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First Frost

May 2024
3min read


I read with interest the article in last year’s August/September issue that traced the history of air conditioning. Certainly Willis Carrier was the “Johnny Icicle” who was responsible for the cooling of America; but 1 was interested to see that the story does not describe a fantastic and forgotten public utility that cooled off customers well over a decade before Carrier set up his first installation.

In St. Louis, Denver, and Atlantic City at the end of the nineteenth century, it was possible to order refrigerant pumped to your business through street mains. Breweries, meat-packers, hotels, restaurants, and even one farsighted theater owner took advantage of this safe, convenient, economical method of cooling.

The artificial manufacture of ice was perfected in the early 1870s, but much of the cost of ice, manufactured or natural, lay in its delivery to the customer. Across America inventors set about trying to do away with the iceman—and even the ice itself—by building cooling systems in several different cities. Their efforts ended in costly failure, but they pointed the way for a group of entrepreneurs named Starr, Thornburgh and Branson.

These men studied the cooling equipment of the day—ice machines that furnished refrigerant to cold-storage warehouses adjacent to them—and concluded that the next logical step would be to supply refrigerant to far-flung users through a system of mains.

They formed the Colorado Automatic Refrigerating Company, built a plant in Denver, and put it into operation in March of 1889. It consisted of a thirtyton ice machine, two miles of mains, and a cold-storage warehouse with a capacity of fifty thousand cubic feet. For the refrigerant, they chose ammonia: it was nonexplosive, nonflammable, and its sharp odor would give immediate warning of any leak. The one-inch wroughtiron main ran to twenty-nine separate “cooling boxes.” Each connection had a valve with a 1/64-inch opening that let the coolant into a grille of 1½-inch pipes on the room’s ceiling. The ammonia traveled to the valve in liquid form at room temperature; once inside the large coil, however, it expanded to its gaseous state and absorbed heat from the pipe, and thus from the room—a radiator in reverse. The far end of the coil was connected to a three-inch return main.

The service was a success from the start. Before long the partners could replace their original pipe conduit of rough wooden planks with vitrified clay, and all the cast-iron fittings with more costly wrought-iron ones. They added a third pipe to the system as a spare for emergencies: an arrangement of valves let it temporarily bypass any section of the main line that needed repairs without interrupting service.

The promoters claimed many advantages for their system: customers gained one-third more usable space, which formerly had been taken up by ice; temperatures could be maintained within two degrees and held as low as twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit; the air was dry and sweet instead of moist and disagreeable; and the mere opening of a valve took the place of the iceman’s visit with its inevitable trail of drippings.

Originally a company “patrolman” made the rounds opening and closing the valves, but eventually an electric thermostat took his place. Since few establishments had electricity at the time, the power was generated at the cooling plant and fed through wires laid alongside the piping.

One of the more pleasant initial problems confronting the partners was how to arrive at a price for their service. At first they tabulated ice bills and worked out a formula based on the volume of air space to be cooled. But in time this gave way to fees based on a table of exposed surfaces—the same method used by the piped steam-heating systems then in vogue in the larger cities.

It cost about eighteen thousand dollars to install a mile of piping with one hundred connections to the curbline in business neighborhoods; in residential areas where streets had few pipes, the cost ran about fourteen thousand dollars per mile. A powerhouse with duplicate machines to operate two or three miles of street lines in a business locality would cost about ninety thousand dollars.

Flushed with success, the Colorado Automatic Refrigerating Company twice enlarged its plant and extended its street mains. The system, wrote one happy customer, “is absolutely perfect, and is something that a butcher needs to use for only one week to make him feel that he is rescued from one of the greatest evils of the butcher’s business, namely, the price, trouble, labor, and dirt, attendant upon handling natural ice.” Another wrote, “Today, if the ice was given to me gratis, and even placed in my box free of charge, I would not use it, and exchange my present method of obtaining cold air.” But that is what he was shortly forced to do.

In spite of glowing reports to scientific bodies and engineering journals, after a few years the various companies providing refrigerant via pipes disappeared from the business directories. The parent firm was no longer listed after 1896. The Atlantic City Cooling Company, started in 1895, appears to have been the longest lived. It faded away in 1906.

What caused the demise of these innovative businesses? Did the increasing availability of electricity make individual commercial refrigeration installations more economical? Perhaps one of your readers has the answer.

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