MadSci Network: Science History

Re: Is there refrigeration in ancient times

Date: Tue Nov 25 17:04:58 2003
Posted By: Joseph Weeks, Engineer
Area of science: Science History
ID: 1068180517.Sh

We often assume that people who lived before the advent of the steam 
engine or electricity were pretty primitive.  Not so; our ancestors were 
often pretty ingeneous, and so it was with refrigeration.

Israel, where most of the Bible was written tends to be in a warm 
climate.  However, according to 
Mount Hermon is snow capped throughout the year.  A number of sources
indicate that ice was harvested in China in 1000 BC.  Another
indicates that Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews placed large amounts of
snow into storage pits, covering the snow with insulating material so
it was available as needed.  So, the first way that the ancients could
cool their drinks was by harvesting ice and snow either from the tops
of mountains almost year round, or from colder climates.  My
grandmother had an ice box in her kitchen where the ice man would
deposit blocks of ice which he carried around in a wagon.  I thought
her ice box was neat; her house is less than 100 years old so we are
not really talking ancient technology.  It had a door on the outside
for access so the ice man didn't need to bother her.

It is interesting to note that we measure cooling capacity relative to 
the amount of cooling produced by a certain amount of ice.  At we find that one ton of 
refrigeration is the amount of cooling produced by melting one ton of ice 
over 24 hours.

The second method of cooling things was by evaporative cooling.  Boy 
Scouts would often have a cover saturated with water around their 
canteen.  As the water evaporates, it cools the contents of the canteen 
perhaps by 20 to 40 degrees.  Egyptians apparently would put earthen jars 
on their roofs to allow them to cool during the night.  If the jars were 
not glazed, water could seep through the jar and evaporate, cooling the 
contents.  Of course, evaporative cooling works best in a climate with 
low humidity, like in a desert.

Another factor that can be used for cooling is radiation.  A clear sky at 
night presents a heat sink with an absolute temperature of 2 degrees 
above absolute zero.  When something is exposed to the night sky, it 
tends to cool down by radiation.  As a result, puddles can freeze over, 
even though the air temperature has not dropped below the freezing 
temperature of water.

Wells and caves are shielded from the cyclic heating of daylight.  As a 
result, they have been used for cooling foods for a long time.  A deep 
well can benefit from radiation cooling.  Root cellars are one example of 
artificial caves that maintain a low enough temperature to help preserve 
foods. is a web site 
that suggests that certain wells found in Greece were apparently used as 

Apparently Cleopatra enjoyed ice in her wine, and when the Bible refers 
to cool or cold cups of water, those in Israel had some knowledge of how 
to get one.  

Thanks for a very interesting question.

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