The answer to the deceptively simple question “who invented the refrigerator” is more complex than one might imagine.
The problem is all in the definition of the word refrigerator. Of course, everyone knows what a “fridge”is today, but this appliance has evolved so much over the centuries that is is difficult to find the original starting point. The technical description is that a refrigerator “consists of a thermally insulated compartment and a heat pump (mechanical, electronic, or chemical) that transfers heat from the inside of the fridge to its external environment so that the inside of the fridge is cooled to a temperature below the ambient temperature of the room.”
But fridges did not always operate exactly like that, so could they still be called fridges? The answer to this question is what leads us to trying establish who was the first inventor.
As far back as the 11th century, the Persian physicist and chemist, Ibn Sina, invented the refrigerated coil which he developed into a usable working tool.
But the first appliance that could reasonably be called a refrigerator was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748.
In 1805, the American inventor, Oliver Evans, designed a machine based on vapor-compression, but he never built it.
Then, in 1834 a man named Jacob Perkins did build a refrigeration unit by modifying Evans’ design and filed the he first legal patent for refrigeration using vapor-compression.
In 1841, John Gorrie, a doctor from Florida, modified Evans’ idea further and produced a machine which was patented in 1851.
A similar appliance was patented by Alexander C. Twining in 1853. There then followed a process of continuous development, with refinements and additions, which culminated in the first refrigerator for home and domestic use. This was invented by Fred W. Wolf of Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1913.
Then, in 1914, engineer Nathaniel B. Wales of Detroit, Michigan, introduced an idea for a practical electric refrigeration unit, which later became the basis for the Kelvinator.
A self-contained refrigerator, with a compressor on the bottom of the cabinet was invented by Alfred Mellowes in 1916. Mellowes produced this refrigerator commercially but was bought out by William C. Durant in 1918, who started the Frigidaire Company to mass-produce refrigerators.
In 1922, a refrigerator based on an entirely different operating system was invented by Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters in Sweden. It became the basis for the Electrolux fridge.
In the US, the first mass market refrigerator was the General Electric “Monitor-Top” introduced in 1927. In the 1950s and 1960s there were further advances, such as automatic defrosting and automatic ice making. Over the next few decades, refrigerator operation became even more efficient, and continues to advance year by year.
And, just to satisfy a question which may have occurred to you: Why is a refrigerator frequently referred to in the US as an “icebox”? Simply because the refrigerator replaced the icebox, which was a common household appliance for almost a century and a half prior to the invention of the modern refrigerator.
So, do you think we actually established who invented the refrigerator? Who would be your choice?
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