In 1833, a boat loaded with ice came into Calcutta. It was the product of nearly thirty years of one of the most expensive series of experiments ever done. It was also the triumph of one of the strangest businesses ever conceived, by a man called the "Ice King."

In 1806, Frederic Tudor had a great idea without any of the experience or knowledge it would take to make that idea successful. The fact that he went ahead with it anyway speaks volumes for his dedication, but didn't do any favors for his personal life. It took twenty-six years to make the idea work, but it those twenty-six years made him one of the richest people in Boston, and an expert at the practical science of ice.

Frederic Tudor was only twenty-two when he noted that, while there was plenty of ice around his city of Boston, there was none in other areas of the world. The locals in areas that enjoyed cold winters would dig underground "ice houses," fill them in the winter with ice packed in straw, and hope they held out over summer. But then there were areas like Havana, or Martinique, where the winter never got cold enough to freeze anything. For the most part, they did without. Tudor decided to give them a taste of what they'd been missing. He bought a boat, hired men to cut ice out of the not-yet-famous Walden pond, and set sail for Martinique. Thus began a decade of being ridiculed.


To the delight of Boston papers, which had been predicting disaster since the ship left port, Tudor's first shipment melted as soon as he got it into Martinique. While it was cool enough in the ship, packed between layers of straw, as soon as it reached the harbor and was unpacked it melted away. There was no call for ice houses in Martinique, and so none had been built. He lost most of his money. Although he assured that the next shipment - to Havana - was to be safely lodged in an ice house that was built on the docks, he lost money on that shipment as well. People had adjusted to their food being warm, and weren't particularly interested in having it made ice cold. Tudor gave much of his ice out as free samples to bars, where he hoped patrons would develop a taste for chilled drinks.

It became clear to him, after a stint in debtor's prison, that he needed to assure the financial success of his trips somehow. He grabbed another ship, and packed this one with fruit that was meant to be kept cool by the ice. It didn't work. The fruit rotted in the humid atmosphere from the melting ice and the insufficient chill, and again Tudor ended up in debt. Focusing on the ice itself, he found that sawdust worked better than straw, and started turning a profit. Other people took notice, among them an inventor who developed a horse-drawn blade that cut ice more smoothly, allowing it to be packed more efficiently so that even less would melt and it could be shipped over longer distances. Tudor bought the blade, and kept insuring better storing procedures and more efficient shipping conditions.


In 1833, when ice came to Calcutta, not that many people were laughing. More people were building ice storage houses of their own. Calcutta became one of the biggest markets for Tudor, just in time. In 1834, Jacob Perkins built the first freezer that actually seemed practical. By 1844, freezers went into medical use to cool yellow fever patients. And by the late 1800s, everyone acknowledged that freezing, not shipping, ice was the way forward. Tudor had his idea during the only quarter century during which it would have worked.

Image: Andreas Tille

Via, Failure, and The Smithsonian.