Refrigerated Transportation Timeline, pre-WWII

Most of the early refrigerated transport of perishable goods was carried out by ship and by train. Mechanical refrigeration made its way into overseas shipping in 1876 with the voyage of the Frigorifique. While mechanical refrigeration of railcars was technically feasible and in fact was demonstrated in trials dating from the 1880s, it was found more economical in the early days of refrigeration to cool the cars with ice or frozen brine which was periodically replenished at icing stations along the routes. Back then, a "refrigerator car" generally referred to an ice-cooled railcar, as it will in this timeline unless otherwise specified.

(t = metric tons)

1857 The first shipment of refrigerated beef was made from the Chicago stockyards to the East in an ordinary box car packed with ice.
1866Parker Earle of Illinois shipped strawberries in iced boxes by rail from southern Illinois to Chicago.
1867The first patent for a specialized refrigerator car (US Patent #71,423) was issued to JB Sutherland of Detroit, Michigan.
1868William Davis of Detroit developed a refrigerator car cooled by a frozen ice-salt mixture, and patented it in the USA. The patent was sold to George Hammond, a local meat packer who went on to amass a fortune in refrigerated shipping.
1869Henry Peyton Howard (1829-1913) of the United States transported a shipload of beef frozen in a salt-ice mixture from Indianola, Texas, to New Orleans and served it in hospitals, hotels and restaurants.
1873Timothy C. Eastman exported chilled beef by ship from America to London, and shortly thereafter built up his trade to an annual tonnage of around 10,000 t. The insulated cargo space was cooled by ice, which was loaded on departure. The success of this method was limited by distance and climate.
French engineer Charles Tellier and the steamship Frigorifique achieved the first overseas shipment of meat under artificial refrigeration. Three methyl-ether refrigerating machines kept the cargo in a chilled state during the 12,000 km voyage from France to Argentina and the return trip. The preservation of the meat was less than perfect; full success would have to wait until the voyage of the Paraguay.
The French vessel Paraguay, equipped with refrigeration machinery by Ferdinand Carré, traveled from France to Buenos Aires and back. 150 t of meat, kept at -27 to -30 deg C, arrived in Argentina in excellent condition after 50 days.
1878Gustavus F. Swift (1839-1903) of the United States put into operation a refrigerator car to ship fresh meats. The car body was well insulated and the interior cooled by ice. Fifteen years later the operation had expanded to 97 thousand units.
1879 Henry Bell (1848-1931) and John Bell (1850-1929) of Scotland and Joseph James Coleman (1838-1888) of England completed the Bell-Coleman dense-air machine on the Anchor liner Circassia, which successfully brought a cargo of chilled beef from the USA to London.
The Strathleven, equipped with a Bell-Coleman air machine and loaded with beef, mutton, butter and kegs, sailed from Melbourne to London and arrived with the frozen cargo in good condition after a 9-week voyage of about 24,000 km.
1880The first patent for a mechanically refrigerated railcar was issued in the USA (#230615, to Charles William Cooper).
1881Alfred Seale Haslam (1844-1927) of England equipped the liner Orient with Haslam refrigeration compressors. He bought the Bell-Coleman dense-air patents in 1878 and eventually equipped four hundred plants and ships with Bell-Coleman machines.
1885Berries from the Norfolk (Virginia) area were shipped by refrigerator car to New York.
1887Parker Earle joined F.A. Thomas of Chicago in the fruit shipping business. The company owned 60 ice-cooled railcars by 1888, and 600 by 1891.
1888An experimental Chicago-to-Florida shipment of beef from Armour and Company was made in a car cooled by ethyl chloride compression machinery.
1888Florida oranges reached New York under refrigeration for the first time.
1889The first cooled shipment of deciduous fruit from California entered the New York market.
1890In London, first mechanically refrigerated barge introduced.
1890After acquiring the patent rights of Franz Windhausen's CO2-compression refrigeration system, J. & E. Hall installed the first marine CO2 machine on the Highland Chief.
1898Russia put its first refrigerator cars into service. Russia had 1900 such cars by 1908, 3000 by 1910, 5900 by 1916. The cars were employed mainly for transport of Siberian butter. The journey from Siberia to Baltic ports lasted about 12 days. Reicing stations were set up each 2000 km.
1899Refrigerated fruit traffic within the USA reached 90,000 t per year. Transport from California to NY averaged 12 days in 1900.
1900 A worldwide survey found 356 refrigerated ships, 37% of which had air machines, 37% ammonia compressors and 25% CO2 compressors.
1900Refrigerator cars in the USA numbered about 50,000.
1900During the year, Great Britain imported 360,000 metric tons of refrigerated meat: 220,000 t from Argentina, 95,000 t from New Zealand, and 45,000 t from Australia.
1901The first refrigerated banana ship, the Port Morant, was equipped with a CO2 machine and carried 23,000 stems at controlled temperature from Jamaica to England.
1901Carl von Linde equipped a Russian train with a mobile mechanical refrigeration plant to distribute cooling to the cars carrying the goods. Similar systems continued to be used in Russia through at least 1975.
1902According to a study of Lloyd's Register, 460 ships had refrigerating plants in 1902. The marine refrigeration industry at this time was dominated by the British.
1904US pomologist G. Harold Powell introduced the technique of precooling, or removing field heat from the crop as rapidly as possible before transport.
1906Pacific Fruit Express began operations with more than 6,000 refrigerated cars, transporting fruit and vegetables across the United States from Western producers to Eastern consumers.
1907US traffic in refrigerated fruit reached a yearly total of 600,000 t, up from 430,000 t in 1905.
1910Great Britain refrigerated meat imports rose to 760,000 t/year.
1910By this time British company J. & E. Hall had installed 1800 CO2 refrigeration machines in ships.
1913British fleet included 230 refrigerated ships with total cargo capacity of 440,000 t.
1913The number of thermally insulated railcars in the USA amounted to about 100,000. Most of these were cooled by ice.
1923London used 120 metal barges of 60 to 120 t, insulated or mechanically cooled, for transport of meat on inland waterways.
1925The Pacific Fruit Express had 34,000 refrigerator cars and the Fruit Growers' Express 22,000.
Mechanically refrigerated road vehicles, especially for the delivery of milk and ice cream, began to appear around this time.
1931The total volume of ice-cooled railcar cargo space in America was of the same order as that of public cold stores at the time (12.5 million m³, vs. 13 million m³).
1931The number of refrigerator cars in the USA reached a maximum of about 183,000.
1935Refrigerated imports into Britain in 1935 totaled 1 million metric tons of meat, 500,000 t of butter, 130,000 t of cheese, 430,000 t of apples and pears, and 20 million stems of bananas.
1936The Italian army used 150 refrigerated containers to transport frozen meat to its troops on the Ethiopian front. Great Britain and the Netherlands had also built prototype refrigerated containers by this time.
1939The USA had roughly 18,000 vehicles for refrigerated road transport, between 2000-2500 of which were mechanically cooled. Many of the rest were kept cold by solid carbon dioxide ("dry ice"), regular ice, or eutectic plates. The number of these vehicles, as well as the proportion that were mechanically refrigerated, steadily grew during the next few decades with the growth of the trucking industry and the development of superhighways.

The information on this page comes mainly from R. Thevenot, A History of Refrigeration Throughout the World (International Institute of Refrigeration(IIR), Paris, 1979). Other references used are the following: