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What Would We Do Without Refrigerators?

November 17, 2014

There’s a keystone in every great invention.

Refrigerators are undoubtedly among the most significant inventions of the 20th century. The advent of the refrigerator had huge implications on food storage; the appliance’s inventive design stopped the development of bacteria and helped keep foods fresher for a longer period of time.

Can you imagine a world without refrigerators? In the 1800s, people used oversized blocks of ice to store meat, fish, eggs, and other perishables; these ice blocks were used in “cool-boxes” that many people didn’t have in their homes. Conversely, every modern home in the world has a reliable, good ol’ fridge in its kitchen.

On Thanksgiving Day, most families enjoy very extravagant feasts that can include stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes, and turkey (of course)—thanks to refrigerators, you can store these foods efficiently, ensuring you’ll have Thanksgiving leftovers for days.

Early Refrigerators

In 1922, two students from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden began to theorize a more extensive means of preserving foods. Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters invented the gas absorption refrigerator, which utilized refrigerant gases rather than electricity.

This refrigerator was designed to evaporate ammonia and transfer the resulting gas through a condenser. Next, the condenser kept heat from the ammonia until it became a low-temperature liquid. Finally, that liquid passed through a brine—a secondary refrigerant—to cool the entire refrigerator. von Platen and Munters’ gas absorption refrigerator went into production and hit the market in 1923, but lost a lot of ground to the electric refrigerator, which was also on the market at that time.

The students’ design was later retooled by Albert Einstein and his protégé Leó Szilárd in 1926, and had discouraging results.

Growing Safety Concerns

Einstein and Szilárd heard news reports that their revamped gas absorption refrigerator caused the deaths of a family in Berlin; apparently, one of the seals in the appliance broke, resulting in a toxic fume leak inside the family’s home. Refrigerants such as methylchloride, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia were proving to be fatal, and several people kept refrigerators in their backyards to stem the flow of fume leaks.

In 1928, Frigidaire, a subsidiary of General Motors at the time, created synthetic refrigerants called halocarbons or chlorofluorocarbons (also called CFCs). Frigidaire had all the patents for CFCs, but not having its individual manufacturing facility was a big hindrance—it allowed other companies in the industry to utilize Frigidaire’s patents. Refrigeration technology quickly switched to “safer” CFCs such as like Freon (which were soon banned for their harmful effects on the ozone layer.

The Modern Electric Refrigerator

Modern refrigerators don't use CFCs due to the hazardous conditions they create. Instead, newer machines use gasses called HFC-134a, also known as tetrafluoroethane. When cooled to -15.9°F (-26.6°C), HFC turns into a liquid that becomes compressed. After compression, the liquid flows through an expansion valve, which in turn becomes vaporized. The refrigerator’s coils pull heat from the appliance’s compartments—resulting in a safe, cold unit that’s ideal for food preservation.

By the end of 1920s, this refrigerator was an essential part of every home in the U.S.—today, there’s barely a home in the world without refrigerator. Keystone components such as fuse clips and fuse holders, spacers & standoffs, screws and panel hardware, plugs and pins, terminals and terminal boards, and terminal blocks keep the world’s modern refrigerators running smoothly, so you can keep on enjoying those Thanksgiving leftovers.