Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Wizard of Ice

July 7th, 2010 · 3 Comments

As our poor city continues to broil, it’s worth remembering a man who dedicated much of his career to cooling down humanity: the great John Gorrie, who was convinced that an effective ice machine would be key to combating one of the 19th century’s most dreaded diseases:

Dr. Gorrie became convinced that cold was the healer. He noted that “Nature would terminate the fevers by changing the seasons.” Ice, cut in the winter in northern lakes, stored in underground ice houses, and shipped, packed in sawdust, around the Florida Keys by sailing vessel, in mid-summer could be purchased dockside on the Gulf Coast. In 1844, he began to write a series of articles in Apalachicola’s “Commercial Advertiser” newspaper, entitled, “On the prevention of Malarial Diseases”. He used the Nom De Plume, “Jenner”, a tribute to Edward Jenner, (1749 – 1823), the discoverer of smallpox vaccine. According to these articles, he had constructed an imperfect refrigeration machine by May, 1844, carrying out a proposal he had advanced in 1842…

“If the air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box.” The compressor could be powered by horse, water, wind driven sails, or steampower.

Gorrie eventually earned a hard-fought patent for his machine, but investors blanched and he died without making a cent. The article cited above blames “the ice lobby” for frustrating Gorrie’s dreams—presumably the traders who didn’t want their naturally harvested commodity to be one-upped by a manmade alternative. A sad case, but we do love the idea that the ice industry once had enough political muscle to frustrate the march of technological progress. We’d like to know more about the PR tactics they employed.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Janet

    The ice lobby reminds me of Charles W. Morse, the “Ice King” of New York. In the 1890s he ran the “Ice Trust” and had a monopoly on ice in New York.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_W._Morse

    He had a very colorful career and was involved in a number of scandals and swindles. At one point he was released from Federal Prison early when he faked Bright’s Disease by drinking soapsuds.

    All too late to have anything to do with an ice machine in the 1840s, but it shows there used to be a lot of money in ice.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Janet: Thanks for the tip on Morse. You piqued my interest to the point that I’m actually working on a post about the guy and his scheme. Tammany Hall makes an appearance…

  • Ice Van Wyck

    [...] the end of Wednesday’s post about one of the least heralded pioneers of refrigeration, we noted that the “ice lobby” had been instrumental in frustrating John Gorrie’s [...]

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