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From Ice Harvesting to Ice Making: The History of Ice Production

June 17, 2013

 

Ice | Fleet Appliance repairSink an ice cube into a lukewarm drink and in moments it will be gone. Chances are, you will not consider it something valuable lost. Your freezer is full of ice, your local market sells it by the bag full, and every year factories pump billions of dollars of it into the market. It’s hardly apparent that only 200 hundred years ago millions of man hours were spent annually to harvest fresh ice.

The history of ice production is an oft overlooked element of civil development, a period of transition between salting proteins for long trips and most of the world storing goods in their own refrigerator for weeks, months, sometimes even years. For a while, the ice industry was one of the world’s largest, but the popularity of ice became its industry’s downfall. Though fairly short, it’s an exciting glimpse at industrial evolution and the way lifestyles grow with appliance technology.

To recognize the value of advancements in ice maker technology, Fleet Appliance Corp presents to you The History of Ice Production.


 The Ice Maker Timeline

Approx. 1000 BC Early records show that, thousands of years before the modern ice maker, the Chinese harvested ice from frozen waters. They are even attributed with some of the earliest ice cream receipes, though no official record of these would come for centuries.  Ancient Chinese Ice Cream process | Fleet Appliance repair
500 BC

 

Ancient Egyptians were some of the earliest to have made their own ice. They did it by placing shallow clay trays filled with water upon straw beds at evening. As the water evaporates it also freezes causing a cascading effect that culminates into ice by morning, just in time to battle hot north African afternoons.

Not so far away, the Greeks imported snow from the Alps in such vast quantity that it became a common part of their culture, and often more valuable than the finest wines. To make ice, which was more expensive and valuable, snow would be placed in deep pits atop straw so that it would melt then refreeze into a solid layer. Ice and snow were commong enough to be accessible even to the common classes, and many Greeks were quite fond of a mixture not unlike sorbet consisting of blended ice, honey, and freshly chopped fruits.

 

 The Alps in Europe | Fleet Appliance repair
400 BC

 

By around 400 BC, Persians began storing ice in the desert using specially-designed underground refrigerators called yakhchal. The walls were made of a special material resistant to heat transfer while a series of windcatchers would funnel air into the space, greatly reducing the temperature even on the hottest days.

Around the same time, the Romans were building some of the earliest ice houses. Here they would store enormous blocks of ice with food and drink for preservation. This made chilled goods and ice treats fairly common throughout what is now the Italian region of western Europe, perhaps partly explaining the region’s exceptional culinary affinity.

 

 Ice House Meybad Iran | Fleet Appliance repair
1600s

 

Ice houses became popular around the world by the 1600s and the typical method of ice production was simply to import it. To extend the lifespan of the imported ice, it was insulated with straw and cloth, slowing the melt speed.

Most ice houses were communal or commercially owned, but the wealthy could afford to build them on their own property and even into their own homes. They often used their ice to chill wine and preserve fine imported delicacies, as well as for the production of fancy cold treats.

 

 Ice house in barren landscape | Fleet Appliance repair
1800s

 

American William Tudor quips to his brother Frederic that their iced drinks would make them the envy of West Indian colonists, giving Frederic the idea to begin exporting ice to warmer regions. Initially, the market is not conducive to his investment in ice.

It costs decades, a number of failures, lost fortunes, luck, and many damaged limbs before Frederic Tudor finally proves ice to the world and makes his fortune. American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau remarked in his famous Walden that the inhabitants of Madras and Bombay drink at his well, referring to Walden Pond from which Tudor’s men would harvest their ice for transport to India. About this time, many homes in industrialized nations around the world find themselves equipped with their own ice box.

 

 
1860s

 

The mid-19th century was the most competitive era for ice harvesters. Anyone with access to a frozen body of water was in on the action, creating regional boomtowns not unlike the Gold Rush. In America, the popularity of frozen goods becomes an expectation of quality, making ice a necessary part of everyday American life.

Around the same time the first commercial ice making machines begin hitting the scene, led by manufacturer Columbus Iron Works leasing a patent from inventor Andrew Muhl. The industrial ice makers revolutionize the meat and food production industries improving the quality of food across the nation and then the world.

 

 Ice Maker horses | Fleet Appliance repair
1900s

 

By the turn of the 20th century, ice had become an integral part of the world economy. Many in America had it in their home and everyone who didn’t wanted it; this would be the downfall of the ice harvesting industry.

In the early 1900s electric freezer/coolers began to hit the consumer market. At first they were expensive and often unreliable, but they only got better with time.

By the 1940s, electric ice makers and refrigerator appliances were reliable and affordable enough that just about any home could make ice any time it wanted. The market for industrial ice shattered, although not completely. Ice production still generates billions annually thanks largely to summer vacations and the party scene, but it hardly compares to the scale of the era past.

 

 Ice Industry | Fleet Appliance repair

 

Fortunately, ice is more accessible than it ever has been which is a great boon for countless obvious reasons. These days, most households contain one or more cooler units capable of producing ice. It’s certainly great to be able to refresh a drink with just a short trip to your kitchen rather than the Alps.


Fleet Appliance Corp regularly blogs about appliances, appliance repair, and the appliance industry. To read more exciting facts about appliance, the brands we service, or the areas we serve, visit FleetAppliance.com

If you’d like to learn more about Ice Makers and the history of Ice Production and Harvesting, try some further reading with these links:

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