Stories of innovation: The refrigerator

Stories of innovation: The refrigerator

What: The refrigerator

Who: American inventor Jacob Perkins was the first person to be awarded a patent for a refrigeration system but John Gorrie's design can be seen as the blueprint for the modern fridge found in homes all over the globe today. 

When: Ice harvesting to preserve food has been common practice for thousands of years. The first vapor-compression refrigeration system was built in 1834; Kiwi William Davidson mastered refrigerated shipping in 1882 and the first home refrigerators appeared in the US in 1919.

The chilling story: As early as 1000 BC, the ancient Chinese were cutting blocks of ice from mountains, wrapping them in cloth and using them to preserve food. This method of refrigeration kept for close to 3,000 years, with Victorians and early settlers to the US using a similar process. Scottish scientist William Cullen demonstrated artificial refrigeration in 1748 through using a pump to remove heat from an enclosed space. However, it only produced a small amount of ice and had little use in itself. Instead of using the compound diethyl ether to produce ice, Oliver Evans designed a machine in 1805 using a vapor-compression system to turn warm air into cold air. 

Using this design, Jacob Perkins was awarded the first patent for a refrigeration system in 1834 when he developed a prototype machine. Eight years later John Gorrie invented a machine which turned water into ice, and used the same theory to recycle air, creating the basis for modern air conditioning technology. After people started realising the use of Gorrie's invention, commerical experiments began. Our very own William Davidson fitted a refrigeration compression unit to his ship in 1882, successfully sending a cargo of more than 6,500 sheep carcasses to London from Dunedin forever cementing his place as the pioneer of refrigerated shipping. The first domestic refrigerator was sold on the US market in 1919, but the early versions relied on volatile gases which were poisonous. Since then, the fridge has been improved and is now one of the most common domestic appliances in the world. 

Impact and Legacy: Modern refrigeration allows households to slow down the development of micro-organisms that cause food to decay, giving us more freedom around what food we choose to eat. Thanks largely to New Zealander William Davidson, all kinds of perishable foods can now be transported across the world without going off. The applications of refrigeration are also used in air-conditioning, which is used in places such as hospitals to help create an atmosphere which promotes patient safety and well-being. Blood-banks also use refrigeration technology to store blood that will eventually be used in blood transfusions, helping save thousands lives over the years. 

Do you have a well-preserved idea that's worth sharing? Freeze out the competition by entering the 2013 New Zealand Innovation Awards here and get the opportunity to take it to the world.