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 enemy it
could not have been more effective...a snow slide closed the Sierras for two days...that
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 arrived in
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 could duplicate.

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 ice."

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 use.

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 patents.

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:

The keel of the fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard is laid at Essex, Massachusetts. She is launched in March.

Jan 26
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.

Feb 20
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad goes into receivership.

Feb 24
The Philadelphia and Reading files for bankruptcy.

Mar 25
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.

Apr 7
The Lettie G. Howard joins the fishing fleet.

May 1
A Central Park-Broadway-Bowling Green cable car line is completed along New York City's Seventh Avenue.

May 4
The Lettie G. Howard returns to Gloucester from a fishing trip with 20,000 pounds of cod and 400 of halibut.

May 10
New York Central's Empire State Express train, Number 999, with Batavia engineer Charles Hogan at the throttle, goes 112.5 mph, between Batavia and Buffalo.

Jun 8
The Miowera , first steamship of the Canadian Australian Line, arrives at Victoria, British Columbia, from Sydney.

Jun 20
Eugene V. Debs forms the American Railway Union, in Chicago.

Jun 22
The HMS Victoria collides with the HMS Camperdowne off of Tripoli, Libya; sinks. 385 die.

Oct 26
The battleship USS Oregon is launched.

The first segment of New York City's Third Avenue cable railroad is completed.

Dec 5
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, to Newfoundland.

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.


The material on Frederick McKinley Jones comes from the web page of the Chemistry Library at Louisiana State University on black scientists:

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 ghetto.

EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (more detailed versions available)


I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.

David Minor

Copyright 1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte