While the ice machines that we see in the pub and catering trade today seem industrial and modern, the process of making ice to chill our beverages has not always been this way. Ice machines have not always been the method of getting ice; they are in fact relatively new phenomena in the world of refrigeration.
The earliest methods of refrigeration included heading to the mountains and gathering snow and ice, this was then placed in a hole in the ground and food was then put into the hole. This method however was mainly reserved for the rich and was also fraught with danger as heading to the mountains carried its own inherent risks.
Artificial refrigeration did not come into effect until the eighteenth century when William Cullen, an associate of the University of Glasgow demonstrated how to chill an enclosed area; Cullen however found no practical use for his invention. The first to realise the potential of refrigeration was an American, Oliver Evans, who in 1805 designed the first ever refrigerator; once again however this had limited uses and sat on the shelf for a further forty years.
A machine especially built for the purpose of making ice first came into existence in 1844. The American physician John Gorrie built a refrigeration machine based upon Evans' original design. As a doctor who regularly treated yellow fever patients, Gorrie used his machine to make ice cubes that chilled the drinks of the afflicted. Many experts now believe that Gorrie invented the first ice cube tray, the subject is a matter of debate however but as his patients received iced drinks, it is logical that he had used some form of device to form the cubes.
It was in 1914 when refrigeration and ice machines became more widely used. Fred Wolf invented the DOMELRE (Domestic Electric Refrigerator). The machines were not popular with consumers but the Wolf's work did have one major development; the inclusion of an ice tray in every appliance.
In this early stage of the development of ice machines it is estimated that around half of the US population had a cool pit in their homes, it is believed that the other half had no refrigeration systems at all. At this time, ice machines were reserved for the extremely wealthy, an oil tycoon named Walter Pierce had a mechanical refrigeration machine in his house, but this was definitely the exception to the rule.
During these early years ice machines used rather lethal gases in the refrigeration process. Up until the thirties ammonia, methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide were regularly used as refrigerants. These gases did in fact cause a number of deaths in the twenties and understandably a number of corporation backed scientists searched for a more viable and safer refrigerant. Their search was fruitful, they discovered Freon, while its effects on the environment were not yet known, at the time it was far preferable and rapidly became the refrigerant of choice in home refrigeration systems.
During the fifties and sixties the fridge became popular in many homes as they became a mass produced item. Developments such as automatic defrosting and ice making became apparent and their place in the modern kitchen became assured. The seventies and eighties saw recognition of the dangers of CFCs to the environment and the efficiency of refrigerators was increased.
Today the fridges that fill our kitchen are far more efficient than their predecessors, with incorporated ice machines that have done away with the cube tray. Today the refrigerator has become an integral component in any kitchen; most households would be lost without one.
Refrigeration expert Thomas Pretty looks into the development of ice machines over the last century and beyond.