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How a Massachusetts Man Invented the Global Ice Market 83

An anonymous reader writes with the story of Frederic Tudor, the man responsible for the modern food industry. "A guy from Boston walks into a bar and offers to sell the owner a chunk of ice. To modern ears, that sounds like the opening line of a joke. But 200 years ago, it would have sounded like science fiction—especially if it was summer, when no one in the bar had seen frozen water in months. In fact, it's history. The ice guy was sent by a 20-something by the name of Frederic Tudor, born in 1783 and known by the mid-19th century as the "Ice King of the World." What he had done was figure out a way to harvest ice from local ponds, and keep it frozen long enough to ship halfway around the world.

Today, the New England ice trade, which Tudor started in Boston's backyard in 1806, sounds cartoonishly old-fashioned. The work of ice-harvesting, which involved cutting massive chunks out of frozen bodies of water, packing them in sawdust for storage and transport, and selling them near and far, seems as archaic as the job of town crier. But scholars in recent years have suggested that we're missing something. In fact, they say, the ice trade was a catalyst for a transformation in daily life so powerful that the mark it left can still be seen on our cultural habits even today. Tudor's big idea ended up altering the course of history, making it possible not only to serve barflies cool mint juleps in the dead of summer, but to dramatically extend the shelf life and reach of food. Suddenly people could eat perishable fruits, vegetables, and meat produced far from their homes. Ice built a new kind of infrastructure that would ultimately become the cold, shiny basis for the entire modern food industry."
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How a Massachusetts Man Invented the Global Ice Market

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 22, 2014 @03:29AM (#48650639)

    Yes, I saw How We Got To Now when it was on two months ago too.

    What the article neglects to mention is that the ice trade managed to suppress mechanical refrigeration for something like 30 years until the natural ice trade managed to self-destruct by selling increasingly polluted ice. Then it was entirely replaced by what was then decades old technology.

    • Nova's Absolute Zero (Score:5, Informative)

      by Kunedog ( 1033226 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @04:41AM (#48650753)
      Nova did an episode following human mastery of cold a few years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com] The Tudor part starts at 27:50, but the entire documentary is an excellent watch that follows the advances (and setbacks) in science through the history of this single subject (but it also glosses over the end of the ice trade).
      • by Mr D from 63 ( 3395377 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @08:05AM (#48651223)
        They also glossed over the dark side to this trade;

        Left behind at the harvesting ranges were huge iceholes. Men would enter the iceholes at their own risk. The owners of the iceholes also had to protect them from intruders. Savvy businessmen would cover their iceholes.

        To this day, there are still a lot of iceholes up north.
        • by pubwvj ( 1045960 )

          Are you trying to be funny? If not then you really don't understand how it works. The water fills in the ice holes where the ice was cut and refreezes. More ice can then be harvested from the same ice holes. That's the nature of reality up here in the north country.

        • Those sneaky bastages! If I got my hands on a man who would farg another man's icehole, why I'd take his dwork, and nail it the farging wall.

      • by Megane ( 129182 )
        It was also covered a few months ago on PBS in the "How We Got To Now" series, episode "Cold". I'd link to it, but that episode doesn't seem to be currently available.
    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @12:51PM (#48652689) Homepage Journal

      Old ways of doing things often hang on an unexpectedly long time because a mature technology has the advantages of ubiquity. People are comfortable with it, all the kinks have all been worked out, and its popularity gives it a huge structural cost advantage.

      You can't think in terms of how expensive it would be to have a 50 lb block of ice delivered to your doorstep today. The *marginal* cost of having ice delivered is nil when everyone on your street is getting it. Everyone had an actual "icebox", and since it had no moving parts it never needed servicing or replacing. So when electric refrigerators became available it was a choice of keeping your perfectly good icebox with its reliable, regularly scheduled ice delivery, or buy a cranky, complicated, expensive piece of machinery that would pay for itself just in time to need replacing. If the ice industry killed itself by shipping polluted ice, it's probably because they couldn't expand their supply to meet demand.

      I'll bet the grandchildren of kids learning to drive today will find the whole concept of a massive, truck-based gasoline distribution network absurdly complicated. But it works because it's massive, and because it's ubiquitous we assume it is simple -- which it is on the consumer end. On the production end it is fantastically complicated and labor intensive.

      Speaking of the Boston ice industry, I live a half mile from a 20 acre (8 ha) pond that supported a major ice operation in the 1800s. Pictures show men harvesting blocks of ice eighteen, even twenty-four inches thick for shipment around the world. In the non-winter months the companies operated water-powered mills. Ice was a classic case of exploiting slack resources. Ice meant no head for the water powered mill, and an idle workforce. So electric refrigeration wasn't the only pressure on the ice industry: electric factories would have raised the price of winter labor.

      Today that same pond never gets more than a couple of inches of ice, even in last year's "polar vortex" event -- you can't make ice that thick in a couple weeks, you need a cold winter that starts early and doesn't let go for months. When I was a kid this pond iced over in December. Now it ices over in Janurary, or Feburary, or some years not at all except for the lee end. In January I can fish from my canoe on ponds where I would once have been ice-fishing.

  • Incidentally... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @03:31AM (#48650641) Journal
    The harvesting and storage of naturally occurring ice was so successful that, for a somewhat surprising amount of time, it made manufactured ice uneconomic and, for an even longer period, on-site refrigeration hardware a very niche item(even after ice manufactured on large scale ammonia based systems replaced harvested ice, it still fed the same local market of that natural ice deliveries had).

    If memory serves, the scale and efficiency of the industry was such that Australia ended up with the first adoption of a refrigeration system on a commercial scale because it was one of the few places that had the necessary technology but lacked a frozen pond without about a zillion miles. The thermodynamics and the necessary hardware were more or less familiar to any region with an enthusiasm for steam power; but the economics just didn't work out.
    • by dbc ( 135354 )

      Hmm.... not sure I totally buy this. Insulated, iced, box cars were being used to ship meat and fruit in the USA before 1900. My recollection is that pretty early on, the various express companies were operating ice manufacturing plants where it was impractical to harvest natural ice. Southern California, for instance -- places that grow oranges well, and are naturally semi-arid, don't have many opportunities for harvesting natural ice.

      Toitally agree, though, that it is an economic decision. It's a clas

      • Hmm.... not sure I totally buy this. Insulated, iced, box cars were being used to ship meat and fruit in the USA before 1900. My recollection is that...

        You were alive in 1900?

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Hmm.... not sure I totally buy this. Insulated, iced, box cars were being used to ship meat and fruit in the USA before 1900. My recollection is that...

          You were alive in 1900?

          There are these things called "books" some of which concern the doings of people in the past.

      • The problem is that your recollection does NOT contradict the comment you replied to: from Wikipedia: "Unreliable and expensive at first, plant ice began to successfully compete with natural ice in Australia and India during the 1850s and 1870s respectively, until, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, more plant ice was being produced in the U.S. each year than naturally harvested ice."
        So, both the comment you replied to and the facts you recollect appear to be true...one of the places where it was imp
    • by Chrisq ( 894406 )

      The harvesting and storage of naturally occurring ice was so successful that, for a somewhat surprising amount of time, it made manufactured ice uneconomic and, for an even longer period, on-site refrigeration hardware a very niche item(even after ice manufactured on large scale ammonia based systems replaced harvested ice, it still fed the same local market of that natural ice deliveries had)..

      I don't know if it was the same in the USA but my dad tells me that dry ice was used for quite a long time after electric refrigerators were available because the electric supply was unreliable. Mind you he did live in Wales!

      • Dry ice is still used for the purpose of shipping, especially people wanting to carry souvenirs like fresh lobster on the plane back home: it's packed in a styrofoam box with a scoop of dry ice to keep the contents cold.

        • Particularly handy since(as long as you are in an environment well ventilated enough not to suffocate) it's an effectively zero-residue option. In practice you'll get a little condensation; but far less messy than water ice. Plus, it 'stores' well, since, if need be, you can generate it by allowing CO2 compressed in a cylinder to expand rapidly. My understanding is that shipping it ready-made and insulated, and accepting a little loss, is more cost effective in areas with good infrastructure; but making it
      • by Anonymous Coward

        The harvesting and storage of naturally occurring ice was so successful that, for a somewhat surprising amount of time, it made manufactured ice uneconomic and, for an even longer period, on-site refrigeration hardware a very niche item(even after ice manufactured on large scale ammonia based systems replaced harvested ice, it still fed the same local market of that natural ice deliveries had)..

        I don't know if it was the same in the USA but my dad tells me that dry ice was used for quite a long time after electric refrigerators were available because the electric supply was unreliable. Mind you he did live in Wales!

        Electricity is not a critical part of the refrigeration process. What's actually needed is an engine to compress/expand the refrigerant. You can just as easily use a heat source to create the required pressure differential. RV refrigerators do exactly that, with no motors or moving parts. They cost an outrageous amount of money, despite being virtually identical in construction to electric ones (some are dual gas/electric), but that's primarily supply and demand.

        • by jbengt ( 874751 )

          What's actually needed is an engine to compress/expand the refrigerant. You can just as easily use a heat source to create the required pressure differential. RV refrigerators do exactly that, with no motors or moving parts. They cost an outrageous amount of money, despite being virtually identical in construction to electric ones

          Not sure where you're coming from.
          Combustion engine driven compressors are similar to electric motor driven ones, but are more complicated and certainly have plenty of moving p

          • Combustion engine driven compressors are similar to electric motor driven ones, but are more complicated and certainly have plenty of moving parts. Adsorption/absorption refrigeration systems have fewer moving parts, as they use heat as the main driving force and so don't have compressors. But they still have moving parts like pumps and fans, and they are completely dissimilar in design to mechanical compressor driven refrigeration.

            My old 1975-era RV fridge had no moving parts at all, no pump, no fan. Just a propane driven pilot light which switched off & on as it heated the ammonia in a sealed system. The ammonia circulated passively. The fridge had to be kept in a more or less vertical orientation for the circulation to work properly. Too much off level, it wouldn't work. When the RV was rolling down the road, the orientation of the fridge was less important, the constant shifting back & forth of the fridge would allow

            • by swb ( 14022 )

              My dad had zero engineering or technical ability, which I can attest to through the two lawn mowers "inspected" for problems that ended up being thrown away after too many parts were removed for inspection to reassemble, and all the shit that never got fixed around the house.

              But that man could level a parked motorhome like he was Apollodorus of Damascus so we could run the refrigerator. I was always impressed with the newer motorhomes we saw on our trips that had hydraulic jacking systems built-in and coul

            • by mlts ( 1038732 )

              My 2011-era RV fridge is similar (no moving parts except for the fluid going around), except that instead of using a pilot light, it uses electronic ignition (which means it not just needs propane, but battery power to keep your stuff cooled.) I would prefer the 1975-era style of a pilot light, but I guess times change.

              It has two disadvantages: It does cool, but relatively slowly, because the refrigerator part doesn't have any air circulating in it. A small fan in there (Valterra sells on that runs 4-6 w

          • Not sure where *you're* coming from...

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        • It might simply have been an economic matter: nothing magic about electricity as the input for driving a compressor (and, indeed, the form of refrigeration that does require electricity is peltiers, which are confined to a niche by how much they suck unless you simply can't have any moving parts); but "parts of Wales with erratic electricity" aren't necessarily a sufficiently commanding market to drive the development, and mass production, of a dual electrical/combustion engine or electrical/belt-connection
    • by nadaou ( 535365 )

      Australia was the first to try, Argentina was the first to succeed, New Zealand
      was the first to perfect it.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reefer_ship#History_of_reefers [wikipedia.org]

  • ....news for nerds, stuff that matters....

    i thought the whole point of news was its newness
    the wikipedia on this is much more informative though https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    how did this story even get accepted?

  • Congratulations, someone watched the How We Got to Now [wikipedia.org] episode, Cold. [pbs.org]

  • Heisenberg (Score:4, Funny)

    by sg_oneill ( 159032 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @04:38AM (#48650745)

    Frederic Tudor may have invented the ice trade, but Walter White perfected it!

  • by Ugmug ( 1495847 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @04:59AM (#48650783)
    Albert Einstein designed his own refrigerator..... "The Einstein–Szilard or Einstein refrigerator is an absorption refrigerator which has no moving parts, operates at constant pressure, and requires only a heat source to operate. It was jointly invented in 1926 by Albert Einstein and his former student Leó Szilárd and patented in the US on November 11, 1930 (U.S. Patent 1,781,541). This is an alternative design from the original invention of 1922 by the Swedish inventors Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E... [wikipedia.org]
    • If I remember correctly, it is roughly the one we use now, which is primarily different from its predecessor my the means of using a non-lethal chemical, so that everyone in the house does not die when the fridge breaks.
  • for all your info (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    You guys should first check
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_house_%28building%29

    Ice houses or icehouses (Persian: "ice pit"; yakh meaning "ice" and chl meaning "pit") are buildings used to store ice throughout the year, commonly used prior to the invention of the refrigerator. Some were underground chambers, usually man-made, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes, but many were buildings with various types of insulation.

    During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice h

    • by Boronx ( 228853 )

      'Murka

    • The key innovation that the article refers to is in the summary, "keep it frozen long enough to ship halfway around the world. " I was aware that there were ice houses long before the ice trade was developed, but I am unaware of anyone developing a trade in it where they shipped it a long distance and then sold it. My recollection is that Persian kings sent servants out to harvest the ice and put it in his ice pits for his use when temperatures got hot, and that rulers in that part of the world did the same
  • If pallets and ice were so revolutionary, just think of the synergy that could be created by combining the two! Pallets of ice!
  • Tim Hunken's The Secret Life of Machine's series did a great job of illustrating the history of refrigeration, from the ancient Roman times to a detailed look at how modern refrigerators work:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • Here in Hong Kong, I routinely see freezer trucks delivering bags of ice cubes to bars and restaurants. No isolation, presumably they're stored cold in the establishment, still it's ice trade.

    I've even seen large freezers full of such bags of ice cubes for sale at 7-11, especially in summer, for people to bring a bag or two of ice cubes for their boat or beach party. Probably kept in a isolated container, or it'd melt in the >30 heat in an instant.

    For sure it's not what it used to be, and not natural ice

    • by _merlin ( 160982 )

      Ice House St is one of the stops on the HK Island tram that I actually remember the name of :) Ice for keeping drinks cold at parties, picnics, barbecues, etc. is pretty popular in Australia, too. Bottle shops, petrol stations and supermarkets often sell it.

  • by Aviation Pete ( 252403 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @08:13AM (#48651235)
    on their way to China at the end of winter, the Tea Clippers would bring ice, insulated in straw, to India where it was stored in ice pits for the British to cool their food in summer. There were even recognized brands of ice from Scottish or Norwegian lakes with exceptionally clean water.

    This would have been News for Nerds 180 years ago.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @08:17AM (#48651245) Journal
    To this day, one of the important bus stops in Chennai, India is called The Ice House, (though the building has been renamed now[*]). The Boston ice, packed in sawdust made its way all the way to the tropical heat of Chennai, India. [google.co.in]. The whole neighborhood was and sometimes still is called The Ice House, because ice was such a novelty in the tropics. Brief history of ice in chennai [thehindu.com]

    Local politicians in India have this predilection to rename everything. Costs very little financially and works as a kind of vote bank politics. Madras to Chennai, Bangalore to Bengalooru, Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkatta, Orissa to Odisha what the hell? There was guy named A Brito who was well known for his Letters to the Editor, Indian Express, Bangalore. When the local mayor renamed yet another road (which had been named for a British officer) after some local politician he wrote: "... To celebrate his grand achievement of renaming $road, I hereby propose we rename the Queen Victoria statue in the $park Mayor Butte Gowda statue. The resemblance is, after all, so striking that ..."

  • by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @09:23AM (#48651449)

    One ton of AC is equivalent to what one ton of ice melting would provide over a day.

    • More formally, the rate of heat absorption of ice melting at a rate of one short (i.e., not metric) ton per day. It's about 12,000 Btu's per hour or 3517 watts.

      Note that this does not include any heat required to bring colder ice up to the melting point, or any heat added after the melting takes place. The power required to drive an air conditioner equals the number of tons, times 3517 watts, divided by the coefficient of performance of the unit (which is in the neighborhood of 3 for most AC installations).

  • by Chris Mattern ( 191822 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @09:49AM (#48651545)

    there haven't been any Adventure Time jokes yet.

  • by sootman ( 158191 ) on Monday December 22, 2014 @10:12AM (#48651661) Homepage Journal

    ... that he did this back then. Imagine if the industry were founded recently. They'd sue anyone who tried to make a refrigerator or air conditioner to protect their outdated business. And they'd win, because they'd pay off -- excuse me, "support the campaigns of" -- all the right politicians.

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