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When Was Ice Invented? The Chilling History of Ice

Ice has been an important part of human civilization for thousands of years. The ability to harvest, preserve, and utilize ice has enabled advancements in food storage, transportation, medicine, and more. In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating history of ice and how it has shaped human progress.

A Brief Timeline of Ice History

    • 3000 BCE – The ancient Chinese begin harvesting and storing ice during winter for use in summer months. Ice cellars and ice pits are dug to provide refrigeration.
    • 400 BCE – Persian engineers create the yakhchal, giant domed structures that preserve ice year-round by using shade and windcatchers. These “ice houses” allow ice to be stored for months during summer heat.
    • 1st century BCE – Wealthy ancient Romans build mountainside pools to capture and store frozen water from rivers and streams. The ice is transported back to the cities and kept in cellars underground.
    • 1000s CE – Ice harvesting becomes common across medieval Europe. Insulated ice houses are built to preserve ice cut from frozen lakes and rivers during winter. The ice is sold and used to chill drinks, food, and medicine.
    • 1600s – Ice harvesting becomes a booming industry in America, especially in New England. Large commercial operations ship massive blocks of ice around the world. Ice is viewed as a luxury item.
    • 1800s – The advent of mechanical refrigeration starts to replace stored ice in some parts of the world. Refrigerator cars allow transport of fresh meat and produce across the US.
  • Early 1900s – Electric home refrigerators become more common, reducing dependency on harvested ice. But ice delivery still remains a daily staple in many households.
  • 1940s – Delivery of home ice peaks in the US, with around 90% of urban households receiving regular ice service cube trays become popular.
  • 1950s – Refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioning units become widespread, leading to the decline of the ice harvesting industry. Bagged ice begins replacing block ice.
  • 1960s – The use of ice shifts from refrigeration to drinks and leisure. Machines to produce ice cubes and flakes become commonplace.
  • 1970s – Automatic self-dispensing ice makers become standard in most refrigerator-freezers, eliminating the need for home ice delivery. The ice industry focuses on bagged ice for consumption.
  • 2000s – High-tech advances allow the on-demand production of ice anytime and anywhere. Machines like the Arctic Refresh Ice and Water Machine can generate filtered, purified ice 24/7.

Why Was Ice So Important Historically?

Before refrigeration technology was invented, ice provided one of the only effective means of cooling and allowing food and beverage preservation. Some key reasons why ice became such an invaluable commodity include:

  • Food preservation – Storing ice allowed perishable foods like meat, fish, milk, and produce to be kept fresh longer, enabling the growth of commercial food trades. Having ice even allowed wealthy Romans to enjoy chilled delicacies during summer months.
  • Beverage cooling – Well into the 20th century, ice was highly prized for cooling drinks. Iced tea, cocktails, chilled wine, and cold beer all depended on harvested ice blocks. The term “the rocks” for whiskey on ice originates from this practice.
  • Medical uses – Ice was utilized to aid healing of injuries by constricting blood vessels and reducing inflammation. Medicines and vaccines were also chilled with ice to prolong their potency. Some surgeries were even conducted on ice tables to cool and numb the site.
  • Commercial fishing and shipping – Beginning in the early 1800s, salted ice allowed fresh fish and seafood to be transported inland from coasts. Refrigerated rail cars enabled cross-country shipping of meat and produce. These transformed American eating habits.
  • Heat relief – Before electricity, ice was one of the only ways to counter hot summer heat. Wealthy families had ice houses to keep ice available even during warmer months. Iced drinks also provided refreshment.

So ice became both a practical necessity for food safety as well as an emblem of affluence and sophistication. Having a steady supply of ice distinguished households and businesses. The ice trade became so profitable that it was known as the “frozen gold rush.”

How Was Natural Ice Harvested?

Prior to electrical refrigeration, all ice came from nature – primarily frozen rivers and lakes. The harvesting, storage, and transport of natural ice became a major industry beginning in the early 1800s. Here is an overview of how ice was gathered and managed:

  • Ice harvesting – Workers would saw large blocks of ice from frozen lakes and rivers once temperatures dropped low enough, typically in January and February. The ice blocks were floated along channels into storehouses or directly onto ships.
  • Ice storehouses – Massive wooden ice houses were constructed near frozen waterways. Insulated by sawdust or hay, they allowed huge ice blocks to be preserved year-round, keeping interior temperatures around 30-40°F even during summer.
  • Transport – Starting in the 1800s, ice became a global commodity, with large ships transporting it from cold climates across the world. Domestic distribution also occurred via refrigerated rail cars carrying perishable goods nationwide.
  • Home delivery – Into the early 20th century, home ice delivery was common. Uniformed icemen would carry large blocks of ice by tongs into households or businesses for iceboxes. Chisels and picks were used to chip off smaller pieces.
  • Technological advances – Mechanized advances made ice harvesting faster. Steam-powered ice plows scored surface ice into detachable blocks. Horse-drawn ice boats allowed quick harvesting and transport. Conveyor systems moved ice blocks into storage barns.

So a massive ice harvesting industry developed to meet the year-round demand. At its peak around the 1930s, America’s ice harvesting yielded about 90 million tons per year, employing around 85,000 workers. Though it vanished within decades, this ice enterprise transformed daily life for millions.

How Does Modern Ice Production Work?

Today ice is manufactured using modern electrical cooling and freezing methods rather than harvested manually from nature. Here is an overview of how ice is made in most modern machines:

  • Water intake – A water line feeds filtered water into the ice maker. Impurities are removed to prevent odor, taste issues, or icemaker clogs.
  • Initial freezing – As water enters the ice machine, it passes over refrigerated evaporator plates that cool it below freezing temperature (32°F or 0°C).
  • Ice shaping – Frozen water is released onto shaping grids that mold it into common cube or flake shapes as it drops into the collection bin.
  • Ejection – As the ice shapes accumulate, they are periodically ejected from the freezing plates into storage bins so new ice can keep forming.
  • Ice storage – Made ice accumulates in an insulated storage compartment where it awaits dispensing. Circulating air keeps ice chilled.
  • Dispensing – When ice is called for, a mechanism transfers individual cubes or flakes from the storage bin out through a chute.

So instead of manual labor, ice making is now an automated process that can produce a steady stream of ice anywhere electricity is available. Modern machines are compact, convenient, and deliver fresh, clean ice 24 hours a day.

FAQ About Ice History and Production

Here are answers to some common questions about the history and production of ice:

Who invented ice?

Ice occurs naturally in nature and has been used throughout human history. The practice of harvesting ice from lakes and rivers for storage and use in summer months first developed in ancient China around 3000 BCE. So ice was not really “invented” per se, but the techniques to gather, preserve, and utilize ice commercially were invented out of necessity before electricity.

How was ice harvested before modern refrigeration?

For centuries, ice was manually harvested in winter from frozen lakes, rivers, and ponds with handsaws and axes. Workers would cut large blocks and transport them to insulated ice houses to preserve the ice through summer months. Ice harvesting was an arduous, dangerous profession done entirely without modern equipment.

When did ice boxes become popular in homes?

Early ice boxes date back to the early 1800s and became widespread household appliances in the late 1800s. Before refrigerators, the ice box allowed families to keep a small block of ice chilled in a cabinet insulated with tin or cork. A drip pan collected melting ice water. Daily or regular ice delivery kept them supplied with fresh ice blocks.

What replaced ice harvesting as a business?

The commercial ice harvesting industry declined in the early 20th century with the rise of refrigeration technology and electricity. Rather than cut natural ice, companies shifted to manufacturing ice through mechanical ice machines and selling bagged ice commercially, a practice still common today.

How did refrigerated rail cars transform the ice business?

Starting in the 1870s, refrigerated rail cars allowed perishable goods to be shipped long distances. Meat, dairy, and produce could be transported from farms to cities while chilled with ice. The ice was manually restocked at refueling stops. This hugely impacted what foods were available across the country.

How does an ice machine like the Arctic Refresh work?

The Arctic Refresh Ice and Water Machine utilizes an electrically refrigerated internal freezing system to produce filtered ice from water on demand. Water passes over chilled evaporator plates that freeze it into ice shapes that are then ejected into a storage bin. An advanced filtration system removes impurities, resulting in pure, clean ice.

What are the benefits of modern ice makers?

Machines like the Arctic Refresh provide a self-service ice source and eliminate the need for delivered ice blocks. They produce ice 24/7, onsite for convenience. The ice is pure and clean thanks to multistage filtration. Output is consistent regardless of weather. And ice can be dispensed by portion size for any use from drinks to medical care.

Are there still natural sources of ice today?

Some companies still harvest ice the traditional way from natural lakes and ponds to service the gourmet ice market for upscale cocktails and chi-chi establishments. But most ice worldwide is now made electrically for convenience and reliability. In a sense, the automated ice we take for granted now is a pinnacle of centuries of ice-making innovation.

So in summary, the modern ice industry owes a debt to the hardy workers and pioneering companies who cut, transported, and marketed natural ice over a century ago. Their ingenuity helped drive innovation to create the world of on-demand ice we inhabit now.