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When Florida-based physician, John Gorrie’s mechanical ice maker was ridiculed in the press in 1851, few would have thought that his “unnatural” invention (as it was slanted by religious leaders of the day) would someday become the blockbuster appliance that, amongst other things, rescued humankind from warm drinks?

A Once Unthinkable Dream

In a world where air-conditioners and ice makers abound, it is hard to imagine a time when artificial cooling and, by extension, ice, was an unthinkable dream. For thousands of years, those in warmer climates could not keep food fresh for very long. Most were even forced to drink warm wine.

Before Dr Gorrie was granted the first-ever patent (US patent no. 8080) for a machine to make ice, it was a luxury reserved for those who had the means to purchase natural ice harvested from frozen lakes and transported by specialised boats.

Dr Gorrie’s motivation, as a physician was a medical one. How could he know that he was opening up a world of fun and sophisticated, ice-cold drinks to all? Hot summer days would now forever include frosty margaritas, caipirinhas, long island iced teas and Champagne on ice. Not to mention shaved-ice snow cones and other frozen desserts.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Dr Gorrie was trying to solve a serious medical problem: how to improve the survival rate of his patients with tropical diseases (Malaria and Yellow fever).

Although the causes of these deadly diseases had not yet been discovered, there was a misconception that tropical diseases were caused by bad air or “Mal-Aria”. Dr Gorrie knew they relied on heat and moisture to propagate. Because of this, he reasoned that cooling down his feverish patients might improve their chances of survival. He suspended pans of iced water in his patients’ hospital rooms so that the cooled, heavy air would descend and cool them down.

However, ice was expensive (or unavailable) in the Florida summer. Moreover, ice had to be harvested up north at higher latitudes and shipped in.

Dr Gorrie wanted to make ice mechanically and he began tinkering with compression coolers. By the mid-1840’s he had a working model that could be powered by wind, water, steam or the brute force of an animal.

A grand demonstration – The Ice machine sees the light

Schematic of John Gorrie's ice machine
Schematic of John Gorrie’s ice machine

After applying for patents in 1848 and having a prototype built, Dr Gorrie faced an uphill battle to attract venture capital and compete with the existing ice-block industry that had no intention of allowing new technology to derail their profitable monopoly on the industry.

What better way to make a grand first impression than with pomp and ceremony. Instead of the expected medical occasion for introducing new advances to the industry, he arranged a dramatic demonstration of his ice machine at a social event. The good doctor attended an afternoon reception given by the French consul, Monsieur Rosan to celebrate Bastille Day. It was a humid July afternoon in Florida and the stores of ice from the north had run out.

As if on cue, the local doctor first complained about drinking warm wine in the hot weather. Then he suddenly announced: “On Bastille Day, France gave her citizens what they wanted. Rosan gives his guests what they want, cool wines! Even if it demands a miracle!”

Suddenly waiters appeared with bottles of Champagne on ice that had been mechanically made in the suffocating Florida summer.

“Let us drink to the man who made the ice,” one of the guests declared. “Dr Gorrie.”

It was a showstopper and the Smithsonian magazine dubbed the party the “chilly reception”.

Tragically ahead of his time – The ice machine is shelved

Upon receiving his US patent and acquiring the necessary finding, Dr Gorrie left his medical practice to devote himself to promoting his invention. Unfortunately, tragedy was lurking around the corner.

The year Dr Gorrie received his US patent (1851), his primary investor died. Other financiers also fell by the wayside as his invention was being ridiculed in the press. He suspected that Frederic Tudor, an ice-shipping magnate, was behind the smear campaign against him and his invention.

Without funds, Dr Gorrie reflected on his troubles and concluded that medical refrigeration “had been founded in advance of the wants of the country”. Devastated by failure and suffering a nervous breakdown, Dr Gorrie died penniless in 1855 at the age of 51.

It would be another 90 years before people were able to enjoy mechanical refrigeration in their homes. From there ice machine and refrigerator technology went from strength to strength.

An interesting coincidence

gin & tonic quinine

Dr Gorrie’s failure at curing tropical disease is unfortunate, but, all is not lost. Modern Malaria treatment throughout the world includes high doses of a substance call Quinine.

Coincidentally, quinine is also found in Tonic Water, albeit in smaller doses. This is why the now-famous Gin & Tonic has been long attributed with the ability to protect the drinker contracting malaria.

Were not sure exactly how effective it is as a prophylactic, but, we do know that no respectable G&T would ever be served without ice. Also, unless you’re living in the arctic, the ice machine is a pretty handy invention.

Quick facts

  • In 1925 Kelvinator – named after Lord Kalvin, who discovered absolute zero – produced the first self-contained refrigerator with a compressor and cooling system.
  • Three years later Lloyd Groff Copeman patented the first rubber ice-cube tray and in 1933, Guy Tinkham made his with flexible stainless steel.
  • The first motorised ice-shaving machine was made by Ernest Hansen in 1934 and the snowball was born.
  • In 1953, Servel’s Automatic Ice-Maker Refrigerator produces round cubed ice in an ice tray.
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