How the refrigerator got its hum

Technology solves problems. But there's usually more than one way to solve a problem. Cars don't have to run on internal combustion — and they don't have to look like smoothly curved pods. (In fact, when I was in grade school, they didn't.) Our electric grid isn't the result of a rational discussion about ideal technology. Instead, it was built partly based on convenience and speed, and partly based on cost.

Basically, there are lots of ways to solve a problem and for almost every tool we use there's an alternative we chose (somewhere along the line) to not use. I'm working on my second column for The New York Times Magazine, which will come out in September. In the course of researching that, I stumbled across a really fascinating research paper about the history of the refrigerator. See, the electric fridge we're all familiar with wasn't the only option in home refrigeration. In the 20th century, the low hum of the electric refrigerator competed with a silent version powered by natural gas.

"How the Refrigerator Got its Hum" is an article written by science historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan. It was published in 1985, in a book called The Social Shaping of Technology. The article traces the development of the refrigerator and the story of why we use electricity, rather than natural gas, to cool our food today. I couldn't fit it into my NYT column, but it's absolutely fascinating and well worth the read. The key point of Cowan's article: Our world is full of "failed machines", technologies that worked just fine, but that we don't use today.

These are not junked cars and used refrigerators that people leave along roadsides and in garbage dumps, but the rusting hulks of aborted ideas; patents that were never exploited; test models that could not be manufactured at affordable prices; machines that had considerable potential, but were, for one reason or another, actively suppressed by the companies that had the license to manufacture them; devices that were put on the market, but never sold well and were soon abandoned. The publications of the Patent Office and the "new patents" columns in technical magazines reveal that the ration of "failed" machines to successful ones is high, although no scholar has yet devised a formula by which it can actually be determined.

Read the rest of "How the Refrigerator Got its Hum"

Image: Refrigerator in a parking lot., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from memestate's photostream


  1. Anyone who has owned an absorption fridge will tell you that the reason that they are not popular is that they do not work very well.

  2. A building that I recently finished working on uses gas-fired air-conditioning compressors. The rationale being that they’ll see the highest use in the summer, when the city-wide electrical loads will be highest (from everyone using AC), and when natural gas use is the lowest.

    1. I like the cut of your jib!

      Here in St. Louis, not that many years ago, we went through three city-wide blackouts in two years. (All caused by the same root cause, the previous electric company CEO had nearly zeroed out the maintenance budget.) All three blackouts lasted for multiple days, one over them over a week.

      Having lived in an RV, it occurred to me at the time to wonder if there were kitchen-sized versions of what most high-end RVs have. It’s called a Two-Way Refrigerator. When 120v AC is available, it runs on electricity; unplug it, and it automatically switches over to propane. If people had those, only natural gas instead of propane (almost every home in the St. Louis area is plumbed for natural gas, most of our furnaces and water heaters run on it), they wouldn’t have lost the entire contents of their refrigerators three times in two years. I remember thinking, at the time, that the next time I had a chance to remodel a kitchen I’d look into that.

      1. Or perhaps look into a n. gas fueled generator hooked up so that it kicks in when the mains cut out.

        1. That’s my backup plan if I can’t find a good-sized two way. But my thinking is that the more things I move off of electric during a blackout, the smaller and cheaper the backup generator has to be. Take the refrigerator off of the backup generator and all I have to support for emergencies is the furnace and, say, one low-wattage outlet for recharging the phone, etc.

          Single point of failure systems annoy me on a deep-seated level.

          1. Heh, i have found myself collecting phone chargers that can run of AA and AAA size batteries. Maybe next i’ll get hold of the C size monstrosity some Japanese company made for laptop charging.

      2. “All caused by the same root cause, the previous electric company CEO had nearly zeroed out the maintenance budget.”

        Umm…  Sounds like one of the reasons this country is messed up.  

        1. Oh, don’t even get me started on the fact that nobody born after 1960 is willing to pay for the maintenance costs on the stuff their parents and grandparents built with their sweat and their tax dollars. We’re a sick and horrible nation of ungrateful brats, and I’ve been known to bitterly rant about that subject for hours on end.

          But specific to this situation, the reason that Ameren is as big as it is is that the previous CEO expanded it by looting the maintenance budget for money to invest in leveraged buyouts of rival utilities that (he argued) were less profitable than they could have been because they were still budgeting  for routine maintenance. Investors gobbled this up. It was the perfect example of privatized gain and socialized loss; he demonstrated that if you skip the routine maintenance, when the whole system fails, you can get federal disaster relief money to cover the maintenance you put off.

  3. I’m afraid the original author missed a crucial point: there was a major rural electrification program that brought electricity to nearly every community in the nation. Even today, suburbs close to cities are often without natural gas infrastructure. Without a comparable effort to bring natural gas (and propane has continued to be seen as a substandard method of living), absorption refrigerators had no chance. The industry was never going to develop around what was doomed to be a niche market for decades.

  4. Aw, I thought this was going to be an animal legend. You know, like “Coyote tricked Refrigerator into helping him steal some berries, and Thunderbird punished him by making him hum wherever he went.”

  5. I guess I’ll read the PDF on my kindle which is somewhat easier to hold sideways than my laptop or monitor.

  6. I know some folks from Australia who had an ammonia refrigerator. They said that one night, the thing sprung an ammonia leak, and the next morning there was a growth of blue corrosive frost over everything in the kitchen. 

  7. Absorption refrigerators are still used in RVs and other applications where a propane tank is available but continuous electricity isn’t.

  8. What’s with the Servel hate? Our family has has one  for 60 years  and it is still running perfectly. It’s outlasted   3 or 4 electric models.

  9. Gas refrigerators are easily obtained and work fine.  I used one for two weeks quite recently.

    And yes, they hum.

  10. I forget who said it, I think maybe Spider Robinson? “Whenever the question is ‘why do we?’ or ‘why don’t we?’, the answer is usually, ‘Money.'” Before I even read the article, I could have guessed that it was because the electric refrigerator companies had Wall Street and the banks on their side. That generally has been what has decided between competing tech standards in the last century.

    Gas-powered ammonia condensation refrigerators are the norm, not the exception, for boating and RV use. I spent a couple of years living with one in my ’89 Pace Arrow 37J, the “Libertalia,” and that gas-powered refrigerator may have been the least troublesome, most reliable component on that whole antique land yacht. And yes, it was way, way quieter than any refrigerator I’ve ever owned. I was just fine with it.

    I knew a guy who bought one for his house, for energy conservation purposes, and he loved it, but the rest of his family hated it. If you have teenagers in the house, or anybody else with the atrocious habit of standing there dithering with the refrigerator door open, you’ll have problems with a gas powered ammonia-condensation refrigerator: if it gets warm inside, it’s much slower to cool down, and food will spoil. Break yourself (and your kids and/or spouse, if any) of that bad habit and it’s a lovely machine, especially if you keep it full for the extra thermal mass.

    1. Yep. These days the issue of feeding the world is not the production, but the cost of transportation.

  11. There was a TED Talk in 2007 ( ) about a compact absorption refridgerator for developing countries. They were working on a <$50 device that was powered by nothing more than 30 minutes of being perched over a campfire and could then keep medicines or other small items cold for up to 24 hours. It sounds awesome, but there's nothing on the Interwebs about it after the TED Talk. Hmm!?!?

    1.  The guy doing the presentation seems to have moved on to a different company, so i guess it never panned out.

  12. Holy crap!

    I took several of Professor Cowan’s history of science classes when I was getting my undergraduate degree at SUNY Stony Brook.

    She would have written this at about that time.

  13. Maggie
     “and they don’t have to look like smoothly curved pods”

    Err, yes they do:

  14. On the topic of orphan technologies (but not refrigeration), I have often been amazed at the variety of photographic devices that existed in the post-war era — there was a several-decade interval where photographic chemical technology had become mature and cheap, and xerographic image-transfer technology was still expensive and rare. I ran across a photography-based document copier several years ago, which introduced me to the “dead media” list, which had many more examples. 

  15. There’s interesting history in the article, but there’s a couple of points I don’t think it addresses.  Consider that the article discusses that GE did much engineering and marketing research before they went into the fridge market.  Also consider, there’s no reason a gas-absorption fridge needs to be powered by gas.  As others have noted RV GA fridges can run electric or gas.

    FWIW, a compresor fridge could be powered by a gas motor rather than an electric one.

    It seems just as likely that the big companies went compressor because they had the research to show that they’d be more successful than GA. 

    I’m also curious why to this day GA fridges remain such a nice product, particularly after the freon scares of the 80’s?

  16. I have a propane powered refrigerator at my camp. It has to be over 30 years old, and works just as well as the electric 2011 model here in my kitchen.   I have friends who have gas refrigerators in their camps that are from the 1940’s and 50’s. Since there are no moving parts, they just sit there and run forever.

  17. Thank you, Maggie and others, for your positive reaction to my essay about gas refrigerators.  However, what appears to be an essay in the book, The Social Shaping of Technology, is actually part of a chapter from my own book, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983).  Readers of Boing-Boing might want to take a look at it because I argue, as the title suggests, that modern household technologies created more work for housewives rather than less.

    And a word about gas refrigerators:  the full scale models, most popular in the US in the 1930s, were plumbed directly into household gas lines; they were terrific machines, especially when compared with the smaller, portable versions which run off propane tanks.

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