Three special moments from the fascinating history of refrigeration

What does a Chinese poem from over 3,000 years ago have in common with an American entrepreneur born in 1783?

Ice, of course!

We can’t get enough of it, at least where food and drink are concerned. Our ability to preserve such items despite the temperature outside has helped drive and advance our societies throughout our entire collective history. Pretty cool, right?

Let’s look at a few more examples. They’re rather interesting if we do say so ourselves!

Ancient brilliance: the Yakhchal

400 B.C. There was quite a lot going on.

The Sasanian Empire - the last kingdom in the dazzling timeline of the Persian Empire - was busy. Busy fighting the Byzantines, busy managing its 1.4 million square mile empire, and busy fighting another familiar enemy: heat.

Running an empire is thirsty work, after all, and Sasanian cuisine at the time contained many foods and beverages that benefited from cold storage well away from the usually high temperatures. 

Thankfully, one inventor (we don’t know who exactly!) had had enough, and they created something quite special: the Yakhchal, or ice pit.

A domed structure similar to the cartoon depictions of beehives we are all familiar with, the Yakhchal was cheap to build and very effective in creating and storing ice and food.

It’s an evaporative cooler, meaning it creates ice by cooling the air within through water evaporation. The outer shell – made up of mixtures of sand, clay, egg whites and more – acts as an insulator, helping to freeze the water or food stored within. Sometimes, a small piece of ice would be inserted to act as a ‘seed’, helping to quicken the process.

We still use evaporative coolers to this very day! Fortunately, ours are a little more modest in size – and more effective at their job – than the Yakhchals made well over 2,000 years ago.

Modern and practical: the Coolgardie safe

Gold. It’s valuable! And whenever and wherever it’s found, there’s always a ‘gold rush’.

Australia proved no exception to the rule. The modest mining town of Coolgardie, located in Western Australia, suddenly became a big deal indeed in the early 1890s. A big, shimmering gold kind of deal. Miners and their families flooded to the area, and they all needed feeding. Existing food storage systems just didn’t cut it.

Inventor and all-around top bloke Arthur Patrick McCormick did what many great inventors do: nick existing techniques and improve on them.

He noticed how Outback travellers would wet their canvas bags, resulting in water evaporation which cooled the contents inside. Shortly after this discovery, the Coolgardie safe was created.

Built around a wooden frame using wire mesh and hessian fabric, the cooler used a water-filled iron tray placed on the top of the device to cool the inside. A hessian bag was hung over the safe, with one end submerged in the water to soak it up.

This is a pioneering – and fascinating – example of what is called ‘capillary action’. As the damp fabric bag drew in water from the tray, any passing breeze would pass through the bag, evaporating some of the water. This cooled the air inside the safe.

It didn’t take long to catch on. Verandas and porches across the giant country soon had Coolgardie safes perched on them, catching the breeze and helping to cool and preserve food and beverages despite the oppressive heat.

Ice as an industry: Uncle Sam chills out

America, 1830. People knew about using ice to refrigerate, but the general lack of storehouses and iceboxes meant it was a luxury at best. Using axes and saws to cut and store ice was, unsurprisingly, dangerous and time-consuming.

American businessman Frederic Tudor (known thereafter as the ‘Ice King’) saw an opening. If he could figure out how to harvest and transport ice efficiently, he could singlehandedly tap into the demand for better cold storage of food and beverages.

By improving on existing storehouse designs and combining them with newly invented horse-drawn ice cutters, Frederic Tudor eventually turned a profit and sparked what would become a booming American industry.

Eventually, Tudor’s trade would see ice shipped as far as the Caribbean island of Martinique, where it was sold to the wealthy elite as well as to hospitals, where it was used to soothe patients suffering from yellow fever.

Class is over

Pretty interesting for an article about refrigeration, right? It’s interesting to see how different civilizations answered the age-old question of cold storage, and there’s much to learn from the past.

Many of these methods are still used today, and we just so happen to provide the best among them - and then some!

If you’re in need of advice on temperature control solutions for your own business, you’ve got options. Visit our website, drop us a line by email at [email protected] or have a chat directly by calling the team on 01635 551446.