In ‘Chilled,’ Tom Jackson recounts the history and science of refrigeration.
What is humanity’s greatest invention? Agriculture? Language? The Internet?
Nope. It’s the refrigerator, at least according to Tom Jackson. In his entertaining new book, “Chilled,” Jackson walks us through the creation of cold — or, at least, man-made cold. And he explains how frigid air made all sorts of things possible, from the variety of food we eat to the hydrogen bomb. “A refrigerator,” he writes, “can also be a gas factory, a rocket engine, a server farm and even a fusion bomb. It’s used to dig holes, make dams, track subatomic particles, image the brain and feed half the world.”
Jackson offers a mix of history, science and storytelling. He explains how Sumerians used air and cold water to keep wine cool 4,000 years ago. He offers up a legend about the origin of ice cream, suggesting that Mongolian horsemen created it accidentally while riding across the freezing plains with cream in their bags (talk about churn!). And, he says, J.R.R. Tolkien may have modeled the domed hobbit houses in the Shire after a sunken ice house in Birmingham’s Moseley Park in Britain.
Jackson also walks us through the early 20th-century ice trade, explaining how a handful of Bostonians got rich shipping frozen water (chiseled from ponds and lakes in wintertime) to Cuba, India and even South Carolina. It was hard going at first. As Jackson writes, “To the island-born locals, [ice] was a novelty, but few had any idea what to do with it . . . customers were baffled when their purchase turned to water when left in the sun.”
Slowly, though, ice caught on. Today there’s a fridge (and a cooling system) in almost every home. The ability to cool buildings made the Sun Belt inhabitable and skyscrapers possible. It’s enabled us to eat more and better (the refrigerators of modern Tokyo provide the ingredients for at least 113 million meals a day).
Refrigeration is a curse as well as a blessing. Two-thirds of U.S. buildings boast air conditioning; the luxury costs us $11 billion a year and leads to the emission of about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Efforts to green the technology have mostly fallen flat. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley has come up with creative methods for cooling the thousands of computer servers it stores in giant warehouses. Google oozes oil over its servers; the viscous fluid absorbs heat. Facebook built one of its farms near the Arctic Circle, using nature’s air conditioning (and open windows) to do the job.
We must do more. But fixing this big problem shouldn’t be impossible. After all, we did figure out how to chill the world.
By Tom Jackson
Bloomsbury/Sigma. 272 pp. $27