The 19th Century Ice Trade

From Nicholas Carr’s superbly engaging The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, which is a history of electricity’s path to becoming a utility and what it’s parallels in the emergent cloud computing industry, an example of the transient nature of business and technology:

But while electrification propelled some industries to rapid growth, it wiped out others entirely. During the 1800s, American companies had turned the distribution of ice into a thriving world-wide business. Huge sheets were sawn from lakes and rivers in northern states during the winter and stored in insulated icehouses. Packed in hay and tree bark, the ice was shipped in railcars or the holds of schooners to customers as far away as India and Singapore, who used it to chill drinks, preserve food, and make ice cream. At the trade’s peak, around 1880, America’s many “frozen water companies” were harvesting some 10 million tons of ice a year and earning millions in profits. Along Maine’s Kennebec River alone, thirty-six companies operated fifty-three icehouses with a total capacity of a million tons. But over the next few decades, cheap electricity devastated the business, first by making the artificial production of ice more economical and then by spurring homeowners to replace their iceboxes with electric refrigerators. As Gavin Weightman writes in The Frozen-Water Trade, the “huge industry simply melted away.”

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