Sat. Jun 15th, 2019

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

A Brief History of Refrigerated Shipping

3 min read

It’s fair to say that the development of refrigerated shipping changed how America eats. Because of refrigerated shipping, meats and produce could travel greater distances without spoiling or over-ripening, so people gained access to foods that couldn’t be cultivated in their own areas. It’s the reason we can have Georgia peaches in Montana, key limes in Maine and Alaskan crab in Indiana.

But the development of refrigerated shipping involved an evolutionary process that goes back to the nineteenth century. Here’s an overview of the journey from then to today.

Refrigeration hits the rails

The refrigerated railroad car was patented in 1867 by J.B. Southerland of Detroit. These weren’t anything like the mechanical cooling apparatuses we know today. Large blocks of ice would be stored in bunkers at each end of a specially insulated car, and as the train moved, air would flow in from outside, across the ice and then into the main compartment. Hanging flaps controlled the circulation of the cooled air.

These refrigerated cars, and others like them, helped small cities become established as hubs for different types of foods. Chicago and Kansas City, for example, grew from the meat industry as slaughterhouses there could use this new technology to ship meat greater distances without spoiling. Similar specialization occurred in other parts of the country. Soon, just about anywhere the railroads ran, consumers could find apples and pears from the Pacific northwest, grapes from California, peaches from Georgia and citrus fruits from Florida.

Cooling down the roads

Refrigerating systems didn’t work their way into the trucking industry until Fred Jones patented a roof-mounted cooling device in 1949. Although a single train could carry extremely large amounts of meat and produce, trucks offered a delivery speed that railroads simply couldn’t compete with, so over-the-road shipping has grown into the large industry that it is today.

According to a September 2012 report from IBISWorld, in the United States, long-distance refrigerated trucking — a subset of the entire refrigerated trucking industry —was an $11 billion industry relying on 72,547 employees.

Throughout this timeline, refrigeration technology continued to expand. The manufacturing of refrigeration parts became more streamlined and inexpensive. Water ice was abandoned in favor of more effective (but more dangerous) refrigerants such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide, methyl chloride, CFCs and Freon.

An icy future

In spite of all these advances, refrigeration and refrigerated shipping still aren’t perfect. A scientific report in 1976 showed conclusive proof that Freon was damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. Freon is now being phased out according to the Clean Air Act of 1990, with a full ban implemented by 2020. To find a replacement for Freon, researchers are devising new ways to keep things cool. For example, tests are being conducted on a new system that uses hydrogen fuel cells to control trailer temperatures. Thus, technology saves fuel, has low, safe emissions and runs more quietly.

The future of refrigerated shipping, then, is cheaper, cleaner and quieter. What more could you ask for?

Danielle is a part time student at The Kelley School of Business studying marketing and supply chain management. Her fascination with history, particularly Native American cultural studies, is a time-consuming hobby that’s led her on many travels and caused her personal library to grow in excess of 250 books. Contact her on Twitter to discuss logistics and transportation, history, or cat videos.

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