Who Invented the Refrigerator? Uncover the Fridge's Chill History

By: Jonathan Atteberry & Desiree Bowie  | 
Man in pajamas looks in open refrigerator. Desktop computer is on kitchen table behind him.
How often do you procrastinate writing that e-mail by checking the fridge for the eighth time that day? While stalling or refilling the ice cube trays, do you ever wonder who invented the refrigerator? Superb Images / Getty Images

You might hate dragging your groceries home and loading them in the fridge, but you can take solace in the fact that you are lucky enough to be living in an era of modern refrigeration. A couple of centuries ago, keeping food cold was a much more complicated ordeal.

Our ancestors grappled with the constant threat of food spoilage and the accompanying risks of foodborne illnesses. The absence of refrigeration meant resourcefulness was essential, and seasonal constraints further compounded the issue.


Then, in the 19th century, basic refrigeration technology emerged and completely changed the world. But who invented the refrigerator and how has it evolved?

Benjamin Franklin's Experiments Pave the Way

Benjamin Franklin's pioneering experiments with Dr. John Hadley in the mid-18th century laid the groundwork for advancements in refrigeration technology. In a letter to John Lining dated June 17, 1758, Franklin described their collaboration.

Over at Cambridge University in England, the duo began conducting pioneering experiments exploring the cooling effects of evaporation, using ether as their experimental medium.


They observed that when a thermometer's ball was dipped into ether, initially, there was no change in temperature, as the ether and thermometer were at the same temperature: approximately 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit). However, upon removing the thermometer from the ether and allowing the wetted ether to evaporate, the mercury's temperature dropped significantly.

They continued the experiment by wetting the ball with ether, ultimately lowering the mercury to 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit), which was 25 degrees below the freezing point. These experiments deepened our understanding of evaporative cooling principles, which would later underpin advancements in refrigeration and air-conditioning technologies.

An 1874 advertisement for the Piston Freezing Machine. By our estimate, the freezer looks like it could easily house your emergency stash of Popsicles, french fries and peas.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The First Practical Refrigeration Machine Emerges

Another prolific American inventor, Oliver Evans, would take the principles developed by Franklin and Hadley and draw up a design for a vapor-compression cycle, or early refrigerator, in 1805.

Evans' first love, however, was the steam engine, so he set his plans on ice while he spent his energy developing things like a steam-powered river dredger. Thankfully, however, Evans' design didn't go to waste.


While in Philadelphia, Evans became friends with a young inventor called Jacob Perkins. Even as a teenager, Perkins displayed remarkable ingenuity, inventing a way to plate shoe buckles at the age of 15.

The precocious inventor saw the promise in Evans' work on refrigeration, and he took Evans' design and began modifying it, receiving a patent on his own design — called a compression refrigeration cycle — in 1834 [source: The Heritage Group]. This cycle formed the basis for modern refrigeration systems and air conditioning.

Perkins then persuaded a man named John Hague to construct the first practical refrigeration machine, which utilized a closed-cycle system that involved the compression and expansion of a volatile fluid (often ether or other gases) to create cooling effects.

Let There Be Ice

Created more as an experiment than something fit for commercialization, Perkins' product certainly had room for improvement. For instance, since Freon wouldn't be invented for another century or so, early refrigerators like Perkins' used potentially dangerous substances such as ether and ammonia to function.

Still, his device did manage to produce a small quantity of ice by drawing on the same fundamental principles used in the modern refrigerator.

Following the young inventor's success in creating a functioning fridge, other inventors moved the device rapidly toward commercialization. As for Perkins, he retired soon after inventing the refrigerator and died in 1849, never witnessing the tremendous impact his invention had on modern life and mechanical refrigeration systems [source: Heritage Group].


A Brief History of the Refrigerator

The first practical refrigerating machine may have emerged in the 1800s, but the history of the refrigerator spans centuries and involves numerous inventors and innovations.

  • Ancient cooling methods: Throughout ancient Egyptian and Indian civilizations, people utilized evaporative cooling techniques to keep food and beverages cool. This involved using porous clay pots or containers that allowed water to evaporate, effectively lowering the temperature of the contents inside.
  • Ice houses and iceboxes: In the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of ice houses gained popularity in Europe and North America. These were specially constructed buildings designed to store natural ice collected during the winter months. Ice harvested from these facilities was used to preserve food in iceboxes, which were typically wooden or metal cabinets lined with insulation.
  • Early attempts at artificial refrigeration: In the early 19th century, innovators such as Oliver Evans and Jacob Perkins embarked on early endeavors to create artificial refrigeration systems. While their efforts were groundbreaking, these early machines faced limitations in terms of efficiency and practicality.
  • Commercial refrigeration: In 1850, Alexander Twining's development of the first practical commercial refrigeration machine played a crucial role in food preservation for restaurants and breweries.
  • The emergence of domestic refrigeration: Albert T. Marshall secured the first patent for a domestic refrigerator in 1899. These early domestic refrigerators often utilized vapor-compression systems but were relatively large and costly.
  • Fred Wolf's electric refrigerator: In 1913, Frederick William Wolf Jr. made a groundbreaking contribution to refrigeration technology with the introduction of the "Domelre," short for Domestic Electric Refrigerator. This innovative device ran on electricity, eliminating the reliance on ice blocks and bringing electric cooling directly into homes.
  • General Electric's iconic "Monitor-Top" refrigerator: In 1927, GE introduced the iconic "Monitor-Top" refrigerator. This model, one of the earliest electric refrigerators designed for home use, became an emblematic representation of modern domestic refrigeration.
  • Freon refrigerants: In the 1930s, the introduction of safer and more efficient refrigerants, such as Freon, revolutionized the refrigeration industry, making home refrigerators more reliable and accessible.
  • Post-World War II boom: After World War II, there was a significant boom in the production and adoption of refrigerators in American households. Refrigerators became more affordable, and features like automatic defrosting were introduced. Frozen foods rose to prominence, paving the way for the addition of separate freezer compartments in refrigerators.
  • Modern refrigeration: Today, refrigerators come in various shapes, sizes and designs, with advanced features like ice makers, water dispensers and smart technology. Energy efficiency has also improved significantly.


Early Refrigerators vs. Modern Refrigerators

Early refrigerators, dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were vastly different from their modern counterparts. These early refrigeration systems primarily relied on mechanical and chemical processes, using toxic gases like ammonia or sulfur dioxide for cooling. They were often bulky, large, and required a fair amount of maintenance.

One significant difference was the lack of automation. Early refrigerators needed regular attention, including manually adding refrigerants, defrosting ice buildup and adjusting temperature settings. Additionally, these refrigerators were less energy-efficient, contributing to higher utility bills.


In contrast, modern refrigerators have undergone significant advancements. They are sleeker, more compact and come in various styles to fit kitchen aesthetics. Automation and digital controls have made temperature regulation precise and hassle-free. Frost-free technology eliminates the need for manual defrosting.

One essential improvement is their reduced impact on the environment. Early refrigerants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), had harmful effects on the ozone layer. Modern refrigerators — equipped with more ozone-friendly refrigerants — have played a role in mitigating ozone depletion while also being energy-efficient and convenient for consumers.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


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More Great Links

  • Chapel, George L. "Gorrie's Fridge." University of Florida. (Jan. 16, 2011)http://www.phys.ufl.edu/~ihas/gorrie/fridge.htm
  • FamousAmericans. "Jacob Perkins." 2000. (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.famousamericans.net/jacobperkins/
  • Haley, Carol. "History." University of Mary Washington. April 14, 2003. (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Carol%20Haley%20--%20Refrigerator/students.mwc.edu/_chale6kt/FRIDGE/history.html
  • The Heritage Group. "The Perkins Family." (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.hevac-heritage.org/victorian_engineers/perkins/perkins.htm
  • Isaacson, Walter. "Ben Franklin: An American Life." July 1, 2003.
  • Krasner- Khait, Barbara. "The Impact of Refrigeration." History Magazine. (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.history-magazine.com/refrig.html
  • Lienhard, John. "Oliver Evans." University of Houston. (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi285.htm
  • Monticello. "Ice House." (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/ice-house
  • PBS. "Who Made America?" (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/evans_hi.html
  • Tri-County Health Department. "Ben Franklin: In Search of a Better World." (Jan. 16, 2011) http://www.tchd.org/benfranklin.htm