Thursday, July 13, 2023

On This Day in the Old West: July 14

 Of course, July 14 is Bastille Day, the holiday celebrating the beginning of the French Revolution, but since that has little to do with the Old West, we’ll just skim past that fact. Instead, we’ll focus on the inventor of a popular contraption in the modern world: the ice machine!


On July 14, 1850, Dr. John Gorrie demonstrated his newly-created artificial ice machine at a party. He had originally designed the contraption to combat Yellow Fever, as he believed that cold was the key to treatment. He noted that "Nature would terminate the fevers by changing the seasons." In 1844, he began, under the pseudonym “Jenner” (in tribute to Edward Jenner, who invented the smallpox vaccine), to write a series of articles entitled “On the Prevention of Malarial Diseases.” According to the articles, Gorrie had constructed an imperfect refrigeration machine in May of that year. 


"If the air were highly compressed,” Gorrie wrote in his notes, “it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box." The compressor could be powered by horse, water, wind driven sails, or steam.


Dr. Gorrie’s basic principle for his ice machine is the one still used most often: cooling by the rapid expansion of gases. Gorrie used two double-acting force pumps and first condensed, then rarified air. The apparatus reduced the temperature of the compressed air by injecting a small amount of water into it. The compressed air was submerged in coils surrounded by a circulating bath of cooling water. The injected water was allowed to condense out into a holding tank, then was released (or rarified) into a tank of lower pressure that contained brine. This lowered the temperature of the brine to 26 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Gorrie then immersed drip-fed, brick-sized, oil-coated metal containers of rainwater into the brine, creating ice “bricks.” The cold air was then released in an open system into the atmosphere.



A model of Dr. Gorrie's machine


The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated in 1748 by William Cullen, when he performed a laboratory demonstration allowing ethyl ether to boil into a vacuum. In 1805, American Oliver Evans designed (but never actually built) a refrigeration machine that would have used vapor instead of liquid. And using Evans’ refrigeration concept, Jacob Perkins of the U.S. and England developed an experimental volatile liquid, closed-cycle compressor in 1834.


The commercial refrigeration business is believed to have been initiated by American businessman Alexander C. Twinning. He used sulphuric ether in 1856 and shortly afterward, Australian James Harrison checked out the refrigerators used by Gorrie and Twinning and introduced vapor (ether) compression refrigeration to the brewing and meat-packing industries. Then, in 1860, Ferdinand P.E. Carre of France was granted a patent for development of a closed, ammonia-absorption system. This laid the foundation for widespread modern refrigeration. Carre used rapidly-expanding ammonia in his machine, unlike the air used in vapor compression machines. Ammonia liquifies at a much lower temperature than water and is thus able to absorb more heat. This technique became (and still is) the most widely used cooling method, although modern machines use a number of synthetic refrigerants so there is no need to worry about the toxic danger and odor of ammonia leaks.

Model of the machine (back view)


Dr. John Gorrie was honored for his invention by his home state of Florida, when his statue was placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. In 1899, a monument was erected by the Southern Ice Exchange in the small coastal town of Apalachicola, where he had developed his machine. 


J.E.S. Hays


  1. JES, this is amazing. I love ice. I think it changes the entire taste of any drink, and I really pitied those poor pioneers who didn't have it...but how could they have ice cream socials without ICE? I appreciate this blog of yours--I had no idea they developed an ice machine this early, starting back in 1748! Very interesting. I'm sorry I'm late to the party--I'm sharing!