The Icyball - A Forgotten Chapter in Refrigeration
“For Farms! For homes where ice supply is uncertain! For camps! For roadside stores!. . . For anyone who wants the pleasure, safety, convenience of a constant ice supply for 2 cents a day.” – Advertisement, Farm Mechanics, September 1928

In the heart of the 1930s, a time of economic hardship and societal change, an innovative yet now largely forgotten device called the Icyball offered a glimpse into an alternative future of refrigeration. This story is not merely about an obscure appliance but a narrative of ingenuity, adaptation, and the relentless pursuit of convenience in an era defined by its lack thereof. The Icyball wasn’t just a product; it was a symbol of hope and self-reliance during the Great Depression, a testament to human resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

The Icyball was the brainchild of David Forbes Keith, a Canadian inventor who looked at the burgeoning field of refrigeration and saw a gap. At the time, most refrigeration units were large, expensive, and relied on electricity — a resource not readily available in rural areas and small towns. Keith’s invention was different. It was a non-electric refrigeration unit that operated on an ingenious ammonia absorption process, a simple yet effective solution designed for those without access to the electrical grid.

The device consisted of two metal balls connected by a rod. One ball was filled with a mixture of ammonia, water, and hydrogen, while the other was empty. The process began by heating the filled ball on a stove, which caused the ammonia to evaporate into the empty ball. Once the heating was stopped and the empty ball was cooled (often by placing it in water), the ammonia condensed back into liquid, creating a reaction that drew heat from the inside of the connected insulated box, effectively refrigerating its contents. This cycle of heating and cooling, which could keep food cold for up to 24 hours, was a remarkable feat of engineering and chemistry.

The Icyball was more than just a refrigeration unit; it was a lifeline for many. In an era when fresh food was a luxury for some, the ability to keep produce, dairy, and meats cool was invaluable. It extended the life of perishables, reduced waste, and, most importantly, improved the quality of life for its users. For rural families, farmers, and anyone living off the electrical grid, the Icyball was a symbol of self-sufficiency and resilience.

Despite its ingenuity and the real benefits it offered, the Icyball faced challenges that prevented it from becoming a mainstay in the broader market. The very thing that made it unique — its non-electric operation — also made it less convenient than its electric counterparts in areas where electricity was available. The process of heating the ball, while simple, required attention and a bit of labor, something that the increasingly automated and electrically powered appliances of the day sought to minimize.

Furthermore, the spread of rural electrification programs and the development of more efficient and affordable electric refrigerators gradually diminished the need for non-electric alternatives. As the electrical grid expanded, the allure of more conventional refrigeration units that didn’t require manual heating or cooling became stronger. The convenience and reliability of electric refrigerators eventually overshadowed the Icyball’s innovative approach.

Today, the Icyball is a footnote in the history of refrigeration, a curious relic of a bygone era. Yet, its legacy is worth remembering. It represents a time when necessity drove innovation, when the challenges of the day spurred inventors to think outside the conventional norms. The Icyball reminds us that sometimes, the most ingenious solutions come from looking at problems from a different angle and that innovation isn’t just about creating the next big thing, but about meeting the needs of the moment in whatever form that takes.

As we continue to advance and as our appliances become ever more sophisticated, the story of the Icyball encourages us to remember the ingenuity of the past. It’s a call to appreciate the simpler, yet no less brilliant, solutions that have shaped our modern world, and to recognize that sometimes, the most forward-thinking inventions are those that address the most basic of human needs. The Icyball, in its quiet, unassuming way, was a testament to that timeless principle of invention.

Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!