September 1, 2023

Maritime History Notes: 150 years of refrigeration


Significant progress with shipboard refrigeration was finally attained in 1878, when the Paraguay arrived at the Port of Le Havre with 5,500 frozen carcasses in good condition.

The last few years have brought major changes, as well as explosive growth, to the refrigerated cargo trades. This growth is not only attributable to the greater volumes of traditional refrigerated products, such as meat and bananas, but to new cargoes that could not have been shipped economically in the past due to their temperature or atmospheric sensitivities.

With today’s technology, it is now possible to ship any perishable commodity anywhere in the world in a refrigerated container and have it arrive in good condition for the consumer. These reefer or controlled atmosphere containers are fitted with digital equipment that can maintain a temperature range of 40 below zero Celsius to 52 degrees Celsius, with a tolerance of 1 degree Celsius, at a desired humidity and atmospheric content.

The composition of the atmosphere is of great importance, since proper levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, ethylene and nitrogen must be maintained to prevent accelerated ripening, spoilage or damage due to respiration of perishable cargoes.

Respiration is the process by which stored organic materials are broken into simple end products with a release of energy. This process uses oxygen and produces carbon dioxide. Ethylene gas is produced by all plants and is the natural aging or ripening hormone. Introduced into the container, the gas helps control ripening of produce that otherwise would not arrive to markets at optimum maturity. Examples of these sensitive cargoes are strawberries, raspberries, asparagus and fresh cut flowers.

Additionally, many chemical cargoes require proper temperature management, not only to retard deterioration but also control chemical reactions that could create health and safety hazards.

The history of how we got to this level of sophistication with refrigeration dates back about 150 years. During the first half of the 19th century, ice was used to keep food cool during transport. Additionally, fishing boats used large quantities of ice to keep their catch fresh. The ice was obtained by cutting it from frozen lakes in Maine, Canada or Scandinavia. By 1890, the trade in ice reached its peak with more than 500 ships employed, mostly powered by sail.

It was in the mid-1860s that Ferdinand Carre and Charles Tellier, two Frenchmen, first experimented with mechanical refrigeration. They used an ammonia absorption freezing plant first on the ship City of Rio de Janeiro and then an ammonia compression plant on the ship Frigorifique, with reasonable success.

Significant progress with shipboard refrigeration was finally attained in 1878, when the Paraguay arrived at the French port of Le Havre with 5,500 frozen carcasses in good condition.

Meanwhile, in 1879, the British employed their cold air machine aboard two ships, the Circassia and Strathleven. The three-masted sailing ship Dunedin in 1882 transported the first shipment of frozen meat from New Zealand to England. These early reefer ships were insulated by flaked charcoal silicate, cotton pumice, cow hair or, later, granulated cork to ease the work on their cold air machines.

Reefer, or refrigerated, ships are generally thought of as a single entity. However, they tend to come in two distinct types — the first dedicated to the frozen meat trades and the second to the fruit or predominantly the banana trade.

The meat trades were dominated by British companies, which had fleets that traded regularly to Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Today, the frozen meat trade is worldwide and predominantly carried by containerships.

The banana trade began in 1866 when the schooner Raymond arrived in Boston from Jamaica with a small cargo of bananas. On June 23, 1870, when Capt. Lorenzo Baker of Boston brought his two-masted, 85-ton schooner Telegraph to anchor at Jersey City, N.J., with several hundred bunches of bananas and sold them at a profit, the trade became established. Due to the success of these and other profitable voyages, the organized shipment of bananas turned Boston into the “capital” of this trade.

Due to the perishable nature of fruit, steamships rapidly replaced sail and many small fruit companies were founded. The early banana ships were easily identified, since their hulls were usually painted white to absorb the least amount of solar heat. Additionally, large ventilators were fitted on the decks. These ventilators allowed air to circulate through the cargo holds. This activity was required because bananas emitted ethylene gas which, if not promptly removed, would prematurely ripen the fruit.

By 1899, the United Fruit Co. was founded by a number of smaller companies coming together and a large fleet of ships was acquired. Many Norwegian ships of about 900 deadweight tons originally built for the Mediterranean fruit trades were chartered by United Fruit and other U.S.-based competitors. Most all of these Norwegians ships were naturally ventilated and their size and speed assured a good out-turn on arrival.

In 1914, United Fruit had a fleet of 23 owned and 30 chartered ships. The chartered ships, known as the “mosquito fleet,” carried bananas north and general cargo and coal southbound. These ships were rather spartan. The company’s owned fleet, on the other hand, was fitted with luxurious staterooms and accommodations for large numbers of passengers and was technologically advanced mechanically for the time.

There were well over 200 reefer ships at the outset of World War I, most flying the British or Norwegian flags. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the U.S. also participated in the reefer trade. However, many of these ships were lost during the war, which led to a building boom of faster and larger reefer ships in the 1920s with more efficient mechanical refrigeration systems. Most of the fleet that relied on natural ventilation was now gone, but due to their speed surplus navy destroyers were often purchased and converted into banana carriers.

Since refrigerated ships and their cargoes became a favorite target for submarines during World War II, another building boom resulted in the postwar years. This fleet served the burgeoning fruit and meat trades well into the 1960s.

It was also common for cargo liners and passenger ships of the post-World War II period to carry meat, fish and fruit in dedicated reefer compartments. Their cooled air refrigerating systems provided the equivalent of 75 exchanges of air per hour.

In the late 1960s, the container revolution was gaining momentum and bananas were no longer shipped on the stem but in perforated cardboard cartons that held about 20 “hands” of bananas.  Each hand averaged about 10 bananas. It wasn’t long before these cartons were being stowed in refrigerated containers and carried on board containerships fitted with electrical outlets, or plugs, to power the individual refrigerated containers. 

In 1972, United Fruit built two 345-foot-long containerships, named Barranca and Bayano, for a pilot program. Each ship could carry 85 reefer containers, with each holding 950 cartons of bananas. The containers were equipped with their own refrigeration system powered by the ship while aboard and operated independently when ashore. Although these two ships were highly successful, many traditional reefer ships continued to be built in Scandinavia and Japan.

The Soviets also built and maintained a large fleet of reefer ships, many of which were dedicated to the frozen fish trade.

However, as the years have passed, advances in controlled atmosphere, remote digital monitoring and reliability have favored the container at the expense of traditional reefer ships.

Today, reefer operators are increasingly looking to utilize containerships that have a higher reefer capacity. This is not only due to economics, but to growing numbers of seaports that can no longer accommodate specialized reefer ships. 

It appears the traditional white “banana boats” will become an even rarer sight in years to come. What remains of this bit of history is “Day-O, The Banana Boat Song,” sung by Harry Belafonte, and memories of an occasional ride-along tarantula jumping out of a stem or box of bananas.

McNamara, who is retired as president of the National Cargo Bureau, currently serves as historian of the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., and remains active in the maritime industry.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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