What have you had to eat today? It seems like such an innocuous question, doesn’t it? Perhaps a banana at breakfast… what of it? Maybe a burger for lunch balanced by a crisp salad on the side? No big deal, right? Wrong. Unless you grow produce and rear livestock yourself, which has become an exceedingly rare occupation in developed economies, food like that on your plate is actually a very big deal.
The banana, the burger and side salad, and so much more of the vast culinary repertoire we take for granted should never have reached you fresh. If it reached you at all, the tropical fruit should have arrived after its long journey across the world blackened and deflated, while the meat should have been positively furry with mold and the greens a wilted mess. But 400 years of tireless innovation has made the miracle of our perfectly fresh modern fare mundane; 400 years of trial and error and calculation and experimentation that featured, among other hardships, death by pneumonia, exploded glass vials that blinded investigators, ships wrecked in oceanic squalls, and the toil of countless horses and men whose every step might plunge them to oblivion!
So many of the achievements of technology seem based on our conquest of heat – from the power of fire to mold our metals, to the internal combustion that drives us forward, to the white hot glow of a hundred billion filaments that obliterate darkness at the flip of a switch. But there’s an unsung technological hero in the saga of modernity, and that is our hard-earned command of cold.
It is the technology of refrigeration that keeps us nourished day in, day out. It’s on-demand cold is critical in preserving the unprecedented cornucopia of foods we eat. A vast system of refrigerated spaces, extending from the insulated vault in your kitchen to farms and fisheries the world over, comprises an unbroken cold chain on which our survival has come to depend. But refrigeration does so much more; it secures our comfort by conditioning indoor air, making huge cities near the equator – and skyscrapers anywhere for that matter – practical. It enables us to liquefy oxygen to ease troubled breathing and blast rockets into space, and it can even eliminate nature’s resistance to electric current, unleashing the phenomenon of superconductivity that may transform everything from transportation to computing. Over the past century, we’ve made millions of refrigerating machines that pump liquids in a cycle precisely tuned to cheat the very laws of entropy, and yet, they mostly hum away in dark corners of neglect, overlooked and unappreciated, until the moment they stop. What did it take to create these defiers of decay in the first place? What labor of the mind empowered us to wield cold?
I give you refrigeration, and how it began.