By: Willis R. Woolrich and Charles T. Clark

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: May 3, 2019

Texas engineers did much of the early experimental work in the development of commercial refrigeration in the United States, although it was from Europeans (notably Scots, English, and French) that their theories were obtained. The development of mass production of artificial ice was pioneered in Texas and Louisiana. The most interesting refrigeration history related to Texas dates from 1861 to 1885. When the natural ice supply from the North was cut off by the Civil War, men of ingenuity in Texas and Louisiana came forth with inventiveness in mechanical ice making and food preservation. During the war a Ferdinand Carré absorption machine, which had been patented in France in 1859 and in the United States in 1860, was shipped through the Union blockade into Mexico and eventually to Texas, where it was in operation in San Antonio and later in Austin and San Saba. The Carré machine used a mixture of ammonia and water as a refrigerant. Around 1865 Daniel Livingston Holden installed a Carré machine in San Antonio and made several improvements on it. He equipped the machine with steam coils and used distilled water to produce clear ice. By 1867 three companies were manufacturing artificial ice in San Antonio. At that time there were only five other ice plants in the entire United States. About 1866 or 1867 Holden acquired the Peter Henri Van der Weyde compression patent, which used petroleum ether and naphtha as refrigerants, and in 1869 Holden took out a patent on his own designs. That year he also partially supervised the installation of a sixty-ton-capacity Carré plant in New Orleans. He extended his activities across Texas and into Louisiana and the South.

After the Civil War the expanding Texas beef industry encouraged and financed the development of the mechanical cold process. Andrew Muhl of San Antonio, in partnership with a man named Paggi, built an ice-making machine there in 1867 before moving it to Waco in 1871. Development of mechanical refrigeration for the Texas meat industry began in the late 1860s in Dallas with Thaddeus S. C. Lowe's carbon dioxide machines, which had been used to inflate the balloons he had constructed for military purposes. Using dry ice made with carbon dioxide compressors, Lowe designed a refrigerated ship, the William Tabor, in 1868, in competition with Henry Peyton Howard of San Antonio, to carry chilled and frozen beef to New Orleans. Howard's steamship Agnes was fitted with a cold-storage room, twenty-five by fifty feet in size. Because the William Tabor drew too much water to dock in New Orleans harbor, Howard's ship was the first to ship beef successfully by refrigerated boat. Upon the shipment's arrival, Howard threw a banquet at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans in July 1869 and presented his transported beef to prominent diners. Because Lowe failed to accomplish his feat, he did not receive the proper credit for his attempt; however, the singular accomplishment of a refrigerator ship established the compressor process of refrigeration for ships delivering meat to New York and Europe. Carbon dioxide is nontoxic and nonflammable, and its use as a refrigerant was employed in marine service well into the twentieth century.

Between 1871 and 1881 the first mechanically refrigerated abattoir in the United States was planned, established, and successfully operated in Fulton, Texas, for the purpose of chilling and curing beef for shipment to Liverpool, England, and other destinations. Daniel Livingston Holden, his brother Elbridge, and Elbridge Holden's father-in-law, George W. Fulton , took part in the development of this new process of beef packing and shipping. Thomas L. Rankin, of Dallas and Denison, held many patents in the area of refrigeration and had been involved in refrigeration work with Daniel Holden. From 1870 to 1877 Rankin worked on the development of refrigerator and abattoir service for rail shipping of refrigerated beef from Texas and the Great Plains. In late 1873 the Texas and Atlantic Refrigeration Company of Denison made the first successful rail shipment of chilled beef across the country from Texas to New York. The development made by Rankin and his Texas associates spread rapidly to other beef-shipping centers of the nation.

The birthplace of ammonia-compression refrigeration in the United States is Jefferson, Texas, where David Boyle, in 1873, established his first ammonia-compression plant in a lean-to off a lumber mill. Improvements made during the winter of 1873–74 resulted in a high-grade production that attracted national attention. When his machine was destroyed by fire in 1874, Boyle left Texas and went to Illinois. He eventually made an arrangement with Richard T. Crane of Crane and Company of Chicago to manufacture his compression machines. The first two machines produced were bought by the Capitol Ice Company of Austin and by Richard King, who wanted to experiment with meat refrigeration on the King Ranch. In 1878 Charles J. Bell installed the first absorption ice machine at Sherman, Texas.

Another early worker in the development of ice-making machinery was Charles A. Zilker of San Antonio and Austin. After coming to Austin from Indiana in 1880, he worked in an ice plant that had been using a Carré machine brought from San Antonio. In 1882 King asked Zilker and his brother Andrew J. to go to Brownsville and operate a Boyle ammonia-compression machine at an ice plant that King had bought in 1876. Zilker returned to Austin in 1884, built his own plant, and continued improving and designing compressor-type ice-making machinery. In business with George W. Brackenridge, a San Antonio banker, Zilker established ice plants in Austin and San Antonio. After that he built plants in any city where he could find enough prosperous people and sufficient cooling water for compressors. In 1928 he sold his ice plants (which ranged from Texas eastward to Atlanta and northward to Pittsburgh) to the Samuel Insull interests, Chicago, for $1 million.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century natural ice was shipped by rail from the North in refrigerated cars. Fruit and vegetable production in Texas greatly expanded after the turn of the century, and the refrigerator car was used effectively in transporting perishable foods to cities outside the state. By 1900 there were 766 ice plants in the United States, and Texas, with 77, had more than any other state. In 1900 ice plants still generally used the aqua-ammonia cooling method. Innovations in these systems included more efficient high-speed engine drives for ammonia compressors and subsequently electric motor drives. During the twentieth century the move to liquid-vapor compression systems made for lower costs. Ammonia was still widely used in industrial refrigeration. Beginning in the 1920s there was a gradual decline in commercial ice houses and a greater use of home refrigerators, especially with the extension of rural electrification after World War II. In 1950 close to 90 percent of Texas families had some type of refrigeration. In the 1960s the growing use of automatic refrigerated vending machines, automatic ice vendors, and ice machines in restaurants was replacing many commercial ice plants. After World War II chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), nontoxic and nonflammable, replaced many other coolants as the preferred means of cooling. CFC refrigerants were known under the trade name Freon.

Two of the most important Texas industries, fish and poultry processing plants, were highly dependent on refrigeration. By the late 1960s the state had thirty-six plants processing frozen fish and shrimp; in 1967 there were sixty-seven poultry-processing firms in the state. Texas industry also contributed greatly to the manufacture of refrigerants and refrigerating equipment. Among the products made in Texas were dry ice, industrial ice boxes, ice-making machinery, industrial ice-crushing machinery, household refrigerators, air-conditioning units, both commercial and domestic, and air-conditioner parts. Approximately 200 ice-manufacturing plants were still operating in Texas in 1967. Instead of supplying ice to homes, as in the past, these plants provided ice for leisure-time activities and for various commercial operations.

In the 1990s chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were being phased out as refrigerants. The stable chlorine atoms released from the CFCs were shown to have adverse effects on the environment when hit by solar rays; namely, they destroyed ozone molecules and supposedly caused damage to the earth's ozone layer. Under amended Environmental Protection Agency laws included in the 1990 Clean Air Act, restrictions on the sale of Freon began in 1992, and service businesses in the air-conditioning and refrigeration industries had to comply with regulations regarding certifying technicians and maintaining proper equipment. The law forbade anyone from knowingly releasing ozone-depleting chemicals while servicing or disposing of air-conditioning or refrigeration equipment. The production of almost all CFCs stopped by the end of 1995. Hydrofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons were used in place of CFCs; they, however, were supposed to contribute to the "greenhouse effect." By November 15, 1995, all refrigerants were required by federal law to be recovered from refrigeration devices and recycled. Some cities across the United States had enacted even tougher restrictions on coolants and the repair of refrigeration devices. In Austin, for example, refrigerators that leaked 10 percent of the manufacturer's recommended charge in a year's time had to be repaired. Otherwise no new coolant could be put into them.

Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., Refrigeration in America (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953). Austin Tri Weekly State Gazette, March 23, 1870. Luis Bartlett and W. R. Woolrich, Refrigeration for Operating Engineers in Ice and Cold Storage Plants (Austin: University of Texas Bureau of Engineering Research, 1941). Charles T. Clark, "The Development of Refrigeration in Texas," Texas Business Review 40 (November 1966). Mary Whatley Clarke, "First Refrigeration of Beef," Cattleman, March 1947. "Complying with the Refrigerant Recycling Rule," in Stratospheric Ozone Protection: Final Rule Summary (Washington: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1993). New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 13, 1869. W. R. Woolrich, The Men Who Created Cold: A History of Refrigeration (New York: Exposition Press, 1967).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Willis R. Woolrich and Charles T. Clark, “Refrigeration,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 3, 2019