Electric Refrigerators Vital Contribution to Households



Electric Refrigerators Vital Contribution to Households
The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, November 2004. © Copyright 2004 American Society of Heating, Refrigerating
and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. It is presented for educational purposes only. This article may not be copied and/or distributed electronically or in paper form without permission of ASHRAE.
Figure 1: The Domelre
refrigerating system
had a sophisticated design that solved many
of the technical problems of the time.
Figure 2: Kelvinator concentrated on
conversions of iceboxes using remote
condensing units
located away from
the refrigerator.
Electric Refrigerators Vital
Contribution to Households
By Bernard Nagengast, Member ASHRAE
he household electric refrigerator was one the 20th century’s greatest inventions, allowing housewives to “cast off
the shackles of ice.” With an electric refrigerator, they didn’t buy
ice—they made it. They had new freedom to store a wider variety
of foods longer. Frozen foods before the electric refrigeration?
Forget it. How could you keep frozen foods in an icebox? The
electric refrigerator made our lives safer and richer.
“That Philosophers’ Stone of the
refrigerating engineer—the domestic
refrigerating machine that could be run
by the cook … a machine that required
… no attention at all, was found not to
be a line but a gulf which has not been
successfully bridged.”1
With these words, John E. Starr, consulting engineer and first president of
The American Society of Refrigerating
Engineers (ASRE), aptly summed up the
situation in 1916. Technical genius had
not yet touched the refrigerating machine
and turned it into the golden dream of
that foolproof necessity: the household
refrigerator we now so take for granted.
Refrigerators now provide effortless and almost silent service, but the
technical journey to this end required
considerable engineering effort at great
Nineteenth century America was fertile
ground for a mechanical refrigerator. Using ice to refrigerate perishables was big
business by the 1890s. Many city homes
already had ice-powered refrigerators
(the icebox), but these appliances had
some disadvantages. Most were poorly
designed from an energy standpoint.
Because they used a block of ice that
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melted at 32°F (0°C), the refrigerator temperature was rarely Refrigerating Engineering in 1900
Mechanical refrigeration systems were introduced in the U.S.
below the mid-40s and usually was higher. Ice became less
effective as the block melted, and most homeowners resisted by 1850 and were commercially manufactured by 1880. German
replacing it until it was almost completely melted. The poorly immigrants introducing lager beer into the U.S. spawned the
insulated box became warmer, especially in the summer. Food need for cool fermentation temperatures. As breweries sprouted,
spoiled quickly, and housewives railed at the ice deliveryman so did manufacturers of refrigerating machinery. In the 1890s,
for delivering bad ice, even as they wrapped the ice block in a growing demand for machinery for ice making and cold storage
blanket to make it last longer. Also, using ice was a nuisance, supplanted much of the brewery business.
Refrigeration was applied in big plants and used large mabecause it had to be purchased and delivered and water dripped
everywhere. Engineers, who always like to provide a “fix,” had chinery. Refrigeration machine companies competed about who
had installed the largest machine. Established machine compaan opportunity to do so.
In 1892, trade journal Ice and Refrigeration envisioned the nies had little time or interest in providing a small refrigerating
future: “The refrigeration of private residences is the next step in machine that could be used for a residence. In addition, such
the development of mechanical refrigeration … but the day will an application would require much innovative engineering. A
undoubtedly come when the refrigeration of residences (perhaps number of entrepreneurs and engineers who thought a market
by the employment of the electric motor as power) will become might exist for a small refrigerator took the challenge.
The development of the ac
an important item, requiring,
power system had a profound
perhaps, special machines for
effect on the direction of the rethat purpose and special study
frigeration industry. Provision
of the particular requirements
for power-distribution systems
of the field.”
was advancing rapidly in cities
Refrigerating engineering
after the 1890s. Availibility of
already had provided systems
electric power permitted use of
for ice manufacture and cold
electric motors that could be
storage. These systems were
large and operated quite well Automatic Refrigerating Compa- controlled automatically.
in plants where trained technicians tended their steam-engine ny, formed in 1905, was the first Early Technical Advances
The most common means of
drives, tightened ammonia-leak- company to attempt to sell the
driving a refrigeration machine
ing shaft stuffing boxes, manuwas the steam engine. These
ally adjusted condenser water small refrigerating machine.
engines needed constant atflow and tweaked evaporator
expansion valves to keep things operating smoothly. By contrast, a tention and were not easy to control automatically. The logical
home had no trained technician and no place to put a steam engine! alternative was a high-starting torque electric motor that could
be powered by the single-phase alternating current lines being
The following principal problems had to be solved:
• Leaks in pipe joints, coarse-grained castings, leaking strung over city streets. Such a motor, the repulsion start induction
motor, was patented in 1895. By 1915 these motors were available
down to 1/8 hp (0.9 kW) from several manufacturers.
• Sheer size of the mechanical equipment,
Refrigeration compressors had been patterned after steam
• Large charges of toxic or flammable refrigerants,
• Impure refrigerants causing system seizure or corrosion if engine design, using a crank and crossheads to convert rotary
to reciprocating motion. A stuffed seal was used on the piston
used in small systems,
• Lack of an inexpensive, reliable and household-friendly rod to minimize, but not prevent, refrigerant loss. In 1877, Alexander Ballantine patented a compressor using connecting rods
driver for the system,
• An efficient means of transmitting power from the driver and piston wrist pins for motion conversion that enclosed the
assembly in a solid crankcase sealed at the rotating crankshaft.
to the compressor,
This revolutionary design took another 20 years to catch on, but
• Service for the machine if it broke down,
• A method of automatic control for the driver and the re- by 1900 there were a number of enclosed crankcase compressors being marketed. As the technology improved, compressor
speeds increased, permitting smaller, less-expensive compres• Efficient and inexpensive refrigerator cabinets, and
sors. Rotary metal-to-metal sealing methods began replacing
• Cost of the equipment.
As the 20th century began, engineers began addressing these stuffing box-type shaft seals, reducing friction and eliminating
problems. Within 30 years, consumers would be able to purchase refrigerant leaks. Casting and machining technology improvements reduced leaks and increased efficiency. Reed and disk
an inexpensive, reliable household electric refrigerator.
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valves replaced the poppet valves. For the first time the possibility existed to design a compact compressor with the small
capacity needed for household refrigeration.
A new technology of automatic control began to emerge by
1890. As refrigerating engineers started miniaturizing refrigeration systems for homes and shops, they developed means to
automatically control both the refrigerant flow and the machine
itself. Dozens of patents featured pressure-operated expansion
valves and thermostatic controls. Some of the schemes were
complicated, but others were relatively simple, forming the
technology that would be used for most of the 20th century.
Ammonia had become the refrigerant of choice by 1890 for
industrial refrigeration, but others such as sulfur dioxide, methyl
chloride, ethyl chloride and isobutane
already had been proposed or used as
refrigerants. These would become the
refrigerants of choice for early household
One of the pioneers in industrial refrigeration was Fred Wolf
of Chicago, who had introduced Carl Linde’s ammonia refrigeration in the U.S. Wolf operated a successful business designing and equipping breweries. Wolf’s son, Fred Jr., was quite
interested in the emerging small refrigerating machine technology. He was a charter member of the newly formed ASRE and
before 1910 he advertised small refrigerating systems similar
to those sold by Automatic Refrigerating Company.
Shortly after, Fred Wolf Jr. and engineer Fred Heideman designed one of the most revolutionary refrigerating systems of
its time. Wolf patented and began manufacturing a system he
called the DOMELRE, a contraction of Domestic Electric Refrigerator. In 1914, he organized the Mechanical Refrigerator
Company in Chicago to sell the device.
Wolf ’s system was designed to replace
the block of ice in domestic refrigerators of the time. His scheme was simple.
Cut a hole in the top of the refrigerator
above the ice compartment and mount
Pulling Things Together
a package refrigeration system over the
One can make the case that a critical
hole, with the evaporator poking through
mass of small refrigerating machine
the hole, providing refrigeration in place
technology had been reached by 1900.
of the ice block.
What was needed was a means of pullThe idea was unique, but his system
ing it all together, financing, and refining
was a sophisticated attempt to solve
it, a process that would take another
most of the problems involved in mak30 years.
ing a mechanical refrigerating system
The first attempt to do this was in 1905
feasible for the home. Consider these
when Automatic Refrigerating Company
system features:
was formed.
• The unit was self-contained, with the
In the early 1900s, many individuals
condensing unit mounted on a wooden
were innovating the components for
base, and the evaporator hung undersmall refrigerating systems, and many
neath. After the hole was cut in the top of
were purchasing electric motors from
the refrigerator, the flat base was placed
General Electric. The manager of GE’s
over the hole, and the refrigeration syssmall motor department, Fred Kimball,
tem was ready to be used, having been
reasoned that the small refrigerating
charged with refrigerant and pretested
machine industry held the seed of an Figure 3: By 1923, Frigidaire was a booming at the factory.
enormous market for electric motors. division of General Electric.
• The condenser was air-cooled and
The problem was that many of the technical problems were made of bare copper tubing. Flared joints, an idea borrowed
being solved a piece at a time by many individuals. If the from the automotive industry, were used to minimize the postechnological accomplishments were organized and consoli- sibility of leaks. The evaporator also was made of lightweight,
dated into one company, the public could be offered a good tinned copper tubing. Other small systems had used watermachine.
cooled condensers and steel pipe with screwed and flanged
Kimball convinced a group of investors to pool about 70 connections, but Wolf used sulfur dioxide refrigerant instead
patents covering small refrigerating machine technology and of ammonia, permitting the use of copper tubing.
created one company, called Automatic Refrigerating Com• A ¼ hp (0.187 kW) repulsion-start induction motor was
pany. Formed in 1905, the company used the best ideas in used, and the low current that was required (4 amps at full
the patents to develop a reliable automatic system for homes load) permitted the unit to be “plugged” into an ordinary light
and shops.4 The company was very successful, but the cost socket using a special screw-in connector. (Electrical outlets
and size of the machines was still a hindrance to the average were rare in homes, and early appliances were plugged into
homeowner. Therefore, the company concentrated its efforts in electric light sockets.) The repulsion-start motor can develop
equipping butcher shops, hotel kitchens and soda fountains. high starting torque at low voltages, making it ideal for the
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skimpy wiring and 15- or 30-amp electric services common in
early 20th-century homes.
• The system was completely automatic. A bimetal thermostat
cycled the motor, maintaining a set temperature in the refrigerator. The refrigerant was controlled with an automatic (constant
pressure) expansion valve.
• To avoid the slippage encountered when flat-drive belts were
used on small pulleys, three round rubber cord belts were used
to transmit the power to the compressor. (The V-belt drive was
not applied to refrigeration until the 1920s.)
• For the first time, an ice cube tray was featured as part of
the evaporator.5
Although revolutionary, Wolf could not adequately finance
his venture. In addition, he encountered
service problems, particularly with the
compressor. This was common among
small refrigerating machines. In fact,
the problem of translating the technology to economical production and reliable, problem-free application would
require considerably more engineering
and capital.
and the idea continued attracting the attention of those in the
automotive industry.
Nathaniel Wales, an inventor of automotive devices and a Detroit engineer, and Edmund Copeland, who had been the general
purchasing agent for General Motors Corporation, began working
on a household refrigerator in 1913. Copeland’s boss, General
Motors’ president William Durant, warned Copeland that he was
a fool to put his money into the untested idea, but Copeland and
Wales decided to proceed. Arnold Goss, director of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company and an associate of Durant, decided to
finance the idea using the name Kelvinator in 1914.
A prototype was constructed, but Goss rejected the machine
as impractical. Then, Copeland and Wales began working on
an improved system that was not successful until 1917, after at least a dozen
different models had been constructed,
and Fred Heideman had been hired
away from ISKO. In 1918 a prototype
was installed in a home for field testing
after Copeland had spent $150,000 developing a bellows-type thermostat that
minimized cycling. The prototype was
successful and a system that had some
The Mass Market Realized
features of the DOMELRE machine
At the beginning of the refrigeration
was placed on the market. Sixty-seven
industry in the 19th century, the science
machines were sold in 1918. Edmund
and industry of steam engines influenced
Copeland left General Motors a couple
much of the technology In the 20th cenyears later to start his own company, and
tury two new industries, the automotive
Heideman left and was later a consultant
and electrical industry, would provide a
to the industry. Kelvinator Corporation
similar reservoir of fresh thinking. Unlike
made slow progress selling the public on
the influence of the steam engine, which
the idea of electric refrigeration for the
was mainly technical, the automotive and
home. At first, Kelvinator concentrated
electrical industries combined a technical Figure 4: Thousands of General Electric on conversions of iceboxes using remote
underpinning with a mass-market vision Monitor Top refrigerators still work today condensing units located away from the
and added the capital needed to bring a and have become collector’s items.
refrigerator ((Figure 2).
foolproof refrigerator to market.
In 1925, Kelvinator began selling a
The first evidence of this occurred in 1916 when Henry self-contained refrigerator. However, they soon lost their leaderJoy, president of Packard Motor Car Company, purchased the ship position to another automotive-influenced company.7
rights to the DOMELRE, and moved the operation to Detroit
General Motors’ William Durant apparently had a change of
under the name ISKO (pronounced “ice co”). Fred Heideman heart about household refrigeration. About 1916, he attempted
further improved the system with a finned condenser and new to purchase Kelvinator, but was unable to make a deal, and
compressor, but Joy apparently didn’t have the capital or the bought a defunct Detroit firm, the Guardian Frigerator Compaengineering to make the device truly foolproof. Although the ny, in 1918. Guardian was one of the many small companies that
retail price was low ($385 in 1916, later dropping to $275), had failed trying to market a self-contained electric refrigerator.
the system could be “installed in any icebox,” and about 1,000 Durant renamed the company Frigidaire and ordered immediate
systems were sold, the company still went bankrupt in 1922. production, over the objections of his chief engineer.
The DOMELRE/ISKO was an idea that was ahead of the meFrigidaire had produced thousands of refrigerators by
chanical skills necessary to carry it out. Speculation was that 1920—and had hundreds of complaints from owners, many
compressor problems, wet refrigerant, and a misunderstanding of them Durant’s wealthy friends. Durant became discouraged
the conditions in which the refrigerating machine was installed and considered liquidating Frigidaire until an investigation
all contributed to ISKO’s demise.6
revealed that despite the many technical problems, FrigidHowever, others were working on household refrigeration, aire users were very loyal to the product. General Motors
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Figure 5: Frigidaire introduced the first metal cabinet in 1926, and
the other manufacturers quickly followed.
concluded that Frigidaire was a basically sound product that
could be made profitable.
Frigidaire was transferred from Detroit to the Delco Light
Company division in Dayton, Ohio, where ready access to
the newly established General Motors Research Laboratory
existed. By that time, Frigidaire was in debt to General Motors
for today’s equivalent of $35 million, and there was no prospect
for a successful product. Production was temporarily halted
while research engineers tackled the technical problems. Durant
was impatient and almost fired chief engineer John Replogle
because he wasn’t spending a million dollars fast enough. He
told Replogle, “If you can’t spend that much money, you’re not
a big enough man for the job.”
Plenty of money and engineering talent was expended. Once
manufacturing resumed, sales soon boomed to such an extent
that in 1923, Alfred Sloan, Durant’s successor as General Motors’ president, remarked at a sales convention that Frigidaire’s
profit in the previous year was sufficient to cover the entire
dividend of GM preferred stock ((Figure 3).8
By the 1920s, electric power was becoming widely used in the
U.S. and in many developed countries. Various appliances, such
as clothes irons, washing machines, and electric ranges, were
coming into use. Production of electricity was skyrocketing as
homes and factories converted to electric power. For example, in
the U.S. the amount of electric power produced rose from about
3 billion kWh in 1900 to about 70 billion in 1925.9 Refrigerators
increasingly contributed to the rise in electricity consumption.
The Electrical Industry Weighs In
Despite the potential to increase the use of electric power
through the promotion of electric refrigerators, the electric
Figure 6: Constance Lane West’s idea in 1931 to add shelves to the
refrigerator door was rejected by many manufacturers. Today, all
refrigerators have shelves in the doors.
utilities hesitated. The daunting technical problems tempered
their enthusiasm, but as the problems were overcome and
refrigerators became more reliable, the utilities changed their
tune. The trade journal Ice and Refrigeration reported:
Until recently, troubles of various kinds have resulted in
household refrigerating apparatus proving unsatisfactory
and concerns handling it have been placed in embarrassing positions and suffering heavy losses financially,
to say nothing of similar consequences experienced by
manufacturers. … we draw the conclusion that domestic
refrigeration is entitled to the same effort and cooperation
from the central stations as had been given the matter of
introducing such devices as the electric range, and with
this cooperation there is every reason to expect a very
rapid introduction of this equipment into the home, as
well as a rapid and continued improvement in perfecting
the apparatus itself to the point where there should be no
question as to its satisfactory performance.
For the past three years (1921–1924) or so, there has
been a steady increase in the sale and use of domestic
electric refrigerating equipment, which has now mounted
to such proportions as to make it safe to assume that
domestic electric refrigeration has come to stay and it is
not going to suffer the setbacks and almost complete demoralization it suffered on several occasions in the past,
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when it seemed to have received a healthy start.
From the central station standpoint, almost everyone is
familiar with the attractive load building possibilities of
this device, resulting as it does, in a revenue representing possibly the highest rate per kilowatt of demand of
anything connected to the central station system.10
The principal manufacturer of electrical products was the
General Electric Company. The company had developed an
interest in household appliances, at first as a means of increasing the electrical load for utilities.
About 1917, engineers at General Electric’s Fort Wayne,
Ind., facility began experimenting with domestic refrigeration machines. However, there wasn’t a serious effort in this
area until the early 1920s when engineer Alexander Stevenson
Jr. (who would become president of the ASRE in 1934) was
assigned to survey the whole field of domestic refrigeration.
Stevenson’s report, completed in 1923, was probably the most
exhaustive study of the engineering and economic aspects of
the domestic refrigerator up to that time. Stevenson thoroughly
analyzed the machines already in the market and General
Electric’s experimental machines. From Stevenson’s report, the
engineering department concluded that the state of the art of
household refrigeration had stabilized, and it was an opportune
time to enter into commercial exploitation.
Stevenson, aware of the daunting task faced by the company, concluded, “Any scheme for exploitation therefore must
include in its budget a very liberal development account or it
is doomed to failure. … It is recommended that the General
Electric Company should undertake the further development of
an electric household refrigerator as an addition to their string
of appliances, and because widespread adoption will increase
the revenue of the central stations, thus indirectly benefiting the
General Electric Company. But, the General Electric Company
should not enter this field in the hope of immediate profits
from the sale of these machines. For some years to come, the
developmental and complaint expenses will probably eat up
all the profits.”
General Electric accepted the recommendation. By the
end of 1926, General Electric’s Central Station Department
had sold as many as 2,000 model OC-2 refrigerators through
electric utilities. Because the numerous “iceboxes” in public
use varied greatly in construction and efficiency, the company
decided that many potential problems would be avoided if the
refrigerators were sold as a complete unit. The wooden cabinet,
insulated with corkboard, was manufactured under contract
by Seeger Refrigerator Company. Cabinets were shipped
separately from the Seeger factory in St. Paul, Minn., directly
to the customer, and the refrigerating units were shipped from
Fort Wayne, Ind. The refrigeration system used a hermetically
sealed compressor, the first time the new technology was used
in the mass market.
Despite a substantial engineering effort, GE’s OC-2 refrigerator experienced enough service problems that another
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development phase ensued, resulting in the famous “Monitor
Top” refrigerator introduced in 1927.
The new refrigerator featured an all-steel refrigerator cabinet
and consumed only 50 kWh per month, said to be half the power
consumed by competing refrigerators. General Electric committed $18 million for the manufacturing plant, and another $1
million for the 1927 advertising campaign, and opted for mass
distribution and sales by dealers, bypassing the electric utilities.11 The General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator stunned
its competition with its advanced features and low price. By
1931, one GE ad claimed there were one million users. The
Monitor Top design, with improvements, was manufactured
for the next 10 years.
Amazingly, thousands of these refrigerators are still being
used. For those furnishing the retro-kitchen look, they have
become sought-after collector’s items ((Figure 4).
The other major U.S. electrical manufacturer, Westinghouse
Electric & Manufacturing, had been investigating electric
refrigeration as early as 1913 and had taken out several U.S.
patents for systems beginning in 1921.12
Westinghouse did not place a refrigerator on the market until
1930. It featured a hermetically sealed reciprocating compressor
that was completely reengineered in 1931. Their system was the
quietest on the market, and the basic compressor design was so
successful it was still being used in the 1950s.
The Maturing Industry
By the late 1920s, a huge expenditure of capital and engineering expertise had resulted in John Starr’s dream of a refrigerator that required little attention. Frigidaire’s president was
able to say: “Electric refrigeration for the home has definitely
passed out of the ‘Maybe—some day!’ stage. It is entering
the ‘What!—Haven’t you got it yet?’ stage.”13 The public responded by purchasing ever-increasing numbers of household
With major technical problems solved, the industry turned to
improving the product, sprucing up appearance, reducing cost
and increasing efficiency. Service needs, although decreasing,
were met by dedicated service departments established by all of
the manufacturers, complete with extensive service literature.
Refrigerator cabinets initially were copies of iceboxes, with
multiple doors and a separate compartment for the evaporator.
Kelvinator’s self-contained “Kelvinet” refrigerator introduced
in 1925 had a single door, as did GE’s Monitor Top of 1927.
Frigidaire introduced the first metal cabinet in 1926, and the
other manufacturers quickly followed ((Figure 5).
The earliest metal cabinets used wood framing, but all-steel
construction emerged by the early 1930s. Insulation was upgraded. Early refrigerator cabinets were insulated with corkboard or even seaweed. (Frigidaire found that dried eelgrass
made a good refrigerator insulation.) Insulation choices for later
cabinets included cellulose fiber board, metal foil separated with
air spaces, corrugated cardboard, mineral wool or kapok.
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By the late 1920s, colored cabinets were being marketed.
By the 1930s, slide-out shelves, foot pedal operated doors and
automatic inside lights were featured on some refrigerators. The
art-deco and streamlining efforts of the 1930s resulted in more
modern-looking cabinets with rounded, smooth lines and no
legs. Cabinet designs continuously evolved as tastes changed.
Refrigeration systems in the early 1920s used slow-speed
compressors typically connected to ¼ hp (0.187 kW) motors
with flat belts or gears. V-belt drives were first used by Frigidaire
in 1924. Hermetically sealed systems were introduced by GE
in 1927, Westinghouse in 1930 and Frigidaire in 1933. Most
other manufacturers followed suit by the late 1930s.
At first evaporators imitated the block of ice they replaced.
Until about 1927, most manufacturers used a rectangular, tinned
copper tank that contained the refrigeration coils surrounded
by salt brine. This arrangement minimized refrigeration cycles
due to the large mass of the evaporator. Later, lighter-weight
evaporators made of porcelain enameled steel, monel and finally
stainless steel were introduced. The refrigerant was metered
using an automatic expansion valve or a low-side or high-side
float, depending on manufacturer. Restrictive metering devices
like the capillary tube were not widely used until the late 1930s.
Early systems used either a thermostat or a low-pressure control
to cycle the system, but thermostats were used universally
after the 1930s.
Reliable manufacturing sources for pure and dry refrigerants
were available by the early 1920s. The earliest systems used
sulfur dioxide, methyl chloride or isobutane, but these choices
expanded to include ethyl chloride and methylene chloride
by the 1930s. Although the CFC dichlorodifluoromethane
(R-12) was invented in 1928 by Frigidaire, it was not used in
household refrigeration until the early 1930s, and did not fully
supplant the other refrigerants until the late 1930s. By the mid
1920s manufacturers recognized that it was vital to eliminate
any moisture during the manufacturing process, and they took
the necessary steps, using combinations of heat and evacuation
under a vacuum, to ensure a dry system.
By the 1930s considerable competition existed for the expanding household refrigeration market. Frigidaire, Kelvinator,
Servel, Copeland and General Electric manufactured most of
the refrigerators sold before 1930. The potential market attracted others, particularly the radio manufacturers, and a number of
newcomers entered the market. Some of them—with names like
Majestic, Mayflower, Grunow, Dayton, Ice-O-Matic, Jomoco,
Lectric-Ice, Sparton, Stewart-Warner, and Universal—were
short lived, victims of the intense competition and the Great
Depression. Others, including Crosley, Gibson, Leonard, Norge,
and Philco remained active in the market for decades.
Sometimes the new entrants brought a perspective the oldline companies didn’t have. For example, Constance Lane West
patented what she thought was a logical improvement and put
shelves in the door of the refrigerator. She approached the major
manufacturers and they rejected her idea, but Powell Crosley
at Crosley Radio thought her idea revolutionary and began
manufacturing the “Crosley Shelvador” refrigerator in 1931. All
modern refrigerators now have shelves in the door ((Figure
Figure 66).
The fact that many areas of the U.S. had no electricity created
an opportunity for the Swedish manufacturer Electrolux, which
licensed its aqua-ammonia absorption system to Servel for sale
in the U.S. The system was popular in rural areas.
Competition brought still lower prices and higher energy
efficiencies. For example, Frigidaire, which had dominated
the household refrigerator market in the 1920s, saw its sales
lead steadily reduced, particularly after General Electric and
Westinghouse entered the market with their energy-efficient
refrigerators that used hermetic compressors. The co
mpany responded by developing its own sealed refrigerating
system that used a hermetic rotary compressor. The “Meter
Miser” used the newly developed chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant R-114. The company bested the energy efficiency of every
competing refrigerator, boasting in advertisements that the
Meter-Miser used no more electricity than a light bulb
Clarence Birdseye had perfected his quick-freezing process
by 1930, and he actively promoted the convenience of frozen
meat, fish and vegetables. Refrigerators of the time had no specific space to store frozen packages. Refrigerator evaporators
were designed to accommodate a few ice cube trays, but not
much more. Frigidaire attempted to capitalize on the potential
market with its “Multi-Cold” refrigerator in 1930. The model
featured a much larger freezing space, with doors on the freezing compartments to maintain a low temperature. The design
was far enough ahead of the market that it was discontinued
after a year. However, by the mid-1930s, all the manufacturers
were redesigning their evaporator compartments to make them
larger. This trend continued.
Even the ice cube trays evolved for more convenience. Early
ice trays were constructed of heavy nickel-plated copper with
plated removable brass grids. The homeowner had to hold the
frozen tray under running water to loosen the ice cubes. Lloyd
Copeman, actively involved in developing refrigeration components in Detroit, came up with the idea of a flexible ice tray
in the late 1920s. He was duck hunting one winter and noticed
that frozen water would break up when his rubber boots flexed.
He patented a tray using rubber, and his idea was used by a
number of manufacturers in the 1930s. (The idea was resurrected in the 1960s when plastic flexible ice trays appeared.)
Other manufacturers developed various methods for removing
the ice using movable grids and levers.
One burden that endured for some time was the chore of
defrosting the refrigerator. The evaporators would build up a
heavy coating of ice over time, which periodically had to be
removed by shutting off the refrigerator and allowing the ice
to melt. Impatience was often the virtue of the moment and
people resorted to prying and chipping off the ice with ice picks,
knives, etc. Overly zealous homeowners sometimes punctured
the evaporator coil, releasing the refrigerant charge with results
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November 2004
that ranged from simple surprise to reckless evacuation of the
entire house if sulfur dioxide was the refrigerant. By the late
1940s, manufacturers eventually responded with self-defrosting
systems. According to magazine ads, the methods ranged from
manually set timers, to devices that counted the number of times
the door was opened and launched a refrigerator shutdown to
fully automatic timed defrosts.
The Silent Legacy of Refrigerating Engineering
Manufacturers continued to improve operation and efficiency,
improve appearance, and lower prices after World War II. The
result is the modern household electric refrigerator we now take
for granted. It runs quietly in the kitchen, requiring no attention
for years at a time (except for cleaning dust off the condenser,
a chore usually ignored for long periods!). This silent monarch
of the kitchen has become so important to our way of life, that
when 1,000 people were asked in 1999 which appliance would
be hardest to live without, most answered, “my refrigerator!”
John Starr’s Philosophers’ Stone has been touched, and the
foolproof electric refrigerator is sold throughout the world.
Surely this is one of refrigerating engineering’s greatest contributions to society!
1. Starr, J. E. 1916. “Refrigeration twenty-five years ago.” Ice and Refrigeration. 51(11): 144.
2. ---- 1892. “Refrigerating private residences.” Ice and Refrigeration.
3(8): 110.
3. For an extensive history of the refrigeration industry and it’s advances
see chapters 8 and 10: Donaldson, B. and Nagengast, B. 1994. Heat & Cold:
Mastering the Great Indoors – A Selective History of Heating, Ventilation,
Refrigeration and Air Conditioning. Atlanta, Georgia: American Society of
Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.
4. ----- Electric Refrigeration News. 1928. “Inventions of E.T. Williams big
factor in growth of domestic refrigeration”. September 12, p. 3.
----- Air Conditioning and Refrigeration News. 1936. “E.T. Williams 1914
design marked his first step in long line of household refrigerator patents”.
October 7, pp. 24-25.
5. and 6. Information from the following sources: U.S. Patents 1,222,170,
1,291,334 and 1,337,175.
Shellworth, P. 1948. Antecedents of Frigidaire. Frigidaire Collection, file
79-10.1-44. Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering University.
----- 1914. Electric refrigerating outfit applicable to any ice-box. Electrical
World. 64(Aug. 22): 393.
----- 1957. An early history of the electric refrigerator. Electrical Merchandising. July: 116 - 117. Authors’ note: This article contains numerous
misspellings of names of individuals and companies.
McCoy, D.E. n.d. “Interview with Mr. Fehr”. Frigidaire Collection. Flint,
MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering University.
-----n.d. “Refrigerator cost comparison.” Frigidaire Collection, File 79-10.144. Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering University.
Shellworth, P. 1949. “Report of interview with Mr. G. Ralph Fehr”. Frigidaire Collection, File 79-10.1-43. Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering
Mellowes, A. W. 1926. “Memo on the history of household electric refrigeration”. Frigidaire Collection Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering
----- 1936 “Heideman produced unit with Wolf in 1912; some of his early designs still in use.” Air Conditioning and Refrigeration News. October 7: 23.
7. Information from the following sources:
Beckman, J. 1931: “Edmund J. Copeland tells how he developed electric
automatic refrigeration and made refrigerated homes possible.” Manuscript in
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
Long, W. 1936 “Goss relates story of Kelvinator’s early history.” Air Conditioning and Refrigeration News. October 7: 9.
Mellowes, 1926
---- 1936. “Heideman produced unit with Wolf in 1912; some of his early
designs still in use.” Air Conditioning and Refrigeration News, October 7: 9.
Hibbard, H.W. 1926. “Memo on the history of electric refrigeration”. Frigidaire Collection. Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering University.
8. Information from the following sources:
McCoy, D. 1963. “Notes on interview with Mr. LA Clark”. Frigidaire
Collection, file 79-10.16-75. Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering
McCoy, D. 1962. “History of Frigidaire” (draft copy). Frigidaire Collection.
Flint, MI: Scharchburg Archives, Kettering University.
---- 1936. “Replogle tells of Frigidaire’s beginnings in refrigeration and of
early problems”. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration News, October: 27.
Fehr, G.R. n.d. Letter to “Mr. Frpst.” Original copy in the personal library
of Bernard A Nagengast, Sidney, OH
9. Persons, W.M. n.d. An economist’s appraisal of domestic electric refrigeration. New York: Kelvinator Corporation.
10. ----- 1924. “Electric domestic refrigeration.” Ice and Refrigeration
66(6): 518
11. Information from the following sources:
Stevenson, A. 1923 Domestic Refrigerating Machines. Data Folder 1120.
General Electric Co. (Transcribed copy in ASHRAE Library, Atlanta, GA.)
Unattributed historical notes, personal file, George Wise, Corporate Research
and Development, General Electric Co., Schenectady, NY.
Roider, R. 1952. General Electric’s Silver Anniversary. GE collection,
Schenectady Museum, NY.
--- 1970. Outline history of the General Electric refrigerator. GE collection,
Schenectady Museum, NY.
Holliday, W. 1994. “The General Electric Monitor Top Refrigerator.”
ASHRAE Journal 36(9):49-55.
12. ---- 1936. “Development of hermetic unit by Westinghouse started with
experiments in 1921.” Air Conditioning and Refrigeration News October 7:
13. Biechler, E. n.d. “New ice age brings food luxuries to the masses.” Chain
Store Review. (photocopy in Frigidaire Collection. Flint, MI: Scharchburg
Archives, Kettering University.
Bernard Nagengast is a consulting engineer in Sidney, Ohio,
and a consultant to ASHRAE’s historical committee.
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