The history of the refrigerated van

Volkswagen Caddy Fridge Van 1 - The history of the refrigerated van

The humble refrigerated van that we all know and love was not always so compact and convenient – or even on four wheels at all. Sit back and listen as I delve into the history of mobile refrigeration.

The first refrigeration on record was in ancient China before the first millennium. Ice was harvested and stored by many of the civilisations that followed. The ancient Romans, Hebrews and Greeks all used storage pits containing snow and covered in an insulating material to prevent them from melting. When snow was not present like in ancient Egypt a pot of boiled water was left to cool on a roof overnight where it would retain its chill from exposure to the night’s air. Fast forward to the 19th century and we see the first signs of mobile refrigeration.

The first use of this was the refrigerated railway wagon, used to carry perishable goods like food across long distances, effectively revolutionising food producing industries and allowing food to be distributed in ways it was never before.

The first refrigerated vans (as these wagons were known) were cooled with ice. Of course this ice couldn’t be created artificially at this point in history and so it had to be cut from frozen lakes and pools during the winter months or in colder parts of the country.

The first major breakthrough with refrigerated vans came in 1877 from entrepreneur and inventor Gustavus Swift who came up with the idea of circulating air through the van and through the ice itself. This had the effect of cooling the entire car and preventing the ice from melting. This new system was the basis for the rise and success of the Union Stock Yard and Chicago Slaughterhouses, which could now for the first time in history provide meat to the whole of the USA and not just outlying districts.
Eventually methods of manufacturing the ice were discovered but these survived for only a short while before being replaced by other new discoveries in the world of coolants. The first coolant to be widely used in this eras refrigerated vans was dry ice. This lasted until the emergence of combustion engines when engine powered refrigerated vans became the norm. Some of these used the evaporation of liquid gas whilst others used various coolant systems.

With the emergence of better and better combustion engines and the rise of the automobile the use of train wagon vans declined and due to the shorter journey times was replaced by the refrigerated van on four wheels that we use today.

To imagine what life would have been like without these important developments in refrigeration is to imagine life without ice-cream, fresh fruit, cold beer or frozen entrees. This would be a world where you would have to buy fresh food from the supermarket every day and where you couldn’t send the love of your life flowers.

The last century really has seen great strides in the world of refrigeration and the impact it has had on society across the world is immeasurable. It has united the states of America, it has allowed globalisation to occur and create a world economy, and has torn down the climates and the seasons.