The Father of Refrigeration

On May 6, 1851, the U.S. granted Patent No. 8080 for “the artificial production of ice.”  The recipient was John Gorrie, a Florida physician.  Unfortunately, Gorrie never made a cent from his invention.  He ultimately died sick, bankrupt and forgotten.

In 1841, Florida saw a major outbreak of malaria and yellow fever.  At the time, scientists believed that these tropical diseases were caused by poisonous gas in the hot, humid air.  (“Malaria” literally means “bad air.”)  Gorrie recommended making sickrooms cooler, and would suspend ice-filled buckets from the ceiling.

Gorrie was determined to eradicate malaria, and he completely abandoned his medical practice as he pursued ways to create ice artificially.  He knew that compressed gas absorbs heat when it expands, which in turn cools the surroundings.  Gorrie transformed his entire house into a laboratory, alienating his wife.  After five years, he created a working prototype refrigerator and began public demonstrations.

The machine worked, but the circumstances were disastrous.  Just as Gorrie received his patent, his main financial backer died.  Gorrie was ridiculed in the press as a “crank” who “thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty.”  Other potential backers stayed away.  Gorrie believed he was being targeted by Frederic Tudor, a powerful “Ice King” who built an empire shipping ice all over the world.

Gorrie tried adapting his technology to create an air conditioner, but was unable secure a patent.  Reduced to poverty, he suffered a nervous breakdown and died at the age of 51.

Gorrie’s invention would have done nothing to stop malaria and yellow fever.  We now know they are actually spread by mosquitoes (thanks to Sir Ronald Ross, Britain’s first Nobel laureate, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow).  But today, Gorrie is credited as the father of refrigeration, ice making and air conditioning.

In the modern age, refrigeration is critical for food safety.  Recently, a team of Chinese scientists researched spoilage in refrigerated shrimp.  They used Agilent columns to investigate quorum sensing, a means by which bacteria are able to communicate and maintain population density.

Agilent solutions are also used in the ongoing fight to eradicate malaria and other vector-borne diseases.  Recently, Tanzanian scientists used an Agilent PCR to evaluate real-time polymerase chain reaction as an alternative to microscopy when diagnosing malaria patients.


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