Deal connect with its audience, providing valuable resources that support the growth and success of culinary professionals. Her ability to translate complex industry knowledge into accessible, compelling content has made her an invaluable asset to the team and a trusted voice for readers navigating the dynamic world of foodservice and commercial kitchen equipment.

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