EB Odds & Ends
A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research
February 1998 No. 27
The Icemen Cometh
"If the series of events had been planned by an omnipotent and unforgiving
could not have been more effective...a snow slide closed the Sierras for
was the time for unseasonable warm weather throughout the Middle West...In
Chicago...Adam's six cars of lettuce stood in the yard for five more days...What
New York was six car-loads of horrible slop..."
- John Steinbeck, East of Eden
A scene from one of my favorite novels. Adam Trask's attempt to transport
his produce across the country by rail, packed in ice, was fictional, but
many scientists were attempting similar experiments.
Today the concept of shelf life and expiration date is common over much
of the world, and millions of research dollars are spent seeking ways to
maintain and extend them. Your morning cup of instant coffee is created
by one of the more recent methods, freeze drying, a term that encapsulates
two of the major methods of the past. The use of spices is a method just
as ancient, varied today by the use of chemical preservatives. Smoking,
fermentation and pasteurization offer other alternatives. But lowering the
temperature of food to the freezing point and beyond is still one of the
most widespread procedures.
Until the beginning of our century the main problem was just to get the
food to a temperature that would arrest the processes of bacteriological,
fungoid and chemical breakdown that causes food to spoil. The natural world
provided the clue, if not immediately the rationale. Animals would be found
preserved in ice, cooked and then eaten. What nature demonstrated, humans
The first challenge would be obtaining ice in those climates where it did
not exist, or was not available throughout the year. A line from the Broadway
musical Oklahoma sums up the problem. In the number Poor Jud
is Dead , the following lines are sung, "He looks like he's asleep;
It's a shame that he won't keep; But it's summer and we're runnin' out of
If there was a supply only through the winter months, as here in New York
State, the inhabitants would have to find ways of prolonging its life into
the spring and summer. When I was growing up and spending summers at Conesus
Lake (one of the smaller Finger Lakes), I would often glance across the
water at the opposite hillside. One of the familiar landmarks, below the
ridge line, was a long, low wooden barn, built with double walls filled
with sawdust. Called an ice house, it was already a discarded relic of a
past time. We had refrigerators, ice was no longer harvested on the lake
shores, although an ice wagon, usually horse-drawn could still be found
early in the 1940s, regularly delivering blocks of ice on the residential
streets in our towns.
But the ice houses were not that far in our past. There might possibly be
a witness or two alive who can remember when horse-powered sleds would congregate
at the edges of frozen lakes and ponds, waiting while ice harvesters used
especially designed saws, and peavies (poles with hooked and pointed tips),
to carve the ice into large blocks, wrestle it to shore, and slide it up
planks onto the sleds. When the horses arrived at their destination the
frozen blocks would be wrestled onto steam driven conveyors, carried into
the dark interior of the ice house, packed in sawdust and stored for future
Not all of this was for home consumption. In 1805 Frederic Tudor arranged
for the shipment of 130 tons of ice to Martinique, out of New York City,
and made a profit. By 1856 146,000 tons were being shipped out of the port
to Asia, the American South and the Caribbean. Many households on Manhattan
and Staten islands featured deep wells where large ice blocks were preserved
for use. The New York ice industry was so huge in the late 1890s that state
antitrust proceedings were instigated, providing a scandal that reached
up into Mayor Robert Van Wyck's office.
But things were changing, technologically if not politically, as the century
churned over and the barriers of time, isolation and ignorance came under
rapidly accelerating assault. One major process began back in 1834 when
John Hague and Jacob Perkins turned out a vapor compression machine, using
ether instead of water, to cool liquids. In the years following, refinements
were made by James Harrison of Australia, Professor Karl Linde of Munich,
and others. Compressed air, vacuum, and absorption methods were also devised.
Those of you interested in the theories and mechanics involved will want
to check out technical publications and references; even the 1911 Encyclopedia
Britannica will supply a lot of the details of those early years.
The same source describes the ice factory, the 1910s successor to the ice
house. The water to be frozen is contained in molds suspended in brine previously
cooled to the desired temperature (which brings up the chicken or egg conundrum;
suffice it here to say they had ways). The molds, arranged in frames, are
tipped out when the water has frozen, producing blocks of ice from four
to eight inches thick and weighing 56, 112, or 224 pounds. A well-built,
medium-sized plant could produce 25 tons a day.
I mentioned earlier that the first challenge was refrigerating the food.
That was met by bringing the ice to the consumer so they could preserve
the meat and the produce obtained locally. The second challenge was that
faced by Steinbeck's Adam Trask - preserving the food before it reached
the local outlet and the family table. As the world began dividing itself
into the town/city and the farm, the link between the farmer's field and
the market basket became so lengthened as to cause real problems.
If you added physical isolation to the mixture the problem became even greater.
So it's not surprising that some of the first "portable" long-term
refrigeration was developed for use aboard ships. The British Admiralty
began using small compressed-air machines for ice-making and larger, carbonic-acid
systems to cool the powder magazines. Cold air and brine systems were used
to carry up to 120,000 meat carcasses in compartments up to 300,000 cubic
feet in size. The transportation of beef and lamb between Argentina, Australia,
Canada and Europe became feasible. Lloyds' of London set refrigeration specifications
for the insuring of food-cargo carriers.
It became relatively easy to preserve cold temperatures below the decks
of a large battleship or a passenger liner. Miniaturizing these systems
for use aboard railroad cars, and later for trucks, recreational vehicles
and spacecraft, was the big challenge.
Which brings us to our own time. If you went through school in the 1940s
and 1950s, as I did, chances are today, if you are asked to name a black
scientist (and George Washington Carver doesn't count), you will be hard
pressed to come up with a name (Unless you've been following the U. S. comic
strip Jump Start ).
Frederick McKinley Jones is just one of thousands of examples of largely
unsung black professionals.
In 1893, when Frederick Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, black professionals
were beginning to make a few inroads on a white-dominated United States.
That same year in Chicago, Illinois, black surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams,
performed the world's first successful heart operation. But Dr. Williams
was an exception; most blacks success stories in the 1890s were coming from
the world of music (sports would come later). In 1895, for example, black
violinist Will Marion Cook made his solo debut at Carnegie Hall. He would
go on to become a composer for vaudeville and Broadway musicals. Composer
Gussie Lord Davis won a New York World prize as the second most popular
songwriter in the country.
Like so many of his generation, black and white, Jones served in France
during the first world war. Whatever his duties included (they definitely
would have been menial ones), he must have developed a flair for mechanics,
because when he returned from Europe he quickly found work as a garage mechanic
and became knowledgeable about motors. Although he would go on to garner
over 60 patents (including one for a ticket dispensing, change-making machine,
and one for adapting silent film projectors to sound) it was his work with
motors and refrigeration technology that accounted for some forty of his
During a conversation with a real-life Adam Trask, a cross-country truck
driver who had lost a shipment of chickens when he ran into delays and his
truck overheated, Jones became aware of the challenges faced by the food
and trucking industries. In 1935 he invented an automatic refrigeration
system for the long distance food trucks. He continued to experimening and
elaborating on his successes, and by the time he and his former boss J.
A. Numero founded the U. S. Thermo Control Company in 1949, he had obtained
patents for a removable cooling unit, an automatically starting and stopping
gas engine (along with Numero) and several two-cycle gas engines. His reputation
grew along with his list of inventions. New patents followed, including
those for air conditioning units, starter generators, thermostatically operating
gas engines, rotary compressors, prefabricated refrigerator construction,
and thermostatic temperature control systems. He worked on methods for preserving
fruits at the peak of their freshness, circulating air, and controlling
atmospheric moisture. Elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers
in 1944 (their first black member; he would be named posthumously to the
Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977), he later became a consultant
to the U. S. Bureau of Standards and to the Defense Department, where he
developed refrigerating and air conditioning units for military kitchens
and field hospitals.
When he died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1961, Frederick McKinley Jones
left the world a colder place.
We'll take a look at events in the field of transportation in 1893. A
search of Eagles Byte chronologies on the codes "trn" and "nvl"
turns up the following events:firstname.lastname@example.org
The keel of the fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard is laid at Essex,
Massachusetts. She is launched in March.
Canada grants a subsidy for steamship service between British Columbia and
between Australia and New Zealand.
New York's Glen Haven Railroad purchases the Rochester and Glen Haven interurban
line and reorganizes it.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad goes into receivership.
The Philadelphia and Reading files for bankruptcy.
A Toronto, Ontario, cab driver is fined $2, or ten days in jail, for driving
on a Sunday.
Henry Ford road tests his first automobile.
The Lettie G. Howard joins the fishing fleet.
A Central Park-Broadway-Bowling Green cable car line is completed along
New York City's Seventh Avenue.
The Lettie G. Howard returns to Gloucester from a fishing trip with
20,000 pounds of cod and 400 of halibut.
New York Central's Empire State Express train, Number 999, with Batavia
engineer Charles Hogan at the throttle, goes 112.5 mph, between Batavia
The Miowera , first steamship of the Canadian Australian Line, arrives
at Victoria, British Columbia, from Sydney.
Eugene V. Debs forms the American Railway Union, in Chicago.
The HMS Victoria collides with the HMS Camperdowne off of
Tripoli, Libya; sinks. 385 die.
The battleship USS Oregon is launched.
The first segment of New York City's Third Avenue cable railroad is completed.
The Jason , traveling from Calcutta to Boston, is wrecked on Cape
Cod. 24 of her 25-man crew die. ** Toronto sees its first electric
car, built for F.B. Featherstonehaugh by the Dickson Carriage Works.
Educator-author Katherine Lee Bates takes a wagon trip up Pike's Peak, Colorado,
is inspired to write the poem America the Beautiful . ** The
Montauk Extension Railroad Company is chartered as part of the Long Island
Railroad (LIRR). ** Rochester, New York's Clinton Avenue is extended
south across the Erie Canal, to the city line. ** The railroad reaches
Fort Worth, Texas. ** The Baltimore & Philadelphia Steamboat Company
inaugurates passenger service, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
** Congress appropriates $10,000 for a U. S. Office of Road Inquiry.
** The first rural brick road is built in Ohio. ** Brooklyn,
New York's Atlantic Dock Company is bought by the New York Dock Company.
** 18 people are killed when the propeller ship Dean Richmond
founders in Lake Erie off Dunkirk's Van Buren Point. ** A replica
of the Gokstad Viking ship is sailed across the Atlantic from Bergen, Norway,
The above is a small sampling of an Eagles Byte Chronology. A complete
one for any year
you choose can be e-mailed to you at the small cost of $2 for each year.
E-mail me at:
to arrange for one.
PEARL OF AN URL
The material on Frederick McKinley Jones comes from the web page of the
Chemistry Library at Louisiana State University on black
Here you'll find biographical material on African-American inventors, scientists
and engineers in over a dozen fields, including Biochemists, Physicists,
Entomologists, Inventors, Mathematicians, Meteorologists, Geologists and
Zoologists. Individual profiles also include bibliographies and lists of
patents. Explore! Let's free Black History from the confines of the February
EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (more detailed versions available)
- Dyson, James Lindsay - The World of Ice (New York, Knopf, 1969)
- Empak Enterprises - A Salute to Black Scientists (Chicago, Empak,
- Ewing, J. A. - The Mechanical Production of Cold (Cambridge University
- Haber, Louis - Black Pioneers of Science and Invention (New York,
- Hiles, Theron L. - The Ice Crop: How to Harvest, Store, Ship... (New
York, O. Judd Company, 1893)
- Kremer, Gary R., ed. - George Washington Carver in His Own Words (Columbia,
University of Missouri Press, 1987)
- Logan, Rayfor W. and Winston, Michael R. - Dictionary of American
Negro Biography (New York, Norton, 1982)
- Matthews, Fred E. - Elementary Mechanical Refrigeration; A Simple
Non Technical Treatise (New York, McGraw-Hill, c. 1912)
- Nichols, Edward S., et al - American Black Scientists and Inventors
(Washington, National Sciences Teachers Association, 1975)
- Otto, Virginia and Swanson, Gloria M. - Man with a Million Ideas,
Fred Jones, Genius/Inventor (Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, 1977)
- Pounder, Elton Roy - The Physics of Ice (New York, Pergamon Press,
- Simmons, Vivian - Blacks in Science and Medicine (New York, Hemisphere
- Stwertka, Eve and Albert - A Chilling Story: How Things Cool Down
(Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Julian Messner, c. 1991)
- Tessler, Donald K,; Van Arsdel, Wallace B.; Copley, Michael J., eds.
- The Freezing Preservation of Food (Westport, Conn., Avi Publishing, 1968)
- U. S. Department of Energy - Black Contributors to Science and Energy
Technology (Washington, U. S. Department of Energy, 1979)
- Wilson, David - The Colder the Better (New York, Atheneum, 1980)
I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.
Copyright 1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte