When it’s a hot summer’s day, or you’re making a cocktail, you reach for ice cubes from the freezer (or the freeze disposal section in your refrigerator) without a second thought. It was the Egyptian and Indian cultures that first developed ice—using rapid evaporation to cool water quickly. Ice wasn’t affordable until the 19th century when refrigerators had a huge breakthrough. But who invented the ice maker? Read on to discover the story behind the development of this convenient appliance.
The First Ice Machines
John Gorrie, a Florida physician, made America’s first public demonstration of a refrigerator making ice. Before settling in Florida, he underwent medical education in New York. A half-century later, Dr. Gorrie discovered that heat and moisture propagated malaria and yellow fever diseases.
The ice king went on to help feverish patients survive by cooling them down. He achieved this by suspending pans of ice water in their sickrooms, creating a downflow of cool, heavy air.
Then, ice became expensive and unavailable in Florida. He discovered that highly compressed air would heat up energy by compression. If the compressed air runs through metal pipes that are cooled with water, the water temperature will be colder, and temperatures below freezing point could be achieved.
Gorrie went on to develop compressor coolers and had a model working in the mid-1840s. In 1848, he had a prototype built in Ohio, but he still wanted to fight the ice-block industry and develop something more powerful and consumer-friendly.
Why Was the First Ice Machine Invented?
Gorrie didn’t invent the ice maker for the main purpose we use it today—to cool drinks. As mentioned above, he introduced the ice machine to help patients diagnosed with yellow fever. This disease killed up to 70% of its victims, with symptoms including high fever, headaches, thirst, shivering, and severe leg and back pains. In just a day, a patient would turn yellow.
In the severe stages of yellow fever, patients would spit up blood, and their blood temperature would drop. Patients in a coma were cold to the touch and would die within 10 hours and be buried as quickly as possible.
Gorrie didn’t know that mosquitoes were spreading yellow fever and had been observing the disease for quite some time. The suspended pans created an opening so air could escape through the chimney. This cooling method sparked his imagination to develop an ice maker, which would then go out to be used worldwide.
How Did Gorrie’s Ice Maker Work?
Gorrie’s ice machine reduced the compressed air’s temperature by adding a speck of water into it. This compressed air was then immersed in coils surrounded by cooling water. After this, the interjected water condensed out in a holding tank of lower pressure containing brine. In 1853, Gorrie was awarded U.S. Patent for developing the first ice maker.
The First Commercial Ice Machine
In the same period, James Harrison, a Scottish engineer who emigrated to Australia, invented the first commercial refrigeration system. He designed a commercial ice-making machine that could produce 3,000 kg of ice every day and received a patent for it in 1855.
Early Ice Makers
Ice machines from the late 1800s to the 1930s contained ammonia, methyl chlorine and sulphur dioxide—all toxic gases. During the 1920s were registered several fatal accidents caused by refrigerators leaking methyl chloride.
Research began to replace the methyl chloride used in refrigerators, making these kitchen appliances safer. Freon produced chlorofluorocarbon, a moderately toxic gas that can damage the ozone layer.
Early ice machines deposited ice into a section in the freezer compartment, where you then opened the freezer door to collect it. In 1965, Frigidaire developed ice machines that dispensed ice at the front of the door. This method required holding a glass against the outside door, which made the motor run and turn an auger in a section to deposit ice cubes into a glass.
Commercial ice machines use moving water to enhance the ice quality. This works by the water running through a high nickel content stainless steel evaporator with the surface being below freezing point. Salt water doesn’t require high temperatures and holds a freeze for longer, making it ideal for commercial use.
Did You Know It? How Ancient Humans Made Ice
Around 1000 BC, food preservation became recognised when the Chinese civilisation discovered a process to cut ice formed on top of cold streams and use it to preserve food.
Around 500 BC, the Indian and Egyptian civilisation figured out rapid evaporation as a way to cool water placed on straw beds or in pots. Evaporation and a decrease in night temperatures froze the water.
By 400 BC, the Persian community developed an evaporative cooling structure. This was a dome-shaped, two–stories-tall building with an equal amount of space underneath. This underground area kept ice cool through airflow. Its walls were made from a unique mortar resistant to heat and remained water-resistant.
Throwback to the 5th century BC, the Romans mixed ice and snow in wine to keep it cool. Apparently, this snow was transported by runners from the Rome hills solely to keep drinks ice-cold.
Commercial Ice Makers Are Born
Thanks to John Gorrie, ice makers are popularly used in commercial settings with restaurants and bars and are estimated to reach $3,165.1 million by 2030. The transformation of ice has led to the launch of many ice bars worldwide that showcase sculptures of objects and figures crafted out of ice.