Artificial Refrigeration

It is very easy to take fridges and freezers for granted but before the 1970s most British homes had neither.  People have used natural ice to cool food for centuries, which was fine when it was available.  An important breakthrough was the development of machines that could make ice artificially.  After a lot of experimentation these machines began to be used in industry in the mid-19th century.  I want to look at two of the many people who contributed to refrigeration technology.

James Harrison who set up the ice-making industry in Australia.

James Harrison (1816-1893) was a Scot who went to Australia to set up a printing press.  Apparently, while he was using ether to clean the blocks of type he noticed that the metal became cold.  He must have had an inventive mind because in the 1850s he filed patents for an ice-making machine and an ether vapor-compression refrigeration system.  Vapor-compression systems work because a refrigerant (in this case ether) is circulated around a series of pipes absorbing heat and then releasing that heat elsewhere.

His invention kick started the ice-making  business but more work was needed before domestic refrigerators became common.  It wasn’t just the unreliable and potentially dangerous nature of the early machines.  The lack of electrical wiring in British homes was a major obstacle. The USA was a bit more advanced in this respect, which is where Mary Engle Pennington(1872–1952) lived.

Dr. Mary Engle Pennington.

Mary worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducted research on refrigeration.  Not only did she do the research she also explained it to the public, publishing booklets about the correct storage of perishable foods and, in 1923, founding the Household Refrigeration Bureau, which promoted the safe use of domestic refrigeration. Later in her career she was involved in the design and construction of domestic refrigerators and refrigerated warehouses.

Back in Britain electrical fridges were pretty rare until later in the 20th century. As people gradually replaced larders, cellars and ice-boxes with consistently cold humming white boxes it changed not only how we stored food but also how we shop and what we eat.

A woman who invented a dishwasher

Josephine Cochrane. Image courtesy of Shelby County Historical Society.

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) was an American socialite who invented a dishwasher in 1886.  Her name is sometimes written Cochran but she added the “e” to make it sound better!

It wasn’t because she was fed-up of doing the washing-up, as a wealthy woman in the 19th century she had servants to do the work.  She was concerned that her fine china was getting bashed about and she wanted a machine that would clean the dishes carefully.   Josephine apparently said, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

In fact dishwashers had already been invented, a number appear in patent books before the 1880s, but these early models didn’t perform very well.   In Josephine’s dishwasher the crockery was held in wire compartments set onto a wheel inside a copper boiler.  A motor turned the contraption while hot soapy water was sprayed onto the dishes.  You can see some blueprints of her design on the MIT inventor of the week website.

To start with she sold it as a domestic appliance but there were few takers.   She didn’t give up and, in 1893, her dishwasher won a prize at the Chicago World Fair.   A few years later Josephine opened her own factory with the mechanic who had helped make the prototype (George Butters).  Her company was bought by the Hobart Manufacturing Company and later became part of the Kitchen Aid Company.

It took a long time for dishwashers to catch on in British kitchens.  Early models were expensive and most people, especially those with servants, considered it better to wash by hand.   Today 40% of British households have a dishwasher, which according to a recent Business Week article , is a lot less than other countries including Spain (49%), France (52%), Germany (77%) and the USA ( 78%).

Electrical Trailblazer

Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Flash Freezing

This American food hero has had a significant impact on British shopping and eating habits but only since the 1950s when domestic freezers became more common.

Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956) was born New York and studied biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  For this story what is important is that between 1912 and 1916 he was working in Labrador, Newfoundland, a place at the top Eastern edge of Canada which gets extremely cold.His field journals from this period are held in the archives of Amherst College and reveal how he learnt about freezing food.  In Newfoundland he saw how the Inuit used the freezing conditions to preserve fresh fish and meat.  The arctic cold meant that things froze extremely fast and he concluded that it was the rapid freezing that meant the food tasted good months later.   Clarence thought he could make money out of this knowledge.

In the early 1920s he began experimenting with frozen fish.  At this time there were plenty of other people working on freezing technology but two things made Clarence’s efforts stand out.  First he developed a machine that could freeze food quickly, which gave the ice-crystals less time to grow and meant that the food was in better condition when it was defrosted.  Second, he packaged the frozen food into small waxed boxes, which were attractive to buyers.  This boosted the commercial success of Clarence’s frozen foods.  In 1929 he sold his firm and his patents, to organisations which later became the General Foods Corporation.  He continued to be involved, as a corporate executive until the late 1930s and his name lives on in the company brand.

Developing stainless steel cutlery

Harry Brearley who developed stainless steel.

The reason that so many of us use stainless steel cutlery has a lot to do with Harry Brearley (1871-1948).

Before  stainless steel was introduced knives were normally made of carbon steel, while spoons and forks tended to be silver plated or, from the 1840s, made of electroplated nickel silver (EPNS).  Steel made better knives than silver  because it kept a sharp cutting edge but it had disadvantages.  It made some foods taste strange, which is why silver, or silver plated, knives were preferred for eating fish.  Also, steel rusts unless it is carefully cleaned and polished.

Harry was born in Sheffield.   His family was not wealthy and, at the age of 12, he started working in the same steelworks as his father.  He was later apprenticed as a laboratory assistant and, in 1895, when married Helen Theresa Crank he described himself as a metallurgical chemist.  His big discovery came in 1912.  While trying to find a way to stop gun barrels corroding Harry developed a alloy of chrome and steel.  He was not the first to realise that this kind of alloy did not rust but he recognised its commercial potential.  Harry argued with his employers about who owned the commercial rights to develop this “rustless steel”.  He claimed that he was entitled to at least half and the Frith Company disagreed.  He resigned in 1915 and went to work at Brown Bayley’s steelworks, also in Sheffield.

When stainless steel cutlery first appeared in the shops it was more expensive than silver plated cutlery.  By the 1950s it had become the norm doing away with the tedious job of polishing the knives and making fish knives redundant.

Sugar Engineer

Norbert Rillieux. Image from,

I am not entirely sure whether anyone associated with the American sugar plantations during the 19th century could be described as a hero but Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) transformed the refining process and his story is surprising.

Norbert was born in New Orleans and, in the language of the time, he was a “quadroon”.  His father Vincent Rillieux, was a white plantation farmer and his mother, Constance Vivant, was of mixed race. Norbert, along with his siblings, was raised in some comfort thanks to his father’s wealth.  He attended private schools in Louisiana before being sent to Paris in the early 1820s to study engineering at the prestigious École Centrale. Norbert was evidently a rather good student and published papers on steam engines.  On returning to New Orleans and applied his engineering mind to sugar production.

In the early 19th century the way sugarcane juice was made into sugar involved a lot of boiling in large open pans.  It was labour intensive and dangerous. Norbert introduced a process that was cheaper, safer and produced a  whiter sugar crystal.  The Rillieux multiple-effect evaporating process was an important improvement in the way sugar was refined.

Norbert’s education and his family’s wealth allowed him to do things that would have been impossible for the vast majority of Black people living in Louisiana at the time (slavery was not abolished here until 1865)  but they did not insulate him entirely from racial prejudice.  During the 1850s race relations in Louisiana worsened. Norbert got fed up and moved to Paris, which is where he died at the age of 88.  He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery alongside his wife, Emily.

Father of the Baby Belling

This 1950s Baby Belling is for sale. If you are interested go to

A hundred years ago, in 1912, Charles Reginald Belling (1884-1965) set up an electrical engineering business with two friends.   The firm made a variety of electrical equipment but it is probably best known for the very cute Baby Belling cooker.

Charles, often known as CRB, was born in 1884 in Bodmin, Cornwall where his father, Thomas was a dentist.   After attending school in Cornwall he was apprenticed to Crompton & Co of Chelmsford, a firm which had pioneered electricity in the home.   A few years later he moved and joined the staff of Ediswan in Ponders End, supervising the manufacture of arc lamps, transformers and heaters.

He set up his own business making electric heaters in a shed in Enfield.  The firebars that he had designed (wire wound around a special form of ceramic) made electric fires much better.  The heaters sold well and the business expanded.  He applied some of this technical know how to cookers as well.

The first Baby Bellling was produced in 1929.  These small ovens were cheaper than full-sized models and came onto the market as the number of houses wired for electricity was increasing.  The proportion of British houses with an electrical supply rose from 18% in 1926 to 86% in 1949 [1].

CRB introduced a little cooker which did a great job in small poky flats and bedsits, definitely a food hero.

Belling is still going and has produced a book to mark its centenary.  For more information go to

[1]  Rebecca Weaver and Rodney Dale, 1992, Machines in the Home, British Library, London, p. 6..