John Gorrie, the Doctor Who Pioneered the Ice-Maker

Bluestocking42 via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Bluestocking42 via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0 / Bluestocking42 via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From Italian ice and chilled horchata to mint juleps and mudslides, frosty treats have been helping people across the globe cool off on hot summer days for generations. Over the past century, innovations in refrigeration have made on-demand cold ever more accessible, but before that, humankind spent centuries on its quest for cool. The search saw many thousands of tons of ice shipped around the world, created a millionaire Ice King, and—if 19th-century doctor and ice-machine inventor John Gorrie had gotten his way—could have ended decades earlier than it did.

When John Gorrie was born in 1803 (sources differ on his place of birth), the luxury of ice in warmer weather was only enjoyed by royalty and the very rich, as it had been since ancient times—sadly, ice cream included. Over the millennia, many cultures developed methods of storing precious ice and snow for use throughout the year, as well as methods for packing and exporting it to warmer areas. Insulated ice houses have been discovered in China, for example, dating from the Chunqiu or “Spring and Autumn” period of 770-481 BCE, while conical Persian “yakhchals” were helping store ice away from the cool mountains as early as 400 BCE. Nevertheless, the majority of transported and stored ice often melted before being consumed, keeping prices high and accessibility low throughout the ages, even in Gorrie’s early years.

By the late 1820s, however, when Gorrie was studying medicine in New York, an entrepreneur from Boston had already been hard-selling his new vision for an ice-filled marketplace for years. His name was Frederic Tudor, a.k.a. the Ice King, whose tireless promotion of cold drinks and free ice samples through the early 1800s helped build a substantial market for an international ice boom. Using innovative techniques, Tudor’s workers (and his subsequent competitors) cut tens of thousands of tons of New England ice directly from lakes and rivers in huge slabs, packed them in sawdust, and shipped them to flushed customers in the U.S., East and West Indies, India, Asia, South America, and even Europe over the following few decades.

Frederic Tudor. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

When Dr. Gorrie moved to Apalachicola, Florida in 1833, Tudor had just made waves by sending 180 tons of New England ice to Calcutta, but the uses for ice that Gorrie soon developed had little to do with trade. Nestled in swampy Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico, his new town was the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, exporting cotton picked in slave-dominated areas to the north. It saw significant growth and immigration through the early 19th century and, in 1841, the hot, humid area also saw a deadly outbreak of yellow fever—one of many mosquito-borne health crises confounding doctors at the time.

John Gorrie, who was experimenting with possible treatment applications for ice, had some ideas on the matter. In addition to serving as Apalachicola’s postmaster, treasurer, and onetime mayor, Gorrie had been using his medical practice to try out a form of air-conditioning on his feverish patients, suspending containers of ice above their beds so that cool air could drift down below. While he and his colleagues didn’t yet know that mosquitos were responsible for disease transmission, he had reasoned that heat was involved in its spread, and felt "Nature would terminate the fevers by changing the seasons," according to Smithsonian. Gorrie also felt that swampy areas should be drained around towns, but he wrote in the local newspaper that such operations were largely impractical and too ambitious for most places, and that moderating climate was a more realistic solution.

His developing system required a steady supply of ice, however, so—rather than rely on Tudor’s “natural” version—Gorrie dedicated himself to building a mechanism for manufacturing it. As historian Tom Shachtman notes, philosophers and scientists had long been pondering such an idea, and Gorrie was one of several inventors of his era to build on an artificial refrigeration method outlined by William Cullen in 1748. The method involved the principles of decompression, wherein a compressed gas cools down dramatically as it decompresses, which allowed Gorrie and other early inventors to demonstrate small-scale cooling by pressurizing gas in metal-piped mechanisms.

As Gorrie's dedication to manufactured cold grew in the early 1840s, he published a series of articles in Apalachicola’s Commercial Advertiser on the importance of developing such technology, using the pseudonym “Jenner.” At the time, the Smithsonian writes, the natural ice trade was booming, “[while] the notion that humans could create ice bordered on blasphemy.” In 1844, however, the Advertiser's editor responded in print to "Jenner's" assertions with a level of enthusiasm Gorrie seldom encountered in his lifetime, calling the ability to provide artificial cold mankind's most "urgent" want and saying such a discovery would "alter and extend the face of civilization.” That year, Gorrie gave up his medical practice and civic roles to devote his time entirely to the development of his ice-maker.

By 1848, he had developed a working prototype of a vapor-compression refrigerator, which could be powered by horse, water, wind, or sail to pressurize air for its cooling effect on water pipes, and he applied for both British and American patents. Around that time (sources alternately say 1847, 1848, and 1850), Gorrie finally had the opportunity to make a splash with his device in front of Florida’s upper-crust movers and shakers—specifically, by helping the Parisian cotton-buyer and consul Monsieur Rosan win a bet.

A particularly sweltering summer had already melted Florida's ice shipments from up north, Shachtman says, meaning that wealthy guests of Apalachicola's Mansion House hotel had to endure the "abominable inconvenience" of life without it during a Bastille Day celebration. Rosan, whose new associate John Gorrie was on hand, wagered that he could furnish the needed ice right there in the dining room. Shortly afterward, he ushered in a fleet of waiters carrying iced buckets of champagne, according to Smithsonian. News of the successful demonstration spread, causing a New York newspaper to comment, "There is a crank down in Apalachicola, Florida, that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty."

Diagram of John Gorrie's Ice Machine from U.S. Patent 8080, May 6, 1851. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

Gorrie’s British and American patents for the device arrived in 1850 and 1851, respectively, and after securing funding from a Boston backer and finding a company to manufacture his device, he’d successfully created the first commercially available ice-making machine. Despite some enthusiasm for his work in the scientific community, however, his device still met with a mostly chilly reception.

Not long after Gorrie had received his patents, his main backer from Boston died, and frequent public ridicule for his machine kept other investors away, according to the Smithsonian. Gorrie also began to suspect that the Ice King himself, a.k.a. Frederic Tudor, had been driving the campaign against the doctor and his ice-maker in the press and in southern business communities so as to protect his own profession. Tudor may also have played up the angle of manufactured ice as blasphemy to serve his purposes, the magazine notes, and Gorrie was almost certainly referring to Tudor when he wrote about “moral causes … [having] been brought into play to prevent [the machine’s] use.”

Whatever the cause, Gorrie found himself unable to round up much further support for his device despite committed searching through various Southern cities, and finally returned to Apalachicola to live out the last years of his life. Gorrie’s long-awaited patent on air-conditioning, the other breakthrough resulting from his work, never came before his death in 1855, at which time he was “suffering from a nervous collapse and devastated by failure,” the Smithsonian writes. His conclusion, finally, was that the mechanical refrigeration he’d worked so tirelessly on “had been found in advance of the wants of the country.” 

Manufactured ice did eventually take hold, of course, leading to today’s $2.5 billion per year ice industry. Gorrie’s once-overlooked invention helped pave the way: As one scholar explained in 1953, Gorrie’s key innovations included the use of circulated cooled air and a method for recovering some of the energy expended in compressing air—techniques missing from many early refrigeration mechanisms, and which would prove pivotal for cooling technology to come. Thankfully for his newly inspired peers, his achievements were documented in an 1849 issue of Scientific American.

In the years following Gorrie’s death, inventors in the U.S. and UK developed several improved models of vapor-compression refrigerators based on Gorrie’s design, kicking off an era in which fresh, chilled food and drink would finally start benefiting the masses. During the Civil War, shipments of Northern ice to the South were halted, and ice houses selling manufactured ice began cropping up below the Mason-Dixon line by the 1860s. Various companies also began exploring ways to diversify their chilled offerings in ways that have led to some familiar modern companies: Some southern ice houses evolved into bars and beer manufacturers, while another company started selling watermelon and cold drinks at its smaller, more convenient ice-pickup locations. The small chain became known as Tot’em stores, a reference to a decorative totem pole outside one store and to the act of toting away ice; today, it’s known as 7-11.  

Gorrie is still remembered for his scientific contributions throughout Florida and the world, however, and is memorialized in our nation’s capital and Apalachicola’s own John Gorrie Museum—which, thankfully, is air-conditioned.