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One of the 100 Greatest Inventions

A refrigerator (often shortened to fridge) or freezer is an electric appliance that uses refrigeration to help preserve food. A domestic refrigerator is present in 99.5% of American homes. It works using phase change heat pumps operating in a refrigeration cycle. An industrial refrigerator or industrial freezer is simply a refrigerator used in an industrial setting, usually in a restaurant or supermarket.

They may consist of either a cooling compartment only (a larder refrigerator) or a freezing compartment only (a freezer) or contain both. The dual compartment was introduced commercially by General Electric in 1939. Some refrigerators are now divided into four zones for the storage of different types of food:

  • -18°C or 0°F (freezer) 
  • 0°C or 32°F (meats) 
  • 4°C or 40°F (refrigerator) 
  • 10°C or 50°F (vegetables), for the storage of different food types. 

The capacity of the refrigerator (freezer and/or fridge) is measured in litres (or cu. ft.). Typically the freezer volume is 100 litres (this will vary) and the fridge 140 litres.


Although ice houses have been used for thousands of years to provide a source of ice in summer, the first common domestic refrigeration was in the form of ice boxes in the latter years of the 19th Century. As the ice melted it was replaced with ice bought from commercial manufacturers.

In 1856, using the principle of vapour compression, Australian James Harrison produced the world's first practical refrigerator. He was commissioned by a brewery to build a machine that cooled beer. In 1857, the first refrigerated railway car was introduced by the Chicago meatpacking industry, to prevent spoilage during shipping. In 1866, the first refrigerated railway car to carry fruit was built by Parker Earle of Illinois. The car was used to ship strawberries on the Illinois Central Railroad. The first domestic refrigerator was apparently manufactured in 1913 by Fred W. Wolf Jnr. in Chicago, and called the DOMELRE (DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator). It was not commercially successful, that distinction apparently going to the Kelvinator Company. This company was formed in May 1916 as the Electro-Automatic Refrigerating Company by Edmund J. Copeland and an industrialist, Arnold H. Gross. The company was renamed within two months to the Kelvinator Company and produced their first model shortly afterwards.

Like most of their modern descendents, this refrigerator cooled using a phase change heat pump. The first refrigerators were of the "remote" type, essentially an upgrade of an existing ice box with the installation of a cooling unit in it, but the motor, compressor and condenser installed either beside it or in the basement. The first self-contained refrigerators were not manufactured until 1925. The earliest units used toxic refrigerants, typically ammonia (R-717), sulfur dioxide (R-764), or methyl chloride (R-40) as their refrigerant.

The first refrigerator to see widespread use was the General Electric "Monitor-Top" refrigerator introduced in 1927. The compressor assembly, which produced substantial heat, was placed above the cabinet, and surrounded with a decorative ring. Over 1,000,000 units were produced. This refrigerator used sulfur dioxide refrigerant. Many units are still functional today. In the early 1920s the industry grew considerably, with some other manufacturers using absorption of ammonia in water instead of liquifying a gas through compression to achieve the phase change. However, these were not very successful, largely because of public predujice against ammonia as a refrigerant. Today they are used in homes that are not connected to the electric grid, and in recreational vehicles because they can be efficiently powered using a heat source rather than an electric motor. It was not until the 1931 that Dupont produced commercial quantities of R-12, the first refrigerant which was neither toxic nor flammable.


  • Freestanding
  • Built under: fridges and freezers which can be installed under the counter top. 
  • Integrated. 
  • In-Column fridges or freezers: these are built into a tall cabinet in your kitchen furniture. The appliance is built in to your kitchen so that it looks like a normal cupboard. Getting the right size fridge is very important when choosing integrated. 

Freezer situation

  • Eye level freezer refrigerator (or top mount). 
  • Bottom freezer refrigerator (or bottom mount). The freezer is generally bigger and the refrigerator has two independent motor-compressors. 


Some newer refrigerators may feature:

  • An LCD suggesting what types of food should be stored at what temperatures and the expiry date of the food stored. 
  • Filter Status Indicator tells you when it's time for a change 
  • A power failure warning, alerting the user to the failure, usually by flashing the temperature display. The maximum temperature reached during the power failure may be displayed, along with information on whether the frozen food has defrosted or may contain harmful bacteria. 
  • Frost-free operation. Over time atmospheric water vapour condenses onto the cooling coils as ice, which can eventually build up into a layer several centimetres thick. This can be removed by emptying the refrigerator and turning it off so that the ice melts. In a refrigerator equipped for frost-free operation, a heater and a thermostat are fitted around the cooling coils. Every six hours or so the cooling is switched off and the heater turned on until the temperature around the coils slightly exceeds the freezing point of water when normal cooling is restored. This melts any ice which has collected around the coils and prevents it from building up. 

An increasingly important environmental concern is the disposal of old refrigerators - initially because of the freon coolant damaging the ozone layer, but as the older generation of refrigerators disappears it is the destruction of CFC-bearing insulation which causes concern. Modern refrigerators usually use a refrigerant called HFC-134a (1,2,2,2-tetrafluoroethane) instead of freon, which has no ozone layer depleting properties.

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100 Greatest Inventions

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