Refrigeration Was A Wonderful Invention When It Wasn’t Trying To Kill You

Early attempts at iceless refrigeration brought now-known-to-be-deadly chemicals into Cincinnati homes.

Over the years, Cincinnatians have discovered myriad methods to kill themselves. Breweries alone offered boiling vats, open shafts, toppling equipment and exploding barrels. At home, poisonous wallpaper, flammable nightgowns and yawning cesspools claimed many lives. As if we needed any additional hazards to jeopardize our safety, the 20th Century introduced yet another deadly contraption—the refrigerator.

The “Cake of Perpetual Ice” advertised by the Milnor Electric Company of Cincinnati was a mechanical insert cooled by methyl chloride, a gas implicated in a dozen deaths.

From Cincinnati Enquirer 18 March 1923 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Cincinnati Post [22 June 1920] related one incident that nearly ended in tragedy:

“Firemen carried several tenants from upper floors of a four-story building at Eighteenth and Main streets Tuesday when ammonia fumes, escaping from an ice machine in the cellar, entered corridors and apartments. A valve in a machine that supplies refrigeration in the butcher shop of John Stegner, first floor of the building, blew off shortly before 10 a.m., causing the fumes to escape.”

The circumstances involved here were fairly typical for Cincinnati in the early 1920s and 1930s. Refrigeration was just beginning to enter the domestic market and most electric refrigerators were installed by businesses. In the early days, the noisy refrigeration machinery was usually relegated to the basement. The coolant of choice for most commercial systems was ammonia. Some of these installations were ponderous, as reported in the Post [10 March 1930]:

“Attempting to shut off ammonia pipes after a compressor head broke in the 15-ton refrigeration plant at Hamilton County Tuberculosis Sanitarium Monday at 8 a.m., Gus Leistner, 65, of 914 Findlay-st, engineer, partially was overcome by fumes.”

Later that same year, the University Club at Fourth and Broadway had to be evacuated because of ammonia leaking from its refrigeration system. The Strietmann Baking Company at Central Parkway and Plum Street suffered a massive ammonia spill in 1924. Firemen needed gas masks to enter the Hilberg Packing Company at 516 Polar Street in 1928 when ammonia seeping from the refrigerator filled the building.

Despite such catastrophes, ammonia was the most common coolant for the first thirty years of the 1900s. A Cincinnati firm, the F.W. Niebling & Son Co., of 406 Elm Street, boasted in an advertisement [20 February 1927] that the first ammonia-infused refrigeration plant installed by the company was 31 years old and still “in excellent condition.”

Still, ammonia was connected to so many mishaps that advertisers touted any system that did not involve ammonia. In 1926, the Tudor Court Apartments in Clifton installed a building-wide refrigeration system, with each of the 86 apartments equipped with a Frigidaire unit serviced by a massive compressor in the basement. The owners hastened to advertise that “no brine or ammonia” was used in that system.

Ammonia wasn’t the only chemical employed in refrigeration equipment. Responding to a reader’s inquiry, the Post [22 July 1921] inventoried a veritable witch’s cauldron of compounds used in various systems:

“What is the formula for the solution which is used in the cooling coils of an electric refrigerator? Substances are: Ammonia, carbon dioxide, ethyl chloride, methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide.”

Of that formulary, ammonia’s biggest competitor was methyl chloride, a colorless, odorless, flammable gas. Methyl chloride was more efficient than ammonia and better suited to the small coolant devices required for a single house, as opposed to the big industrial machines cooled by ammonia. Units incorporating methyl chloride were so small they were retrofitted as mechanical ice blocks. Customers kept their old ice boxes, canceled ice delivery and turned on a methyl chloride unit in the same compartment where they would formerly have loaded a block of ice.

Refrigeration sounded the death knell for the familiar ice man – once science discovered a coolant that wouldn’t kill the customers.

From Cincinnati Enquirer 1 July 1926 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand Caption:

Manufacturers also claimed methyl chloride was safer than ammonia. Cincinnati’s Milnor Electric Co. highlighted this benefit in an advertisement [18 March 1923] for their Serv-el Automatic Electric Home Refrigeration products in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“Important Notice: The gas (methyl-chloride) used in Serv-el is harmless, odorless and non-poisonous. Only Serv-el has this advantage.”

This claim was sorely tested in August 1929 when a rash of deaths blamed on methyl chloride refrigerators was reported from Chicago. The Chicago deaths created a panic among refrigeration companies who appealed to the federal government for assistance. The Cincinnati Enquirer [23 August 1929] reported that three governmental agencies—the Public Health Service, the Bureau of Standards, and the Bureau of Mines—had announced that household refrigeration systems were safe.

“Serious accidents from household refrigeration systems, the statement continued, have been small in comparison to the number in use and added that improvements might be expected that would reduce materially the small hazard that does exist.”

The Chicago deaths gave hope to the consumer ice industry, fighting a losing battle against the march of progress. In an Enquirer advertisement [31 July 1926], the City Ice & Fuel Co. complained that these new-fangled systems required:

“ . . . a complicated, high-cost mechanical-chemical outfit, dependent on a large and continuous supply of electricity to make it ‘run,’ and on some chemical (SULPHUR DIOXIDE OR METHYL CHLORIDE) to create cold – just as ammonia is used in the big ice plants.”

It was, of course, a losing proposition. The old ice boxes were messy, moldy things that really didn’t keep food all that cold and regularly flooded the kitchen with water melted from the huge block of ice delivered by some guy who tracked muddy footprints across your carpet.

All the industry needed was a better coolant, a chemical that cooled your refrigerator but didn’t kill you. The solution came from an inventor named Thomas Midgley Jr., who lived just up the road in Dayton. In 1932, Midgley came up with something called Freon. It checked all the boxes and soon replaced all other coolants for the next 60 years or so.

Problem was, Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon, accumulated in the atmosphere and contributed to the destruction of the ozone layer that protects life on earth from the harmful rays of the sun. So, in essence, to avoid a few disastrous refrigeration accidents, we found a solution that endangered all life on the planet.

Ponder that the next time you pull a brewski from the fridge.

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