For centuries ice boxes and ice houses kept food cold in warm weather. Businesses cut the ice into blocks in winter and stored it in underground caverns. Afterward, in warmer months, businesses delivered ice pieces to insulated boxes in homes, “ice boxes,” the original refrigerators.

Early Systems

William Cullen claimed to create the first artificial refrigeration system in 1748. Later, in 1805, Oliver Evans described the first vapor-based refrigeration system in a book. Evans is better known for his automated flour mill and high-pressure steam engine. His colleague, Jacob Perkins built a working refrigeration unit, based on Evans’ designs, decades later. Subsequently, Perkins received a patent in 1835, 30 years after Evans documented the process, leading to a prolonged patent fight.

Early refrigeration systems relied on natural gasses in a closed loop. Basically, vaporization of the gasses and lowered the temperature. The systems were both large, expensive, and highly toxic. In homes, the chemical-based systems were typically installed in basements with pipes leading to a small icebox in the kitchen.

Electric Refrigeration

Fred Wolf created the first self-contained refrigerator in 1913. Branded the DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator, or DOMELRE, it sold thousands of units, proving that branding doesn’t always matter.

In 1914, Nathaniel Wales of Electrolux created a thermostat controlled fridge and eventually branding it Kelvinator, an eventual bestseller.

Alfred Mellowes invented and patented a compact, reasonably priced refrigerator in 1915. Subsequently, William Durant of General Motors purchased the patent and branded the innovation Frigidaire: it became wildly popular.

Locomotive (High-Pressure Steam Engine)

The high-pressure steam engine was invented about the same time by Richard Trevithick in the UK and Oliver Evans in the US. Neither man knew about the other.

Richard Trevithick

Trevithick, a mining engineer, built a high-pressure steam-powered car, the “Puffing Devil,” in 1801, taking it for a ride around town, picking up friends. He left it at a pub where they went to celebrate his innovation. While drinking they failed to notice the fire from the steam boiler and the car burnt down.

James Watt, the inventor of the condensing (low pressure) steam engine, believed Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engines dangerous. After one of Trevithick’s early high-pressure steam engines, used as a pump, exploded and killed two people Watt urged Trevithick’s prosecution for murder.  There are rumors that Trevithick’s and Watt’s lead engineer Richard Murdoch were neighbors and may have secretly collaborated building the engine.

Starting in 1802, Trevithick created several high-pressure locomotive steam engines that ran on tracks. These were the earliest trains but none realized commercial success.

Trevithick eventually moved to South America to work on trains for mines where he met railroad baron George Stephenson, who gave him money to return to the UK.

Reproduction of Trevithick’s Locomotive

Historians disagree whether Trevithick died in poverty or merely with little money. He did not meaningfully profit from his engines.

Oliver Evans

American Oliver Evans (automated mills, refrigeration) simultaneously worked on high-pressure steam engines in the US. He built an amphibious vehicle with his high-pressure engine, that “walked” from his shop to the docks, and into the water. It worked as a dredger. Like Trevithick, his high-pressure engines initially failed to gain commercial interest. Later in life, after working through issues with his mill patents, Evans built a steam engine business with his sons. They produced about 100 high-pressure steam engines.

Automated Flour Mill

Oliver Evans’ mill vastly lowered the cost while increasing the quality of flour. These mills automated the milling of flour much like Arkwright automated the creation of fabric. The automatic mills were popular with farmers.

Evans automated mill reduced the time and increased the quality and consistency of flour. George Washington purchased one that is still in use, for demonstration purposes, today.

Evans was a prolific innovator and also created a high power steam engine (concurrently with Trevithick) and also designed the core concepts of refrigeration.

Evans had trouble enforcing his patents but, eventually, did make a living from automated mills.

Evans is also, arguably, the innovator of the grain elevator. In an odd twist ー opposite of what usually happens (where people steal and patent the ideas of others) ー Joseph Dart created a grain elevator in 1842 but credits the innovation to Evans.        

Washington’s automated Evans Mill is still operational.