Success, in a losing cause... Science

Dr. Gorrie, “the man who made the ice”

Have you heard the phrase “dog days”? Used to refer to the hot, sultry period of summer, dog days correspond to the months of July and August in the Northern Hemisphere and the months of February, March in the Southern Hemisphere. It was on one such day that Dr. John Gorrie tried to demonstrate his mechanical ice-maker, to great success, albeit in a losing cause.

Born in the tropical Caribbean island of Nevis, Gorrie received his medical education from New York state, before going on to settle in the port town of Apalachicola, Florida. In order to supplement his income from medical practice, he also served as a hotelier, postmaster and bank officer.

Decides to act

In 1841, when the area was swept by malaria and yellow fever, Gorrie dropped his other responsibilities in order to find a cure. With the causes for the diseases unknown (it was decades before it came to be known that mosquitoes transmitted these diseases), Gorrie suggested a two-step defence mechanism. Draining the nearby swamp and higher levels of hygiene in the markets were step one, while step two involved cooling down the feverish patients.

Cooling the room using ice was a novel idea, but ice was still expensive, as it remained a rare, winter phenomenon in places like Florida. He therefore took on the challenge to build a machine that manufactured ice.

Gorrie’s ice

When a gas is compressed, it gets heated. When the pressure is removed and the gas expands, it absorbs heat from the surroundings, cooling it down. By compressing air in a small chamber and then releasing the pressure, Gorrie allowed the air to absorb heat from water surrounding the airtight chamber. By repeating the process continuously, the temperature of water was reduced enough to make ice.

Gorrie had a working model ready by the mid-1840s. While he waited, having applied for his patent in 1848, he decided on making a demonstration. Bastille Day (French National Day) is celebrated on July 14 every year, to mark the beginning of the French Revolution with the Storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789) and the unity of the French nation (July 14, 1780).

French consul Monsieur Rosan was celebrating Bastille Day, and Gorrie was attending the afternoon reception. Supplies of ice had been exhausted and the guests feared an uncomfortable afternoon.

After initially complaining about having to drink warm wine, Gorrie then made his announcement, “On Bastille Day, France gave her citizens what they wanted. Rosan gives his guests what they want, cool wines! Even if it demands a miracle!”

As if on cue, waiters appeared with wines placed in trays of ice, baffling the gathered public.

"Let us drink to the man who made the ice, Dr. Gorrie," toasted one of the guests.

Even though his demonstration was a huge success, Gorrie failed at business. He did receive patents for his device from Britain and the U.S., but bad press that regularly ridiculed and mocked his idea meant that investors were hard to come by.

Devastated by failure and suffering a nervous collapse, Gorrie died in 1855, aged 51 and bankrupt. By then, the only conclusion that he could come to was that he had found mechanical refrigeration way ahead of its time.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 9:26:21 AM |

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