Imagine a world where you can’t just walk to the fridge and grab something out of it. Not only would you miss icy cold sodas, but more importantly, storing food safely would become a big issue. The evolution of the refrigerator was a gradual process over the years, starting with boxes that housed chunks of ice and working its way up to the fridges we have today.
Humans worked around a lack of refrigerators for thousands of years, but life has become simpler thanks to the modern refrigerator.
Before home refrigerators, people had to find alternative ways to keep food fresh. Alongside preserving food with methods such as salting and pickling, people used a range of techniques to keep food cool, including storing it in cool cellars, niches in the wall, holes in the ground, in bodies of water or outside in cold weather. In winter, some households would bring snow or ice indoors and pack it into insulated boxes along with fresh food. This concept is pretty much the same as using a cooler and ice packs. Rich families sometimes had ice houses, which were insulated buildings with much of their volume underground, that stored enormous blocks of ice cut from natural sources during winter for use during the rest of the year.
Iceboxes are early non-electric refrigerators that feature compartments for storing large blocks of ice, which keep the contents of the icebox cool. The cabinets themselves are well-insulated to keep the ice from melting for as long as possible. Although the technology existed earlier in the form of people bringing ice and snow in from outside to cool food and storing it in their own boxes, commercial iceboxes first came to the market in the early 1800s. Households could order blocks of ice to fit in their iceboxes from an iceman, who would deliver these blocks to their homes. Iceboxes were used well into the 20th century, up until electric refrigerators became popular.
The concept of artificial refrigeration came from a Scottish scientist, William Cullen, way back in the 1700s. In the 1720s, he observed that evaporation has a cooling effect, and he demonstrated this in 1748 by evaporating ethyl ether in a vacuum. Although Cullen never made a refrigerator, modern fridges are still based around similar evaporative technology, albeit with safer chemicals. Further developments came from other scientists and inventors, including Oliver Evans who designed but never built a vapor-compression refrigerator and Michael Faraday who liquified ammonia to create a cooling effect. In 1834, Jacob Perkins built the first working vapor-compression refrigerator. He patented this design, but it wasn’t available commercially.
During the mid- to late-1800s, people were still happily using iceboxes at home, but some commercial enterprises — particularly breweries and meat-packing houses — found the need for vapor-compression refrigerators. The first practical commercial refrigeration system was made by James Harrison in 1851, and by 1861, his fridges were used by around a dozen businesses. Other similar refrigeration systems soon became available and were in widespread use in a range of industries. These commercial models used toxic substances like ammonia and sulfur dioxide, and because leaks weren’t uncommon, they were unsuitable for home use.
The first home refrigerator was designed in 1913 by Fred W. Wolf. It was called the Domelre and was commercially available, although it wasn’t a success. In 1918, the Frigidaire Company was founded by William C. Durant and started to mass produce refrigerators for home use. At around the same time, the Kelvinator refrigerator was invented, which was the first fridge available with a temperature control unit. These were more successful but still weren’t yet widely used because of their price, the complex installation required and the potentially harmful nature of the refrigerant chemicals they contained.
During the 1920s, a non-flammable synthetic refrigerant called Freon was developed. It was deemed safer for home use and increased the popularity of household refrigerators. General Electric’s Monitor-Top fridge was introduced in 1927 and became the first widely-used refrigerator with around one million units produced. While earlier models were so bulky that the motor and compressor had to be installed in the basement with just the cabinet in the kitchen, these were much more compact with the motor and compressor located above the cabinet as part of a single unit.
Still, refrigerators were expensive at this time and many households still used iceboxes. It wasn't until after the second world war that more effective, compact bottom-cooling refrigerators were introduced and they really started to take off.
Although the introduction of Freon was a turning point for refrigeration in the 1920s and 1930s, it was later discovered that Freon plays a part in ozone depletion and is extremely harmful for the environment. From 1995 and onwards, all new fridges were made with hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerants, but these were later discovered to not be great for the environment either, and they stopped being used in 2010.
Today, most fridges use a chemical refrigerant known as R-134a or tetrafluoroethane, but it’s likely that this will soon be phased out in new fridges in favor of more eco-friendly refrigerants, such as R-600a. Some fridges, like the Samsung French Door Refrigerator and the GE Top Freezer Refrigerator already use eco-friendly R-600a.
Although modern refrigerators still use the same basic principle of evaporative cooling to chill food as was outlined way back in the 1800s, they’re much safer, eco-friendly, efficient and more technologically advanced than early models. Not to mention, you can fit the whole unit in one room, unlike the first home refrigerators. The focus of modern fridges is on efficiency, as more efficient appliances use less energy and are better for the environment. Look out for fridges with an energy star rating, such as the LG 28 Cu. Ft. Smart Wi-Fi Enabled InstaView Door-in-Door Refrigerator. For more information on the most efficient fridges, take a look at the high-end refrigerators buying guide at BestReviews.
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Lauren Corona writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.