The History of Refrigeration

General Parts Group Refrigeration Service
By The Editor
Today we take electric refrigeration for granted. But without it, we wouldn’t be able to safely store our perishable food items or cool our homes. You probably don’t realize that the compressors we use today are based on the same idea of refrigeration created back in 1748. Here General Parts Group looks at what people did before refrigeration was invented, and how the technology has and hasn’t advanced through the years.

What is Refrigeration?
Refrigeration focuses on removing heat from an enclosed space to help lower temperatures. It uses “compression,” the evaporation of a liquid to absorb heat. The liquid, known as refrigerant, creates freezing temperatures based on the second law of thermodynamics: The rapid expansion of liquid into gas removes heat from an area.

Original “Refrigeration”
Before we had mechanical refrigeration systems people depended on natural cooling methods. The earliest “coolers” were found to be in the space deep within a cave. From there, the first version of “cold storage” is the “ice house”, built from stone structures burrowed into the ground and packed with large chunks of ice to keep food cold.

Early Refrigeration
When we get into the era of mechanical refrigeration, the initial discovery was never used. William Cullen at the University of Glasgow created the concept back in 1748, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that people started looking for refrigeration methods in earnest. In 1805, Oliver Evans designed his “refrigeration machine” and it wasn’t until several decades later a practical version was created by Jacob Perkins. Interestingly, the first application of the concept was used to create ice to cool the air for patients suffering from yellow fever in 1844. Finally, in 1876, engineer Carl von Linden patented the process of liquifying gas for refrigeration.

From the late 1800s until 1929 toxic gases were used in the compression process including ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Not surprisingly this led to fatal chlorine leaks. To overcome the risks of refrigeration, three corporations banded together to create a safer method. They collectively invented Freon (R-22 and HCFC-22). This was used for generations, but sadly it was found that the gas produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFC and (HCFC) which deplete the earth’s ozone layer. In 2005 CFC was banned and HCFC will follow in 2030.

Refrigeration Today
Today commercial refrigeration systems use the same basic compression principles expanding liquid into gas, but, the use of “evaporators” improves the cooling process. Eco-friendliness is also important, and a measure is used for cooling appliances based on the ozone depletion potential. Refrigerators and freezers now use hydrofluorocarbons (R-404A and R134a), which don’t produce chlorine in the cooling process. Usage of other environmental-friendly refrigerants such as R-290, R-450A, R-513a, and R-600a is growing.
Additionally, thermometers work to monitor temperatures and adjust when various factors cause temperatures to rise. This improves energy efficiency for commercial refrigerators and freezers. Without a thermometer, the environment becomes too warm, allowing food to begin to spoil leading to costly food waste.

Future of Refrigeration
Refrigeration has come a long way despite the fact we still use the same basic compression principles. As advancements have been made in the design and lubrication systems, the allowed speed of the compressor increased, and their overall size decreased. This has allowed for a variety of sizes and applications to be developed for the commercial refrigeration space, from under-counter to walk-in refrigerators. Moving forward we will be offered greater operational savings through energy-efficiency and data driven technology which monitors our commercial refrigeration equipment’s energy consumption, thereby improving food safety, quality, energy management and our equipment’s total cost of ownership (TCO).

Caring for your Commercial Refrigeration Equipment
Planned maintenance programs help avoid the need for untimely commercial refrigeration repair, while improving energy efficiency and optimizing performance. We at General Parts Group are trained and licensed in installation, planned maintenance, and repairs for refrigerated foodservice equipment. Click here to learn more about how we can help you with your commercial refrigeration needs.
We are also recruiting and hiring HVAC and/or Refrigeration equipment technicians, and assist them with ongoing training, as they transition into the Foodservice industry. If interested in learning more about career opportunities with General Parts Group, visit