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The Refrigerator's Cool Century

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The home refrigerator, a vital but modest technology, is 100 years old.

It has been 100 years since the invention of a vital but modest technology: the home refrigerator, “silent monarch of the kitchen,” as an engineering journal recently put it. Though unglamorous, it reveals a lot about a side of innovation often neglected in technology journalism — steady improvement without charismatic inventors or designers.

The beginnings of the appliance were modest, as the historian of technology Jonathan Rees relates in Refrigeration Nation. The first models marketed for home really were not free-standing units but small refrigeration units that could be attached to iceboxes, sold under the unpromising name DOMELRE  (“domestic electric refrigerator”). And the icebox itself, as Rees explains, reflected Americans’ abundance of, and love for, frozen water. In the 19th century the United States was the world’s largest exporter of ice, and the largest per-capita consumer. In 1880 at the harvested-ice industry’s peak, 50 million Americans used more than 5 million tons of it, or 200 pounds a year per capita. Yankee ice was sold widely in the tropics, as far away as India; it was a low-risk purchase for shipping lines because it doubled as ballast even if it could not be sold. In the American South, copious crushed ice was an essential ingredient of the iconic mint julep that bemused overseas visitors, and American tourists were pioneers of iced water as patrons of European hotels and restaurants.

The industry thrived during the Depression; average prices dropped from $600 in 1920 to $275 in 1930 and $152 in 1940. By 1941, 63 percent of wired houses had refrigerators.

American entrepreneurs in the 1800s developed the key technology for ice harvesting and transportation. By the century’s end, Norway was a major supplier to England, until mechanical ice-making ended the long-distance trade. Meanwhile, America had become the pioneer of household food cooling, and the word “refrigerator” was applied from the mid-19th century to the array of iceboxes available to affluent households. Even as insulation and air circulation improved, drainage of melted water remained a chore and often a sanitary nightmare. Yet Americans loved cooling so much that poor families who could not afford the cheapest iceboxes would keep blocks of ice in the bathtub.

The home refrigerator followed a pattern similar to that of the personal computer 60 years later. Mechanical refrigeration systems had been in use for generations not only in ice production but in larger food distribution facilities, hotels, and restaurants. Yet the industry was, like the mainframe computer business, so specialized in custom-built, heavy units that smaller, independent companies with roots in consumer-oriented automobile manufacture first opened the market. Early models were unreliable, often requiring frequent service visits.

On its own, the industry might have needed decades to make necessary improvements in reliability. But electric utilities in the 1920s were farsighted enough to look beyond the fuses blown by early models and to the potential of sparking sales and gaining new revenue. The result was that companies consolidated into a few manufacturers of far more reliable machines at lower prices, one of the most striking 20th-century virtuous circles. The industry thrived during the Depression; average prices dropped from $600 in 1920 to $275 in 1930 and $152 in 1940. By 1941, 63 percent of wired houses had refrigerators.

Today some pundits are complaining that even the smartphone, far beyond most mid-century science fiction, has lost its sense of wonder. The refrigerator industry has already been there; in 1924, Rees reminds us, even the urbane New Yorker magazine could marvel at the transformation of water to ice cubes.

Much of the innovation since the 1950s has been in hiding the appliance’s functions, for example placing the condenser coils under the unit rather than in the old so-called monitor-top, or “beehive.” (Ungainly as the latter was, it was functionally superior to today’s concealed-coil models, dissipating hot air much more efficiently. And today’s enthusiast collectors laud its engineers, who designed it down to the last screw to last at least 25 years, versus 5 to 19 today.) And the appliance industry has seen energy standards improvement as a chance to stimulate sales of a relatively stable product and accelerate replacement. The new standards taking effect this fall will save users almost $100 billion in energy costs over the next 30 years.

Refrigerators have had more than their share of unintended consequences. Reports of explosions and family deaths from toxic gas fumes in the 1920s led to the introduction of inert chlorofluorocarbons, which in turn were revealed to endanger the earth’s ozone layer until substitutes arrived in the 1990s. Albert Einstein and his student Leo Szilard co-invented an alternative technology in the early 1930s but it failed commercially, partly because it emitted an unpleasant sound that even such geniuses could not have expected.       

The latest industry goal is the smart refrigerator, connected to other home appliances and systems not only for energy efficiency but for managing contents. The concept appeals to manufacturers for two reasons. First, thanks to global manufacturing and cheap container ship transport, standard models are almost commodities. Like external ice-and water-dispensers and full-height (“side-by-side”) freezers, electronic features are a way to differentiate higher-priced products. And second, lots of affluent technology-industry people crave an information-rich lifestyle, even without what others would consider a significant benefit. At a dinner I once met a senior laboratory director boundlessly enthusiastic about the prospect of reading the expiration dates of milk tagged with radio-frequency chips, as though his kitchen were an industrial plant.

Americans loved cooling so much that poor families who could not afford the cheapest iceboxes would keep blocks of ice in the bathtub.

It’s possible that Google, Microsoft, or Apple might finally introduce reliable, reasonably priced systems that would link the refrigerator and perhaps its contents to the Web at last. Google must have had something like that in mind when it paid $3.2 billion for a company, Nest, known for only two products, a thermostat and a smoke detector, that nonetheless offered a possible basis for integrating all a household’s devices. It might seem excessive now, but many lifestyle changes, including home refrigerators and even iceboxes before them, once seemed superfluous.

On the other side, the networked “smart house” movement has made disappointing progress in the last 20 years. Even at the height of the Internet boom, in the year 2000, the New York Times noted resistance. Now, consumers are more security- and privacy-conscious than ever, and there has already been at least one casualty. In January, according to the security company Proofpoint, a malware attack compromised not only computers but a hundred thousand personal devices, including at least one refrigerator, hijacked to send out email designed to trick recipients into financial fraud. Today’s Internet-connected appliances may be prey to viruses, so-called thingbots, that exploit the weaknesses of home networks. When Eastern European hackers broke into the credit card records of the retail chain Target, they did so through heating and cooling software. If home automation system maintenance is outsourced, might personal data be at risk?

Whatever the fate of appliance networking, it will add relatively little to what remains a strikingly service-free technology — one that is rarely celebrated and is usually taken for granted. In a 1999 survey, Americans voted the refrigerator the appliance they could least do without. It’s time to celebrate this quiet success story.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a visiting researcher in the Rutgers Department of History and the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Edward Tenner also writes "Bernard Mandeville, Psychiatrist in the Marketplace" and "Could Computers Get Too Smart?" Mark P. Mills considers "The Future Electric Grid."


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group







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