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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Capt. H.G. Bishop's Congealing the Ice Trust

The romance of the Gay Nineties has its automatic signifiers. Ladies with bustles and feathered hats, men in dapper suits and handlebar moustaches, barbershop quartets, penny-farthing bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, gingerbread architecture, gaslight, and other such "Main Street USA" accoutrements immediately identify a setting in the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. Another ubiquitous image is the iceman, hocking blocks of ice from the back of his wagon, destined for the iceboxes of home and restaurant.

The ice man visits Washington D.C.'s first public school for
African American children, c. 1899. Photo: Library of Congress.

Iceboxes were, for all intents and purposes, like modern refrigerators without the machinery. In place of the freezer unit at the top of refrigerator would be a box for holding a block of ice. Those blocks of ice were harvested from lakes and ponds and stored in insulated ice houses through the year. The iceman would then collect blocks of ice into his cart and truck around town. It's all very quaint and nostalgic... But how would this industry be transformed in a world where inventors are regularly firing themselves into outer space, disintegrating and shrinking each other, and voyaging across the planet by airship and submarine?

Captain H.G. Bishop's 1907 short story Congealing the Ice Trust attempts to address this question.


Published in New Broadway Magazine, Congealing the Ice Trust begins with a triumphal ice baron, John G. Yates, who has successfully brought the entire ice industry of Greater New York under his control. Naturally, many people were critical of his monopoly, including his own employees (one of whom, an inventor and ice warehouse superintendent, had wasted hundreds of dollars in failed experiments). His good morning does not last long, however. With the mail came a rather threatening note:
Mr. John G. Yates,
President, Amsterdam Ice Co. 
Dear Sir:
After many years of study and interminable labor I have at last perfected a freezing and refrigerating apparatus which will revolutionize all existing methods in this line. The apparatus is so simple and inexpensive, both in original cost and operation as to be within reach of all, even the poorest, and of course when once placed upon the market will render practically useless and valueless all ice-houses and artificial ice-plants, as well as the means for ice distribution. My invention is based upon scientific principles and is practical reality. With my Patent Heat Wave Synchronizer, it is possible to take two bricks which have been lying in the sun all day and congeal a bucket of water in one minute. On a larger scale it is possible to refrigerate a portion of the earth’s surface, even on an August day. It is unnecessary to submit arguments to advise you of the effect this invention will have upon the ice trust, and for this reason I believe it no more than just to give you the first opportunity to acquire this valuable invention. Should you so elect, a complete working model of the apparatus, with descriptions and drawings, will be sent you on condition that you place $50,000 in cash under the large granite block laying north of the Woodbine road crossing, Long Island R. R., before August 23d. Failure so to do will result in the disintegration of the ice trust. 
Yours for cheap refrigeration,
Hielo.

Attempts to catch the blackmailer are foiled, and when the appointed date comes...

John G. Yates was awakened on the morning of the 26th at his Grand Neck, Long Island, home by the thumping of radiators. 
He jabbed the bell for his man and fiercely demanded to know what in the name of all that was hot and holy the idiots had steam up for. 
“Well, sir,” replied the valet, “it turned cold suddenly in the night and is still so sharp this mornin’, we thought it best to warm up a little.” 
“Cold!” exclaimed Yates. “Didn’t frost, did it?” 
“A bit, sir,” answered the valet. 
“What!” John G. leaped from his bed and strode to the window, threw it up and gazed down on a bed of particularly choice plants just out of his hot-houses. 
“A little frost, eh?” he demanded. “I should say there had been a bit. Every blamed green thing is deader’n a door nail, and this the middle of August!” 
Next to the trust, the famous Yates flowers, fruits and vegetables were nearest his heart, in fact his garden was almost his sole hobby, and he was dressed and out of doors before his man could get the bath ready. 
A scene of desolation met his eye. Everything fragile and not under glass was frost-bitten beyond redemption. Even the hardy fruit-trees had suffered.

That loss of a prize garden was only the beginning...
But there was a leak somewhere, and an enterprising Park Row reporter, who had got within half a mile of the Yates place by five o’clock the next morning stopped and rubbed his numb hands for just one second when he saw snowflakes in the air, then sprinted for the nearest telephone and sent in a story that roused dozing night editors and started an extra edition. 
By nine o’clock every New York paper had a representative at Grand Neck, and when the trust president emerged from the house, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of an overcoat, a dozen shivering men closed around him, pads and pencils in hand. 
It was not a pleasant forenoon for the Ice King. If the reporters had annoyed him excessively at Grand Neck in the early morning, they tortured him now. 
About one o’clock his wife telephoned him that the snow was six inches deep at Grand Neck and that she was leaving. He had scarcely hung up the receiver when Hicks, the heaviest and most intractable of the stockholders, called him up and announced in an ominous voice that ice trust stocks had fallen ten points in the past twenty minutes. 
This was a turn in affairs that had not occurred to Yates, and he suddenly realized that if this fool story started some of the small fry to unload, the Street would make short work of the trust. Stock which he had spent years steering into the hands of persons whom he could control would be lost forever, and anyway the balance of power, which he held, was not large. He rushed to the ticker in the corner of his office and nervously hauled the tape through his trembling fingers.

With something clearly going haywire, stock prices for Yates' ice trust began falling as rapidly as the temperature around his estate. Of course, some mysterious personage proceeds to buy up the bottom basement stock and the entire mystery is revealed.

Industrial refrigeration had already been employed since the middle of the 19th century. As urban centres grew, the demand for ice increased beyond the capacity of winter collection from lakes and ponds to provide. Furthermore, increased population led to increased pollution which made the same lakes and ponds undesirable sources for ice. Consequently, the development of the ice industry and artificial refrigeration went comfortably hand-in-hand for some 60 years.

The sea change occurred in 1913 with Fred W. Wolf's invention of a refrigerator for home use. Patents on new and improved models followed practically every year from that point on. One of the most popular was the "Kelvinator", named for Lord Kelvin, the man who first developed the concept of absolute zero. In 1927, General Electric introduced its refrigerator, nicknamed the "Monitor-Top" because the compressor was mounted on its top, looking much like the gun turret on the Civil War battleship USS Monitor. Two limiting factors on these units were their size and the toxicity of their cooling agents.

The actual refrigerator would have been in the kitchen, but behind the scenes, in the basement or an adjacent room, would have been the mechanical apparatus to keep the unit running. With large size came large cost, almost twice that of a Model-T Ford. Furthermore, common cooling agents were sulfur dioxide and methyl formate, both incredibly toxic, corrosive substances. It wasn't until the development of Freon (the trademarked but nonetheless generic name for a group of chemicals including ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons) as a relatively non-toxic alternative in the late 1920's and consequently more size-efficient models that the home refrigerator really took off.

Part of the enjoyment of Victorian-Edwardian technological tales is seeing how absurdly complicated the authors could make the contrivances we take for granted today. It was almost the entire stock-in-trade of the cigarette card business, as evidenced by the En L'an 2000 series. Capt. Bishop's technology is actually more simple than the mess of tubes and radiators underlying our sleek, modern fridges. Simple, but still delightfully absurd...
Six months later, at the Fifth Avenue Club, young Augustus Van Inghen was entertaining a few of his cronies at dinner. “Pardon my slang,” he said as a waiter placed on the table an affair of resplendent Tiffany silver resembling two chafing-dishes yoked together, “but this Patent Heat Wave Synchronizer is the smoothest article ever. Some people like their champagne hot, others like it frozen, but I like to serve mine always at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. I light these two alcohol lamps, so. I move this lever until the thermometer here on the little well reads 32. I place the magnum in this receptacle. I wait forty seconds. Behold, gentlemen! It is frappéd fit for a king.” And he held aloft the dark-brown bottle, its glassy exterior scintillating with frost. 
“It certainly is a wonderful invention,” said a broker in the party. “My wife, who does settlement work, tells me that the push-cart men down on Stanton Street are hawking cheap makes at fifteen cents apiece, two for a quarter.” 
“Yes,” chimed in a Harvard B.Sc., “and the principle is very simple. You gentlemen know that sound is only a vibration in the air, and that if any sound-wave is properly opposed by another wave of corresponding frequency and amplitude, even though each be very intense, absolute silence results. Well, similarly, heat is a vibration in the substance heated, and if the heat waves from any source are opposed by others from another source of equal frequency and amplitude, cold results. Not ordinary cold, but the cold of the absolute zero.” 
   

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