Refrigeration History: Then and Now

–Philip J Reed, on behalf of Redstone College

Chances are you’ve recently pulled a soda or cold drink of water out of the fridge without giving it much thought. Maybe you dodged summer heat by heading to your air conditioned home. These refrigeration luxuries have done a great deal to change modern living, but avoiding a sweltering day or keeping food cool for consumption later hasn’t always been so easy.

Early Days

jocob perkins refrigerator
Jacob Perkins Refrigerator Photo: Xtimeline

Jacob Perkins created the “first practical refrigerating machine” in 1834, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the unit used ether in a vapor-compression cycle. A refrigeration machine in 1850 relied on water and sulfuric acid as a refrigerant, while still others in later years used ammonia, methyl chloride, sulfur dioxide, and other highly toxic, flammable substances. Needless to say, accidents with these machines were common.

And the refrigerators weren’t widely used. Even in the early 20th century, people usually had to get produce fresh daily and consume it almost as quickly. They made frequent trips to the butcher’s shop, and the milkman completed daily rounds. Fortunate people who had the money to spare for weekly ice deliveries were able to keep food for two or three days in an icebox.


Fred W. Wolf created the first commercially successful electric home refrigerator, which was produced in the United States and went on sale in 1913. Wolf’s creation, dubbed the Domelre, was an air-cooled unit made for mounting on top of an ice box. In 1915, Alfred Mellowes worked in a backyard wash house to design another electric refrigeration unit, but this one differed in that a compressor sat in the bottom of the cabinet.

Other Applications

As researchers studied principles of keeping things cool, they naturally began looking at air conditioning possibilities as well. High ceilings, shaded porches and well-ventilated homes did a great deal toward keeping people cool, but there was more to be done. Engineer Willis Haviland Carrier determined in 1902 that air could be dried by saturating it with chilled water to promote condensation. He patented a Dew Point Control in 1907, the first device that allowed people to influence the temperature and humidity required for certain industrial processes.


Today, the efforts of these refrigeration pioneers and others can be found across the country. Refrigeration has improved from using hazardous chemicals to more environmentally-friendly, energy efficient units, and added a considerable amount of convenience to daily life.

HVAC Training

If you’re interested in how refrigeration works, and you want to obtain the skills necessary to keep these machines working properly, consider going to school for HVAC training and preparing for professional certification. You will learn how to install, maintain, and repair air conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems. Your role will be an important one, and you’ll help ensure that children and adults are safe and comfortable at home, school, work, or elsewhere.