Absolute Zero

The Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman

Refrigerated railroad cars played a fateful role
in the final subjugation of native cultures in the American West.

Artificially produced refrigeration has been the least noted of the three technological breakthroughs of great significance to the growth of cities that came to the fore between the 1860s and the 1880s. More emphasis has been given to the role played by the elevator and by the varying means of communication, first the telegraph and later the telephone. The elevator permitted buildings to be erected higher than the half-dozen stories a worker or resident could comfortably climb; telegraphs and telephones enabled companies to locate managerial and sales headquarters at a distance from the ultimate consumers of goods and services.

Refrigeration had equal impact, allowing the establishment of larger populations farther than ever from the sources of their food supplies. These innovations helped consolidate the results of the Industrial Revolution, and after their introduction, the populations of major cities doubled each quarter century, first in the United States—where technologies took hold earlier than they did in older countries—and then elsewhere in the world.

An index of civilization

A spate of fantastic literature also began to appear at this time; in books such as Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century, set in 1960, indoor climate control was mentioned, though its wonders were not fully explored. From the mid-19th century on, most visions of technologically rich futures included predictions of control over indoor and sometimes outdoor temperature.

In addition to flocking to cities for jobs, Americans also became urbanites in the latter part of the 19th century because there seemed to be fewer hospitable open spaces into which an exploding population could expand. Large areas of the United States were too hot during many months of the year to sustain colonies of human beings; these included the Southwest and parts of the Southeast, with their tropical and semitropical climates, deserts, and swamps. Looked at in retrospect, the principal limitation on people settling in those areas was the lack of air-conditioning and home refrigeration.

In the second half of the 19th century, the use of cold in the home became an index of civilization. In New York, 45 percent of the population kept provisions in natural-ice home refrigerators. It was said in this period that if all the natural-ice storage facilities along the Hudson River in New York State were grouped together, they would account for seven miles of its length. Consumption of ice in New York rose steadily from the 100,000 tons-per-year level of 1860 toward a million tons annually in 1880. But while the per capita use of ice in large American cities climbed to two-thirds of a ton annually, in smaller cities it remained lower, a quarter of a ton per person per year.

Ice age

When New York apple growers felt competitively squeezed by western growers who shipped their products in by refrigerated railroad car, they hired experts to improve the quality of their own apples. A specialist was hired to help prevent blue mold, a disease affecting oranges, so that California's oranges would be more appealing to New York consumers than oranges from Central and South America.

Believing there were not enough good clams to eat on the West Coast, the city fathers of San Francisco ordered a refrigerator carload of eastern bivalves to plant in San Francisco Bay, founding a new industry there. Commenting in 1869 on the first refrigerated railroad-car shipment of strawberries from Chicago to New York, Scientific American predicted, "We shall expect to see grapes raised in California and brought over the Pacific Railroad for sale in New York this season."

The conventional view is that the "iron horse" finally killed off the "red man"; but one could with as much justification say that it was the refrigerator.

The desire for refrigeration continued to grow, almost exponentially, but the perils associated with using sulfuric acid, ammonia, ether, and other chemicals in vapor compression and absorption systems remained a constraint on greater use of artificial ice, as did the high costs of manufacturing ice compared with the low costs of what had become a superbly efficient natural-ice industry.

Artificial refrigeration finally began to surpass natural-ice refrigeration in the American West and Midwest in the mid-1870s. In the space of a few years, as a result of the introduction of refrigeration, hog production grew 86 percent, and the annual export of American beef (in ice-refrigerated ships) to the British Isles rose from 109,500 pounds to 72 million pounds. Simultaneously, the number of refrigerated railroad cars in the United States skyrocketed from a few thousand to more than 120,000.

The rise of refrigeration

Growth of the American railroads and of refrigeration went hand in hand; moreover, the ability conveyed by refrigeration to store food and to transport slaughtered meat in a relatively fresh state led to huge, socially significant increases in the food supply, and to changes in the American social and geographical landscape.

"Slaughter of livestock for sale as fresh meat had remained essentially a local industry until a practical refrigerator car was invented," Oscar Anderson's 1953 historical study of the spread of refrigeration in the United States reported. And because refrigeration permitted processing to go on year-round, hog farmers no longer had to sell hogs only at the end of the summer, the traditional moment for sale—and the moment when the market was glutted with harvest-fattened hogs—but could sell them whenever they reached their best weight.

In Great Britain, the Bell family of Glasgow, who wanted to replace the natural-ice storage rooms on trans-Atlantic ships with artificially refrigerated rooms that could make their own ice, sought advice from another Glaswegian, Lord Kelvin. Lord Kelvin assisted the engineer J. Coleman in designing what became the Bell-Coleman compressed-air machine, which the Bells used to aid in the transport of meat to the British Isles from as far away as Australia. Because of refrigeration, every region of the world able to produce meat, vegetables, or fruit could now be used as a source for food to sustain people in cities even half a world away. Oranges in winter were no longer a luxury affordable only by kings.

A fateful association

Refrigeration in combination with railroads helped cause the wealth of the United States to begin to flow west, raising the per capita income of workers in the food-packing and transshipment centers of Chicago and Kansas City at the expense of workers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Refrigeration enabled midwestern dairy farmers, whose cost of land was low, to undercut the prices charged for butter and cheese by the dairy farmers of the Northeast. Refrigeration made it possible for St. Louis and Omaha packers to ship dressed beef, mutton, or lamb to market at a lower price per pound than it cost to ship live animals, and when the railroad magnates tried to coerce the packers to pay the same rate for dressed meat as for live animals, the packers built their own refrigerated railcars and forced a compromise.

The enormous jump in demand for meat, accelerated by refrigerated storage and transport, spurred ranchers and the federal government to take over millions of acres in the American West for use in raising cattle. This action brought on the last phase of the centuries-long push by European colonizers to rid America of its native tribes, by forcing to near extinction the buffalo and the Native American tribes whose lives centered on the buffalo. The conventional view of American history is that it was the "iron horse" that finally killed off the "red man"; but one could with as much justification say that it was the refrigerator.

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Refrigerator ad

Refrigerators, both the natural-ice kind like this one advertised in 1874, and the later variety that used artificially made ice, were major contributors to the rise of cities in the late 19th century, Tom Shachtman says.

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Refrigerator ad

By the mid-1800s, the natural-ice industry was booming, and it persisted well into the 1900s, long after the advent of artificial refrigeration. Here, an early-20th century poster.

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Union Pacific ad

"Growth of the American railroads and of refrigeration went hand in hand," Shachtman says. This poster from 1867 announces the latest push west by the Union Pacific Railroad, which by then extended to North Platte, Nebraska.

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Refrigeration company ad

Advertisement for the Bell-Coleman Mechanical Refrigeration Company, circa 1890. Refrigerated ships enabled fresh meat and produce from America and elsewhere to be transported worldwide.

Further reading
Anderson, Oscar E. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact. Princeton University Press, 1953.

David, Elizabeth. Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. Viking Penguin, 1994.

Thèvenot, Roger. A History of Refrigeration Throughout the World. Paris: International Institute of Refrigeration, 1979.


Tom Shachtman is a writer of books and documentaries. This article is excerpted from his book Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold. Copyright 1999 Tom Shachtman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved. NOVA's program "Absolute Zero" is based on this book.

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