Chilly Reception

Dr. John Gorrie found the competition all fired up when he tried to market his ice-making machine

Dr. John Gorrie
Dr. John Gorrie Wikimedia Commons

It was July 14, 1847, in the muggy port town of Apalachicola, Florida, and the stores of ice from the North had run out. The French consul Monsieur Rosan was celebrating Bastille Day, the story goes, and his guests were fearing a dreadfully uncomfortable afternoon. As if on cue, a local doctor complained theatrically about the necessity of drinking warm wine. Monsieur Rosan rose. "On Bastille Day," he announced, "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 carrying large silver trays piled with bottles of champagne nestled in ice. But where had it come from? Had a shipment come through from the North? Mais non. The ice had been created right there in Florida.

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

Local physician John Gorrie had spent more than five years tinkering with a mechanical refrigeration machine, a contraption that could both make ice and cool air. For years, he had used it in his infirmary, to make his fever patients more comfortable.

Within a few years of Rosan’s soiree, Dr. Gorrie’s artificial ice machine would be patented in London and the United States, and the doctor would largely forgo his practice, devoting himself to promoting his device.

In a corner of the National Museum of American History, now closed off for the creation of a new exhibit, there stood for many years a case labeled "Mechanical Refrigeration." It held the patent model of Gorrie’s invention—the first machine of its kind—along with the U.S. patent and a portrait of the earnest-looking Gorrie.

Just across the exhibit space was another display, labeled "Ice," and within it, another portrait. This one was of the so-called Ice King, a man named Frederic Tudor, whom Gorrie blamed for making the last years of his life very uncomfortable indeed.

In a world in which air-conditioning has made possible the mass movement of whole populations to warmer climates, it is hard to imagine a time when man-made cold was considered an impossible dream. But in the mid-1800s, even having natural ice delivered to tropical climes was a relatively recent development. For millennia, people in the earth’s warmer regions had needed to drink milk when it was drawn from the cow, eat fruits and vegetables just as they ripened, and (mon Dieu!) endure warm wine.

In 1805, two years after Gorrie’s birth, a young Boston businessman had taken as a challenge an offhanded question his brother had asked at a party. Why can’t the ice of New England’s ponds be harvested, transported to and sold at ports in the Caribbean?

Within the year, Frederic Tudor arranged for his first shipment of ice to Martinique, an enterprise that might have been deemed a success had a goodly amount of the cargo not melted soon after its arrival. Tudor spent the next few years experimenting with various kinds of insulation before settling on sawdust. He constructed icehouses throughout the tropics and created a demand there for cold refreshments. In the 1820s he joined forces with a young inventor who developed the plowlike sawing machines that scored and cut New England’s frozen ponds into symmetrical blocks. By 1846, Tudor was shipping tens of thousands of tons of ice from Boston to destinations all over the globe. His monopoly remained unchallenged for decades. "The coast is now cleared of interlopers," the Ice King once declared. "If there are any unslain enemies, let them come out."

In 1833, the same year that Tudor made news by shipping 180 tons of ice from New England to Calcutta, Dr. John Gorrie arrived in the sweltering town of Apalachicola, a burgeoning cotton port on the west coast of Florida.

Gorrie set up a medical practice and took on the positions of postmaster and notary public to supplement his income. After three years of civic involvement, he was elected the town’s mayor. But when yellow fever hit the area in 1841, Gorrie dedicated the bulk of his time to his practice—and to finding a treatment for his many patients.

Although he did not know that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes, he had observed that outbreaks of the disease seemed to be influenced by heat—"Nature would terminate the fevers by changing the seasons," he noted. He devised a method of cooling his infirmary. He would suspend a pan of ice from the ceiling and make an opening through it so air could escape through the chimney.

In the large home where he’d lived first as boarder, then as husband to the proprietress, Gorrie had already begun transforming room after room for his practice and his experiments (much to the chagrin of his wife). But he still faced one problem. The cooling mechanism required ice, and supplies were limited. Somehow, he would need to make it himself.

Working obsessively, he followed the same basic principles that had driven previous refrigeration attempts—most notably, William Cullen’s 1755 creation of ice by evaporating ether in a vacuum.

When a liquid evaporates into a gas, it does so at a particular temperature, which varies depending on the amount of pressure it is under. As it evaporates, the liquid extracts heat from the surroundings, cooling them. Likewise, when a gas is compressed, it is heated; when the pressure is removed, and the gas expands, it absorbs heat, cooling its surroundings.

Gorrie, who used air as the working gas in his machine, took his idea north to the Cincinnati Iron Works, which created a model for public demonstration. But the notion that humans could create ice bordered on blasphemy. In the New York Globe, one writer complained of a "crank" down in Florida "that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty."

Having found both funding—from a Boston investor who remains unknown—and a manufacturing company willing to produce the contraption, Gorrie became the first person to create a commercially available refrigeration machine. But he quickly fell on hard times.

In 1851, the year Gorrie received a U.S. patent on his ice machine, his chief financial backer died. With his invention being ridiculed regularly in the press, his other investors fell by the wayside. Gorrie suspected that Frederic Tudor had spearheaded a smear campaign against him and his invention. It was to Tudor that the doctor was presumably referring, says biographer Vivian M. Sherlock, when he wrote that "moral causes...have been brought into play to prevent [the machine’s] use."

Without funds, Gorrie retreated to Apalachicola, where he awaited word on a patent for his other innovation, the air-conditioning process. It never came. Reflecting on his troubles, he concluded that mechanical refrigeration "had been found in advance of the wants of the country." Suffering from a nervous collapse and devastated by failure, he died in 1855 at age 51.

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