Lori Anderson: Cold hard facts behind refrigerator

An Assyrian was the first person to use ice to chill drinks in 1775BC, but we still can’t build a quiet fridge, writes Lori Anderson

The fridge as status symbol has been on a par with the automobile ever since it was invented

I will forgive you for thinking that harpies went out of fashion with that yellowing second hand copy of Robert Graves’ Greek Myths that has sat unopened on your bookshelf for the past 30 years but no, I have a testimony to their continued existence which penetrates deep into a person’s mind and soul. In classical mythology they had wings; the one that haunts me today still does, a strangely curlicued metal backplate atop an icy hardened carapace. In the past they manifested their presence in an unrelenting cawing; today the mewing is never-ending, all day there is a penetrating note that permeates my transept – sorry, that will only make sense to those who have watched This Is Spinal Tap. And finally, in the ancient past they stole food with their rapier sharp claws; in the chilling present I now cry: ‘where’s the chorizo I left on the second shelf?’ Harpy, thy name is Smeg.

Blonde and curvaceous on the outside it may be, but the icy beauty in residence in my kitchen, just won’t shut up. “It’s the compressor’ said the visiting engineer. After being worn down for months and suffering the ignominy of visitors saying: “what is that screeching noise? It’s making me uneasy,” I eventually called ‘the man’, and waited for his diagnosis: ‘uhh huh, it’s the compressor, we will send you a new one.’ A new compressor? No, new fridge. Well that’s all a bit jolly hockey sticks but my delight didn’t last long, Blondie number two was in the door for three weeks before she started mewing like a drowning kitten. I’ve given up now, I’ve been broken, Guantanamo take note.

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I grew up in a family that took pride in their fridge, we had Hyacinth Bouquet’s dream, a fridge that was bigger and roomier than yours, it came all the way from our relatives in California and was the cynosure of all eyes, as F Scott Fitzgerald might have said it was a fridge as “big as the Ritz”. I have many childhood pics of myself clutching chilled goods from a fridge which was three times my height. It was our status symbol, in front of whose flickering light I glowed with a puffy sense of: “I killed a wabbit, I killed a wabbit” cartoon pride. The fridge as status symbol has been on a par with the automobile ever since it was invented on the eve of the First World War. I know this because I have been immersed in Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed The World and Might Do Again by Tom Jackson – a gripping guide to how we learned to control the cold.

I’ve learned that in 1926 Albert Einstein teamed up with a Hungarian engineer called Leo Sziland and patented what the pair believed would be a highly efficient and utterly silent fridge but apparently it was actually too complicated and expensive to construct. It might seem unlikely but the story of refrigeration has proved quite gripping. An Assyrian ruler was the first person on record to utilise ice to chill drinks according to a stone tablet dated to 1775BC and which documented that he had an ice house “which never before had any king built”. Before the ice was placed in a cup it was washed “free of twigs and dung and dirt”. Lovely.

I felt a quite sorry for the philosopher Francis Bacon who paid a steep price for a frozen chicken in 1626. During a snowstorm he bought a chicken from a local farmer, stuffed it into a snowdrift and then waited to watch if it slowed the rate of decay. He later wrote that his experiment “succeeded excellently well”, however he caught a dreadful chill and died.

In 1803 Thomas Moore, a farmer from Maryland, created a “refrigeratory” by putting a tin box inside a cedar tub, packing it with ice and then lining it with rabbit fur but it was not until the 1850s that we moved a few steps closer to artificial refrigeration when James Harrison, a Scot who emigrated to Australia and was working as a journalist and printer spotted that if you apply ether to clean a printing plate it left it cool. (This was the same concept as discovered by William Thomson Lord Kelvin, who discovered that expanding gases cool down which is the principal behind modern refrigerators.) A typical bloke Harrison used his discovery to chill beer.

In 1903 Abbot Marce Andiffren developed a machine to cool the monastery’s wine and eight years later General Electric bought the rights and soon began selling the home refrigerator for $1,000 or twice the cost of a car. The labour saving benefits for the housewife was detailed in a recipe book published by Kelvinator an early brand which read: ‘The housewife sees her labours lightened, sees more hours of leisure, and with it all, extraordinary economies.’

Reading Chilled has given me a new outlook on the modern world and a newfound respect for my “chatty kathy” in the kitchen. As the author explains, life without the “cold chain” of refrigerated trucks and ships would be intolerable: “Linking to the chain gets us sashimi in Vegas, strawberries at Christmas and sorbets whatever the weather. The chain gives us choice and the luxury of time to make it. No longer is fresh produce rushed into cities during the cool of the night to be consumed within hours of its arrival. Forget the skyscrapers, subways and information superhighways – it’s the fridge that makes a modern city.”

Fire and ice seem such primordial elements that it is startling to appreciate that we have had control over the former for 100,000 years and the later for just 100 years. Martin Goldstein, an American chemist and author on the subject of thermodynamics wrote: “Some people want to know how a refrigerator works. Others want to know the fate of the universe. The science that relates them is thermodynamics.” So when I peer into my fridge I’m really peering into the fate of the universe. Now that is a chilling thought.