Refrigeration museum honored by mechanical engineers

April 20, 2000
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BRIGHTON, MI — Recognizing its contributions in preserving the historical progression of 20th century refrigeration, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International has designated the Refrigeration Research Museum, a mechanical engineering heritage collection.

Founded in 1944, Refrigeration Research Inc. (RRI) is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of restored refrigerators, freezers, and ice boxes, dating back to the 1900s. The exhibit features many examples of technological advances in mechanical refrigeration for both residential and commercial applications.

Among the museum’s collection of items and artifacts are:

  • The first Kelvinator refrigeration unit, introduced in 1916;
  • A 1926 Savage Arms Ice Cream compressor unit;
  • The first refrigerator with in-door storage, built in 1933;
  • A Crosley “Icy Ball,” which used heat instead of electricity to provide cooling; and
  • A 1919 “Guardian” Frigidaire, a cast iron unit containing a dome-covered, water-cooled condenser.

Such devices as these have pioneered dramatic improvements in food storage safety and convenience, and have set high standards for mechanical reliability, said Mel Torre, manager of media relations for ASME International.

Donald Zwiep, P.E., past president of ASME International, presented a bronze landmark plaque to Edward W. Bottum Sr., founder and president of Refrigeration Research Inc., a worldwide manufacturer of components for commercial refrigeration units.

“It’s a pleasure to be here to present this plaque that designates this museum as a mechanical engineering Heritage Collection,” said Zwiep.

“In 1980, as president of ASME, I presented plaques to Henry Ford Museum [for a set of dynamos, the jumbo- and triple-expansion engines]. That day, I mentioned how our lives would have changed without the technology we take for granted.

“In those terms,” said Zwiep, “what more significant a collection could we be honoring than the one here today.”

Appliances are taken for granted

He said that once an industry ad claimed that refrigerators are the most misunderstood piece of equipment in the kitchen.

“Refrigerators are the heart of the kitchen. They must perform longer and harder than any other piece of equipment. Truly, the refrigerator is a silent, 24-hour workhorse.

“When it fails or malfunctions, we have waste and spoilage of food, higher energy bills, and food-borne illnesses.”

Zwiep said that the challenge is to maintain the lowest possible temperature without freezing food. “Life itself continues to breathe and dehydrate and recycle itself inside the box, within useful limits. This is no small feat, but engineers have a challenge,” he said.

“That is why the practical home refrigerator is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, and was cited by the National Academy of Engineering in February 2000.”

Mechanical heritage

He said that having the museum is a great way to showcase how refrigeration has progressed, and to show engineers and the general public how this was accomplished.

“The preservation of what comprises this collection is essential. We regard RRI’s commitment toward the preservation as worthy of all public praise we can muster on its behalf. We are proud to have it on our landmark’s roster.”

William DeFotis, representing ASME’s History and Heritage Committee, commented that “Mechanical engineers have a proud heritage, and ASME International is taking vigorous steps through its history program to bring this heritage to the attention of its members and the general public.”

In the last 29 years, 206 landmarks, sites, and collections have been designated through the History and Heritage Committee. This committee is composed of mechanical engineers, a professor of history of technology, and the curator emeritus of mechanical and civil engineering at the Smithsonian Institution. The current chair, Larry Lee, will be replaced when his term expires by Michael Hunt, an engineering manager for the General Motors Truck Group in Pontiac, MI.

“In 1987, we expanded the landmark recognition program to include sites and museum collections. The Heritage Collections designation allows us to recognize artifacts that have survived within museum collections,” DeFotis said.

“We are dedicating the Refrigeration Collection. What a splendid refrigeration collection it is — one that Mr. Bottum has explained, is taken for granted by us all because refrigeration equipment is so much a part of our daily lives that we rarely notice it, until we have a power failure,” he said.

“These artifacts are outstanding examples of early refrigeration equipment. For those of us that came out of the ‘icebox era,’ they were truly technological miracles. We can all be proud of not only the collection, but of the inventive minds and energies of the individuals who made the refrigeration industry possible,” he said.

“May a review of the past provide direction for the future,” stated Bottum.

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