By Michael A. Banks
Early in 1927, a young Toronto engineer named David Forbes Keith travelled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to consult with the Crosley Radio Corporation on their plans to manufacture a refrigerator for the home ...
Early in 1927, a young Toronto engineer named David Forbes Keith travelled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to consult with the Crosley Radio Corporation on their plans to manufacture a refrigerator for the home market.
At the time, domestic refrigerators were complicated mechanisms that used poisonous sulphur dioxide as a refrigerant. The compressor was so noisy the refrigerator was normally installed in a home’s basement. Powel and Lewis Crosley, owners of Crosley Radio, hoped to develop a system that would do away with the noise and the danger.
Keith worked with Lewis Crosley for several weeks on various designs before mentioning a patented design he had for an absorption refrigeration system that required no electricity.
Keith’s design was simple. Two 9* metal balls were connected by a 4* diameter tube in a configuration that resembled a giant dumbbell. A mixture of water and gaseous ammonia in one ball (the “hot ball”) was heated for an hour or so, until it evaporated and moved through a large tube connecting it to the other ball (the “cold ball”), where it condensed into a liquid.
Over a day’s time, the liquid in the cold ball would evaporate and flow back into the hot ball, carrying with it the heat it had absorbed, thus cooling the cold ball.
The cold ball was placed in a specially designed insulated chest, which had a slot in the side to accommodate the tube connecting the balls. The hot ball remained outside the chest, where during the course of the day it cooled, thanks to metal vanes that helped to radiate heat accumulated from the cold ball. The cold ball could keep the chest and its contents cool for at least a day with no power. It even made ice cubes in a special compartment.
Powel Crosley named the product the “Icyball.” Keith refiled for a U.S. patent in June 1927, licensing the invention to Crosley on a royalty basis. The patent wasn’t granted until 1929, but the company set up production lines at a plant in Cincinnati as soon as the application was filed.
Sales would be so good that within a year the Crosley company would set up a second plant outside Toronto to provide the Icyball to the Canadian market (it sold under the auspices of the Canadian De Forest-Crosley Company). The Icyball was eventually patented and sold in France, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Denmark, and elsewhere. According to Icyball ads, the chest provided as much space as a 75-pound household ice box. The design insured against leakage.
The Icyball initially sold for $80, including the cabinet. The price rose to $85 within a year, but by 1935 demand fell off, partly because electricity was penetrating rural areas. There was, however, an additional reason. The Icyball was too good: it had no moving parts and required no servicing, and just didn’t break down. It was a one-time purchase for most people.
A working Icyball is on display at the Refrigeration Research Museum in Brighton, Michigan.
Little else is known about Keith except that his earliest patent for refrigeration was granted in 1921 and he held patents in Canada, the U.S., Germany and Great Britain. He retired to Florida with his wife Frieda Hutchison Keith and died there in April 1953.
Michael A. Banks is based in Oxford, Ohio. He is co-author with David Stern of Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation (Clersy Press, Cincinnati, 2006).