In the 11th century, Persian physicist and chemist Ibn Sina (Latinized name: Avicenna) invented the refrigerated coil, which condenses aromatic vapours. This was a breakthrough in distillation technology and he made use of it in his steam distillation process, which requires refrigerated tubing, to produce essential oils.
The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748. The American inventor Oliver Evans, acclaimed as the "father of refrigeration," invented the vapor-compression refrigeration machine in 1805. Heat was removed from the environment by recycling vaporized refrigerant, where it moved through a compressor and condenser, where it eventually reverted to a liquid form to repeat the process. However, Evans built no such refrigeration unit. In 1834, Jacob Perkins modified Evan’s original design, building the world's first refrigerator and filing the first legal patent for refrigeration using vapor-compression. John Gorrie, an American doctor from Florida, invented the first mechanical refrigeration unit in 1841—based on Evans' original invention to make ice in—to cool air for yellow fever patients. Gorrie's mechanical refrigeration unit received a patent in 1851. American professor Alexander C. Twining of Cleveland, Ohio patented an early vapor-compression refrigerator in 1853 that was fully capable of producing a ton of ice per day.
In 1856, James Harrison, an immigrant from Scotland living in Australia, developed an ice making machine using ammonia and an ether compressor. It was used in the brewing and meat packing industries of Geelong, Victoria. Ferdinand Carré of France developed a somewhat more complex system in 1859. Unlike earlier compression-compression machines, which used air as a coolant, Carré's equipment contained rapidly expanding ammonia. In 1867, Andrew Muhl, an immigrant from France, built an ice-making machine in San Antonio, Texas, to help service the expanding beef industry before moving it to Waco in 1871. In 1873, the patent for this machine was contracted by the Columbus Iron Works, a company acquired by the W. C. Bradley Co., which produced the world's first commercial ice-makers.
Carl Paul Gottfried Linde, ennobled in 1897 as Ritter von Linde, was a German engineer who developed refrigeration and gas separation technologies. In 1890, Carl von Linde moved back to Munich where he took up his professorship once more, but was soon back at work developing new refrigeration cycles. In 1892, an order from the Guinness brewery in Dublin for a Carbon Dioxide liquefaction plant drove Linde's research into the area of low temperature refrigeration, and in 1894 he started work on a process for the liquefaction of air. In 1895, Linde first achieved success, and filed for patent protection of his process (not approved in the US until 1903). In 1901, Linde began work on a technique to obtain pure oxygen and nitrogen based on the fractional distillation of liquefied air. By 1910 coworkers including Carl's son Friedrich had developed the Linde double-column process, variants of which are still in common use today.
In 1913, refrigerators for home and domestic use were invented by Fred W. Wolf of Fort Wayne, Indiana with models consisting of a unit that was mounted on top of an ice box. In 1914, engineer Nathaniel B. Wales of Detroit, Michigan, introduced an idea for a practical electric refrigeration unit, which later became the basis for the Kelvinator. A self-contained refrigerator, with a compressor on the bottom of the cabinet was invented by Alfred Mellowes in 1916. Mellowes produced this refrigerator commercially but was bought out by William C. Durant in 1918, who started the Frigidaire Company to mass-produce refrigerators. In 1918, Kelvinator Company introduced the first refrigerator with any type of automatic control. The absorption refrigerator was invented by Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters from Sweden in 1922, while they were still students at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. It became a worldwide success and was commercialized by Electrolux. Other pioneers included Charles Tellier, David Boyle, and Raoul Pictet. Carl von Linde was the first to patent and make a practical and compact refrigerator.
These home units usually required the installation of the mechanical parts, motor and compressor, in the basement or an adjacent room while the cold box was located in the kitchen. There was a 1922 model that consisted of a wooden cold box, water-cooled compressor, an ice cube tray and a 9-cubic-foot (0.25 m3) compartment, and cost $714. (A 1922 Model-T Ford cost about $450.) By 1923, Kelvinator held 80 percent of the market for electric refrigerators. Also in 1923 Frigidaire introduced the first self-contained unit. About this same time porcelain-covered metal cabinets began to appear. Ice cube trays were introduced more and more during the 1920s; up to this time freezing was not an auxiliary function of the modern refrigerator.
The first refrigerator to see widespread use was the General Electric "Monitor-Top" refrigerator introduced in 1927, so-called because of its resemblance to the gun turret on the ironclad warship USS Monitor of the 1860s. The compressor assembly, which emitted a great deal of heat, was placed above the cabinet, and surrounded with a decorative ring. Over a million units were produced. As the refrigerating medium, these refrigerators used either sulfur dioxide, which is corrosive to the eyes and may cause loss of vision, painful skin burns and lesions, or methyl formate, which is highly flammable, harmful to the eyes, and toxic if inhaled or ingested. Many of these units are still functional today. These cooling systems cannot legally be recharged with the hazardous original refrigerants if they leak or break down.
The introduction of Freon in the 1920s expanded the refrigerator market during the 1930s and provided a safer, low-toxicity alternative to previously used refrigerants. Separate freezers became common during the 1940s, the popular term at the time for the unit was a deep freeze. These devices, or appliances, did not go into mass production for use in the home until after World War II. The 1950s and 1960s saw technical advances like automatic defrosting and automatic ice making. More efficient refrigerators were developed in the 1970s and 1980s, even though environmental issues led to the banning of very effective (Freon) refrigerants. Early refrigerator models (from 1916) had a cold compartment for ice cube trays. From the late 1920s fresh vegetables were successfully processed through freezing by the Postum Company (the forerunner of General Foods), which had acquired the technology when it bought the rights to Clarence Birdseye's successful fresh freezing methods.
The first successful application of frozen foods occurred when General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (then wife of Joseph E. Davies, United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union) deployed commercial-grade freezers in Spaso House, the US Embassy in Moscow, in advance of the Davies’ arrival. Post, fearful of the USSR's food processing safety standards, fully stocked the freezers with products from General Foods' Birdseye unit. The frozen food stores allowed the Davies to entertain lavishly and serve fresh frozen foods that would otherwise be out of season. Upon returning from Moscow, Post (who resumed her maiden name after divorcing Davies) directed General Foods to market frozen product to upscale restaurants.
Home freezers as separate compartments (larger than necessary just for ice cubes), or as separate units, were introduced in the United States in 1940. Frozen foods, previously a luxury item, became commonplace.