How the refrigerator got its hum

A few years ago, a friend of mine was living in a small flat which contained a fridge that hummed very loudly. Very loudly indeed. She found it a bit annoying. Also annoying: the power supply for the room was through a meter she had to keep feeding with coins to maintain a regular supply of electricity, which was prone to running out with little warning. However, she noticed that the fridge’s hum would change slightly when the meter needed feeding. What had started off as an annoying side effect of the fridge’s ability to keep her food cool became a useful guide for the maintenance of her home. She went on to do a whole PhD reflecting on the domestic soundscape: the importance of sounds like toast popping up, the chug of the washing machine, a kettle boiling, taps dripping.

I love this story about my friend’s fridge because it demonstrates something we all do: the sometimes unintended re-use of the various bits and pieces of technology that surround us. How many of you, for example, have magnets on your fridge?

I also love this story because it gives me an excuse to tell the story of how the refrigerator got its hum in the first place.  This story is a classic in the social history of technology. If you have any familiarity with this field you’ll know it. If not, let me introduce you to it because it’s a good story, and one with a neat moral. Because there could have been other fridges, other – quieter – fridges.

In her classic essay ‘How the Refrigerator got its Hum‘ (chapter 15 in this book, or download a PDF here), Ruth Schwartz Cowan traces the early history of domestic fridges. In 1920s USA, there were two types of fridges on the market; electrically powered ones which used a (humming) motorised compressor to work their refrigerants, and gas ones. All mechanical fridges work by controlling the vaporisation and condensation of a liquid called a refrigerant. Most fridges today do this control with a special electric-power pump called a compressor, but there’s also the technique of absorption, which is kicked off by a gas-fulled flame. The fridge’s hum wasn’t inevitable. Once upon a time, that particular bit of our domestic soundscape could have been very different.

Various refrigeration machines were patented throughout the 19th century, and manufactured ice became available throughout the southeaster US by 1890 (natural ice was easier to come by further north, so there was less of a market). Most breweries had large scale refrigeration machines, as did meat packers and Cowan talks of ‘icemen’ carrying manufactured ice for sale through the major cities. Such commercial fridges were big objects though, few were under 5 tones and many weighed anything between 100-200 tons. So it wasn’t until 1914 that the first domestic fridges were developed. This was an electric compressor model, complete with very noisy hum and the wonderful name of ‘Kelvinator’ (Cowan, 1985: 204-6). Throughout the 1920s, more and more domestic fridges were developed, although they remained very much a luxury item, with gas companies going into production of their models from the mid 1920s (Cowan, 1985: 212).

Although the gas fridges were arguably more efficient and without motorised parts did not break down so often – they were even known as ‘the common sense machine’ – the electric ones became the norm. Cowan argues that this was largely down the social and economic power of the electrical companies, especially General Electric, who not only had a lot of weight with domestic appliance salespeople but, as Cowan puts it, could employ ‘outlandish advertising and public relations techniques’. These do really did sound like quite the PR carnival: swashbuckling pirates in storerooms, exhibition trains travelling the country and jazz bands riding floats across small town America. One was presented to Henry Ford in a special radio broadcast in 1931. In 1928, another was send on a submarine voyage to the North Pole with Robert Ripley (as in the ‘Believe it or Not’ Ripley). In 1935, fridges were the star of the first ever commercial Technicolour film. This ran for nearly and hour with Hollywood stars and a romantic comedy script rooted in the need for a complete electric kitchen (Cowan, 1985: 209-10). It’s also worth noting that the various electric companies cooperated here in selling the idea of electric refrigeration, even if they competed on named products (Cowan, 1985: 211). With gas vs. electric fridge, it wasn’t a technical decision as to which won; it was largely social-political-economic. It wasn’t the first tale in the history of technology to be so, and it wasn’t the last either.

In many respects, the history of technology is a history of failed machines; of routes we didn’t take, not the ones we did. There have never been a shortage of new inventions, what ‘shapes us’ is what we choose to pick up on. David Edgerton (2006) puts this very well in his book ‘The Shock of the Old‘ which calls for a focus on thinking about technology we use, rather than new technology:

The history of invention is not the history of a necessary future to which we must adapt or die, but rather of failed futures, and of futures firmly fixed in the past. We do not have a history of invention, but instead histories of the invention of only some of the technologies which were later successful (Edgerton, 2006: 184. Emphasis as original).

Cowan would ascribe to this sort of view on the history of technology too, and as a way of prefacing her tale of the fridge’s hum, refers to the sorts of innovations advertised in 19th and 20th century women’s magazines: technologies we might look back on now as quaint and funny, but were often very good ideas:

What resident of a drought-prone area today would not be grateful for a toilet that does not use water? [...] Why do we have popcorn makers and electric can openers but not gas refrigerators or inexpensive central vacuum cleaners? If we can put a man on the moon, why have we been unable to pipe out garbage disposals into our compost heaps? (Cowan, 1985: 202)

And there’s the moral of the story: the possibilities around technology are multiple. They are not limitless, but they aren’t singular either, and they certainly are not linear. There are choices when it comes to the technologies we choose to take on, and choices about how we make use of them, when and if.

Technology is done by people, and can be redone and undone by people too. Stories of how we have made choices in the past (unwittingly or otherwise) about technology help uncover this, as well as point us towards old routes we could return to. This is the great liberating lesson from the social history of technology movement, one that, whether we are thinking about fridges, synbio, geo-engineering, bicycles, a cotton jumper, the internet or anything else, we would all do well to remember.

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43 thoughts on “How the refrigerator got its hum

  1. Pingback: How the refrigerator got its hum | through the looking glass « Fridges Freezers etc

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  3. Kate

    I used to have a silent electric absorption fridge – Electrolux made one, maybe they still do. I lived in a studio flat, which wouldn’t have been possible if the damn thing had been switching on and off all night.

    Reply
      1. nm

        I understand when it was written. What I don’t understand is why you wanted to quote that section when pretty much none of Cowan’s examples apply today. Those technologies are not “quaint and funny” but real. Their significance depends on the individuals that use them. Technological success or otherwise has been as much influenced by climate and geography as “social-political-economic” (which is a term so wide that it can mean anything). For example: why do so many Americans use tumble dryers rather than clotheslines? Why are there very few gas stoves in rural Africa? Not because of GE in either case.

        Reply
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  5. David S.

    Ah yes, good old gas-powered fridges! Where a source of combustion meets ammonia, water and hydrogen gas! What could possibly go wrong? (And frequently did in the 1920s. Still does today, a significant number of modern RV and caravan fires are caused by malfunctioning gas fridges.)

    I’ll take the hum thank you very much, today’s fire-fighters have more than enough to do.

    Reply
  6. Mark Reynolds

    In the 1920’s, most cities still used “coal” gas (much like today’s acetylene); it was originally used for gas lighting. This stuff was nasty – smelly, and dangerous, as the gas itself has a significant component of carbon monoxide. Electricity was by 1910 the “clean” alternative for lighting, and that reputation probably helped greatly in adoption for refrigeration as well. Also, it was much easier in the era to install a new electric refrigeration, than to pipe for a gas appliance.

    Reply
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  10. Michael Sacasas

    “And there’s the moral of the story: the possibilities around technology are multiple. They are not limitless, but they aren’t singular either, and they certainly are not linear. There are choices when it comes to the technologies we choose to take on, and choices about how we make use of them, when and if.”

    Well put. I might only add that those choices later on condition or constrain future choices and we end up with something like “technological momentum.” The tools we make, make us and all of that.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Electrification, Refrigerators, and the Social Construction of Technology « The Frailest Thing

  12. BongoBob

    Also reminds me of the contest between VHS and Beta. You have to be above a certain age to remember this, but most independent observers considered Beta a superior techlnlogy even though VHS “won the war” for other reasons

    Reply
  13. T.J. Anderson (@TJSonOfAnder)

    As an Engineer who works with vacuum systems daily I am honestly glad that electric vacuum systems is the path that prevailed. Today there are many reasons why the pursuit of a more efficient compact electric vacuum pump (in case you didn’t know refrigeration is made possible by vacuum systems AKA vacuum pumps) has helped our progress in other fields.

    Also I now wish I had a fridge named the “Kelvinator”! Who wouldn’t!?

    Reply
  14. Sayash Kumar

    Wonderful article! I completely agree with the feeling of liberation that follows on understanding the history of technology. The way we are today and will be tomorrow will never be the only way “forward”… technology shadows our beliefs and whims.

    If I may take the liberty to recommend something, the following pages do make for some inspiring related-reading : Low tech magazine ( http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/ ) and this scientific article, http://www.pnas.org/content/106/8/2483.full , from PNAS dealing with the required redesign of worldviews, institutions and technologies. Stories like the ones you’ve described are critical in making us understand our present world better!

    Thanks for the great article!

    Reply
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  16. Joaquin

    It is interesting that the absorption fridge was invented by Einstein, worried by the accidents that compression fridges produced trough ammonia leaks. It seems that he tried also a new approach of generating low temperatures with electromagnetism..

    Reply
  17. Beri Gilfix

    Did you know that our vacuum cleaners make a big noise because otherwise consumers think they are not working? They do have the technology to make silent vacuum cleaners but then, how would you know it was doing its job?

    Reply
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  23. Keith Veerman

    “Such commercial fridges were big objects though, few were under 5 tones and many weighed anything between 100-200 tons.”

    THe author is making the (common) mistake of confusing refrigeration tons with weight, wheras it is really the cooling capacity. A refrigeration “ton” is equivalent to 12,000 Btu/hour, which equals the energy required to melt (or freeze) one ton of ice. For example many central air conditioners, used in our homes, are sized in the 2-1/2 to 3 ton range (30 to 36 thousand Btu/hour).

    Reply
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