Few people might have heard about Frederic Tudor before, but sometime in the early 1800s this Bostonian whiz kid had an idea that changed the world for ever. As most life-changing ideas, this was simple, groundbreaking, and completely crazy.
When young Tudor visited the West Indies for the first time, he was delighted by the warm Caribbean weather. He may have been sunbathing or walking on the beach when the idea struck him like a lightning. It was a new business model, completely overlooked, and extremely profitable: Why not cut ice in Boston, ship it to the tropics and sell it to local restaurants? They could start selling chilled drinks, or even ice-cream. Most people there had never seen ice before. They would go crazy about it!
I can imagine young Tudor considering with excitement the feasibility of his idea. Ice was free. At least in Boston. And there was plenty. One only needed to cut it in blocks. Ships were affordable at the time and, to keep the ice from melting, one could insulate it with sawdust, which was also essentially free. Believe it or not, nobody had thought about large scale commercial ice ventures before. Back then, ice was only used in small quantities wherever it was naturally available. But the idea of getting people to actually pay for ice was simply revolutionary.
And so, the 10th of February of 1806, the brig Favourite departed from Charleston headed to Martinique with 130 tons of ice in her hold. Not surprisingly, the venture was an absolute disaster: the ice that didn’t melt during the three-week journey to St. Pierre, melted soon after arrival, since there were no storage facilities in the island at the time. Although he did manage to sell some ice, poor Frederic lost better than $3500 dollars in this first frustrated attempt.
But he didn’t give up. His determination to succeed against all odds was almost heartbreaking. Tudor had “ice houses” built in Martinique and Havana at great expense and started experimenting with different kinds of insulation to improve the efficiency of his business. In spite of his efforts, he kept accumulating debt, and even spent some time in debtors prison between 1812 and 1813. And yet, he kept trying.
As he started getting profits from his sales, his ambition grew out of proportion: He harnessed horses with metal blades to cut ice in greater amounts and teamed up with a business partner to start shipping ice to India.
(Yes, my friends, you read well. This guy was seriously shipping ice from Boston to Calcutta)
And guess what? He succeeded. By the 1850s, Frederic Tudor, a.k.a. “the Ice King”, had built an ice empire, shipping over 150 000 tons of ice per year to South America, India, Persia and the Caribbean. Tudor died a millionaire, in 1864, at the age of 80.
Crucially, besides making a fortune, the Ice King managed to change the everyday life of people around the globe by creating a new need. Larger amounts of ice were stored every winter and transported by boat or train to big cities, where its use for food preservation, medicine or manufacturing of chemicals became widespread. For instance, by the time Tudor died, lager had superseded all other types of beer in Germany.
Of course, ice had its detractors too. They say that in Vermont preachers warned in their sermons against “the abominations of sucking soda” as late as 1890, and even laws were passed in some towns prohibiting selling it on Sundays. Around that time, any accidentally frozen food was immediately trashed and the regulations on cold-storage warehouses were extremely restrictive, supposedly in the interest of public health.
Back in 1834, when Tudor was expanding his trade to India, a guy called Jacob Perkins invented the refrigerator or “artificial ice-making machine”. Perkin’s patent sketched a primitive hand-operated compression fridge with very limited usability. The idea of artificial refrigeration didn’t really take off until much later. It was in 1860 when Ferdinand Carré patented the absorption refrigerator in the US. This ingenious invention, powered by heat, instead of manpower, did find practical applications: During the Civil War, it supplied the Confederates with ice, which they could not get anymore from the North. By the 1890s, steam-powered compression refrigerators and absorption cooling systems were produced for industrial use, although these were still humongous machines weighing from tens to hundreds of tonnes.
Even then, some of the best-informed engineers of the time laughed at the idea of refrigerating machines replacing natural ice, let alone the concept of domestic refrigerators. But just like those who laughed at Frederic Tudor when his Favourite cleared customs for Martinique in 1806, they were simply wrong.
The history of refrigeration teaches us two important lessons: The first one is that the biggest impediment for technological progress is often the very opposition of people. It takes a lot of time and determination to convince scientists, businessmen and the general public of the interest, profitability and practical uses of new technologies and ideas. The second lesson is that businessmen play a starring role in technological progress, side by side with scientists and engineers. Their support and initiative is vital to make technological breakthroughs happen. Sadly, this is very rarely acknowledged.
As you all know, artificial ice eventually won the war against the once thriving ice-shipping empire of Frederic Tudor. Furthermore, small-scale domestic fridges did made their way into our households in the early 20th century.
The first domestic refrigerators were noisy and dangerous, though. All refrigerants used at the time were poisonous, and accidents happened quite often. They say that when reading in the press the tragic news about the death of an entire family, poisoned by the gases of their own household refrigerator, Albert Einstein got very upset. This happened in the mid 1920s, when Einstein was visiting his good friend Leo Szilard. These two theoretical physicists, better known for their works on quantum mechanics, relativity, or nuclear energy generation, embarked themselves in a seven-year collaboration to design safer refrigerators. They produced a total of 45 patents and even managed to build several working prototypes of the most ingenious cooling machines that one could possibly imagine.
But that’s another story.
Maybe next time.