Did you know that Cambridge is the birthplace of many 19th Century inventions? Here is an obscure one that you may never have heard of!
Shipping Ice Worldwide…from Fresh Pond
In 1824, Frederic Tudor, son of a well-to-do Boston family, needed a manager for his ventures in the ice trade. He hired Nathaniel Wyeth, whose father owned the Fresh Pond Hotel and whose family had lived in Cambridge for generations.
Tudor had struggled for decades to establish a profitable ice business. His company harvested ice by hand from glacial ponds in the Boston area, including Fresh Pond, and shipped the irregularly shaped blocks as ballast in vessels bound for Southern states and the Caribbean. On arrival, any surviving ice was sold to plantations and hotels to cool drinks and desserts.
Many regarded this enterprise as sheer folly, but Tudor believed that if he could only discover the right techniques for storing and shipping the ice, he would become “inevitably and unavoidably rich.”
A business becomes a true innovation industry
Nathaniel Wyeth developed Tudor’s modest business into a true industry. An inventor and explorer, Wyeth devised a horse-drawn ice cutter that incised a grid on the surface of the ice and then used the pattern to cut large, uniform blocks that could be efficiently harvested and stored. In the 1830s, he developed a double-walled ice house, constructed of wood and insulated with sawdust, which could be built completely above ground; he then designed a special machine to lift the blocks from pond to ice house.
The same technology could be used to insulate railroad cars and ship hulls for long-distance transportation of ice.
These innovations transformed the ice trade: by 1847 Wyeth, Tudor, and other Boston/Cambridge ice merchants were shipping “some 50,000 tons of ice to … coastal cities from New York to Texas and half [that] to ports in Cuba, the West Indies, South America, and India” (Cambridge Historical Society Cambridge on the Cutting Edge, n.d., p. 15).
Imagine – a traveler could sip a drink cooled with ice from Fresh Pond while lounging on a veranda in Calcutta.
Ice harvesting on Fresh Pond ended about 1890 when the city acquired the entire shoreline to protect its water supply.
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