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How a Disrupted Industry Led to the Most Important Invention in the History of Food
And what it can tell us about the adoption of technology
In 2012, the esteemed Royal Society embarked on a grand quest to determine the most significant invention in the realm of food. They gathered a council of wise and knowledgeable individuals, including food industry experts, and got to work.
They began with a grand list of one hundred possibilities, but through careful consideration and debate, they narrowed it down to the final twenty. And the winner, after much anticipation…the refrigerator!
(You can find the 20 finalists here)
The trusty fridge
And it’s not difficult to see why. The fridge changed our lives.
Its ability to extend the shelf life of food and keep it fresh for longer periods of time revolutionized the way we eat, transport, and shop our food. The refrigerator allowed for greater access to fresh produce, even in remote areas, and made it possible to store perishable items for longer periods of time. This greatly increased productivity in the food industry, as businesses could now produce and store more goods without fear of spoilage.
It also changed the way we think about and appreciate food. The refrigerator allowed for more variety and creativity in meal planning. And it significantly improved public health by reducing food-borne illnesses caused by spoiled food.
It has changed the way we live, eats, and think about food. It remains a household essential to this day. But as with the case of most great inventions, it started off with one person’s dream and the disruption of that dream and then the disruption of that dream and so on.
It all started 200 years ago.
The birth of the Boston Ice King and “natural” ice harvesting
Frederic Tudor had an ambitious dream. He wanted to export natural ice from the lakes and ponds of North America to the Caribbean. It may not sound as ambitious now, but back then, it was a big deal because people in tropical islands had never even heard of frozen water.
But Frederic was a man on a mission. He started from scratch, learning how to harvest, insulate, transport, and store ice. Despite initial skepticism and failures, he persisted. By the 1830s, he had created a flourishing ice export industry out of Boston. He became known as the “Boston Ice King.”
The Ice King’s success got others interested, and soon other companies popped up in the Northeast. The demand for ice continued to grow as consumers become accustomed to its benefits, and new uses were found. Hospitals used it to keep patients cool, and natural ice-powered refrigeration became central to food longevity. People even paid a subscription to have a weekly ice delivery to their homes.
Ice harvesting helped revolutionize the way we commercially transport and preserve food. The expansion in the US railroad system, coupled with the advent of cheap and abundant natural ice, led to the development of the refrigerated railcar. This meant that perishable foods could be transported all over the US at any time of the year.
The harvested ice trade was booming. But, as with all good things, it eventually came to an end.
The rise of “artificial” ice
The invention of “artificial” ice is credited to Dr. John Gorrie for designing the first artificial ice machine, which he patented in 1851. His main goal was to cool the rooms of his hospital in Florida to aid the suffering of his yellow fever and malaria-ridden patients.
However, natural ice was still abundant and cheap at the time, so artificial ice wasn’t mainstream yet. Sensing competition, the Boston Ice King launched a smear campaign in the press against Gorrie and the idea of artificial ice. The Boston Ice King attempted to frighten consumers into believing that freezer-made ice was unnatural and harmful. But in reality, the artificial ice was cleaner and safer because the water was purified or filtered before freezing it. While Ice King and Dr. Gorrie were disputing, a French inventor, Ferdinand Carré, designed a refrigeration machine following similar principles and patented his machine in 1864.
It wasn’t until the US Civil War that the use of artificial ice went mainstream. The ice trade, which was vital to keep food fresh and cool during the hot summer months, was in shambles. But, out of the ashes of war emerged a man named Mr. Bujac. He smuggled in two of Ferdinand Carré’s artificial ice machines from France and set them up in small businesses. And soon, many more small businesses bought their own machines, and the dependence on natural ice from the North began to diminish. The Southern states started producing more artificial ice than anywhere else in the world. It was the start of a new era, one where the unexpected events of the war had led to the downfall of an industry and the rise of a new one.
The demand and investment in artificial ice grew, and the supply of natural ice became limited. This was largely due to the formation of ice monopolies and trusts controlling its distribution. And, to put the nail on the natural ice coffin, two extremely warm winters hit the Northern US in the years 1880 and 1890, causing the ice harvest in the New York area to drop significantly. This showed how volatile and unreliable natural ice was and inevitably led to more businesses investing in “artificial” machines.
As the “artificial” ice production expanded, the cost of its production also fell. By 1905, it was similar to the cost of natural ice production in 1847, which marked a time when it was plentiful and cheap. By 1915, the amount of “artificial” ice produced had overtaken that of the “natural” ice industry.
But, the whole industry was about to change again after the arrival of the first mass-produced home electric refrigerator in 1913.
The most important invention in the history of food
The introduction of home and local refrigeration greatly diminished the need for blocks of ice, both naturally and artificially produced. Today, refrigeration is taken for granted in developed countries, but its impact can be felt in many aspects of our lives, from the food we eat to the medicine we take, to where we travel, to our ability to have children. The technology behind refrigeration has continued to improve, leading to other disruptive products, like air conditioning and flash freezing.
In conclusion, the refrigerator is considered the most significant invention in the realm of food as it has greatly impacted and revolutionized the way we eat, transport, and shop our food. The invention of the refrigerator started with the ambitious dream of Frederic Tudor, the Boston Ice King, who wanted to export natural ice from the lakes and ponds of North America to the Caribbean. The success of the ice trade led to the development of the refrigerated railcar, which allowed for the transportation of perishable foods all over the US at any time of the year. However, with the invention of artificial ice by Dr John Gorrie, the natural ice trade eventually came to an end. The refrigerator remains a household essential to this day, as it has changed the way we live, eat, and think about food.