Books by Weightman, Gavin

Weightman, Gavin. The Frozen Water Trade. New York: Hyperion, [2003] 2004. ISBN 978-0-7868-8640-1.
In the summer of 1805, two brothers, Frederic and William Tudor, both living in the Boston area, came up with an idea for a new business which would surely make their fortune. Every winter, fresh water ponds in Massachusetts froze solid, often to a depth of a foot or more. Come spring, the ice would melt.

This cycle had repeated endlessly since before humans came to North America, unremarked upon by anybody. But the Tudor brothers, in the best spirit of Yankee ingenuity, looked upon the ice as an untapped and endlessly renewable natural resource. What if this commodity, considered worthless, could be cut from the ponds and rivers, stored in a way that would preserve it over the summer, and shipped to southern states and the West Indies, where plantation owners and prosperous city dwellers would pay a premium for this luxury in times of sweltering heat?

In an age when artificial refrigeration did not exist, that “what if” would have seemed so daunting as to deter most people from entertaining the notion for more than a moment. Indeed, the principles of thermodynamics, which underlie both the preservation of ice in warm climates and artificial refrigeration, would not be worked out until decades later. In 1805, Frederic Tudor started his “Ice House Diary” to record the progress of the venture, inscribing it on the cover, “He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success, has never been, is not, and never will be, a hero in love, war or business.” It was in this spirit that he carried on in the years to come, confronting a multitude of challenges unimagined at the outset.

First was the question of preserving the ice through the summer, while in transit, and upon arrival in the tropics until it was sold. Some farmers in New England already harvested ice from their ponds and stored it in ice houses, often built of stone and underground. This was sufficient to preserve a modest quantity of ice through the summer, but Frederic would need something on a much larger scale and less expensive for the trade he envisioned, and then there was the problem of keeping the ice from melting in transit. Whenever ice is kept in an environment with an ambient temperature above freezing, it will melt, but the rate at which it melts depends upon how it is stored. It is essential that the meltwater be drained away, since if the ice is allowed to stand in it, the rate of melting will be accelerated, since water conducts heat more readily than air. Melting ice releases its latent heat of fusion, and a sealed ice house will actually heat up as the ice melts. It is imperative the ice house be well ventilated to allow this heat to escape. Insulation which slows the flow of heat from the outside helps to reduce the rate of melting, but care must be taken to prevent the insulation from becoming damp from the meltwater, as that would destroy its insulating properties.

Based upon what was understood about the preservation of ice at the time and his own experiments, Tudor designed an ice house for Havana, Cuba, one of the primary markets he was targeting, which would become the prototype for ice houses around the world. The structure was built of timber, with double walls, the cavity between the walls filled with insulation of sawdust and peat. The walls and roof kept the insulation dry, and the entire structure was elevated to allow meltwater to drain away. The roof was ventilated to allow the hot air from the melting ice to dissipate. Tightly packing blocks of uniform size and shape allowed the outer blocks of ice to cool those inside, and melting would be primarily confined to blocks on the surface of the ice stored.

During shipping, ice was packed in the hold of ships, insulated by sawdust, and crews were charged with regularly pumping out meltwater, which could be used as an on-board source of fresh water or disposed of overboard. Sawdust was produced in great abundance by the sawmills of Maine, and was considered a waste product, often disposed of by dumping it in rivers. Frederic Tudor had invented a luxury trade whose product was available for the price of harvesting it, and protected in shipping by a material considered to be waste.

The economics of the ice business exploited an imbalance in Boston's shipping business. Massachusetts produced few products for export, so ships trading with the West Indies would often leave port with nearly empty holds, requiring rock ballast to keep the ship stable at sea. Carrying ice to the islands served as ballast, and was a cargo which could be sold upon arrival. After initial scepticism was overcome (would the ice all melt and sink the ship?), the ice trade outbound from Boston was an attractive proposition to ship owners.

In February 1806, the first cargo of ice sailed for the island of Martinique. The Boston Gazette reported the event as follows.

No joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of Ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.

The ice survived the voyage, but there was no place to store it, so ice had to be sold directly from the ship. Few islanders had any idea what to do with the ice. A restaurant owner bought ice and used it to make ice cream, which was a sensation noted in the local newspaper.

The next decade was to prove difficult for Tudor. He struggled with trade embargoes, wound up in debtor's prison, contracted yellow fever on a visit to Havana trying to arrange the ice trade there, and in 1815 left again for Cuba just ahead of the sheriff, pursuing him for unpaid debts.

On board with Frederic were the materials to build a proper ice house in Havana, along with Boston carpenters to erect it (earlier experiences in Cuba had soured him on local labour). By mid-March, the first shipment of ice arrived at the still unfinished ice house. Losses were originally high, but as the design was refined, dropped to just 18 pounds per hour. At that rate of melting, a cargo of 100 tons of ice would last more than 15 months undisturbed in the ice house. The problem of storage in the tropics was solved.

Regular shipments of ice to Cuba and Martinique began and finally the business started to turn a profit, allowing Tudor to pay down his debts. The cities of the American south were the next potential markets, and soon Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans had ice houses kept filled with ice from Boston.

With the business established and demand increasing, Tudor turned to the question of supply. He began to work with Nathaniel Wyeth, who invented a horse-drawn “ice plow,” which cut ice more rapidly than hand labour and produced uniform blocks which could be stacked more densely in ice houses and suffered less loss to melting. Wyeth went on to devise machinery for lifting and stacking ice in ice houses, initially powered by horses and later by steam. What had initially been seen as an eccentric speculation had become an industry.

Always on the lookout for new markets, in 1833 Tudor embarked upon the most breathtaking expansion of his business: shipping ice from Boston to the ports of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras in India—a voyage of more than 15,000 miles and 130 days in wooden sailing ships. The first shipment of 180 tons bound for Calcutta left Boston on May 12 and arrived in Calcutta on September 13 with much of its ice intact. The ice was an immediate sensation, and a public subscription raised funds to build a grand ice house to receive future cargoes. Ice was an attractive cargo to shippers in the East India trade, since Boston had few other products in demand in India to carry on outbound voyages. The trade prospered and by 1870, 17,000 tons of ice were imported by India in that year alone.

While Frederic Tudor originally saw the ice trade as a luxury for those in the tropics, domestic demand in American cities grew rapidly as residents became accustomed to having ice in their drinks year-round and more households had “iceboxes” that kept food cold and fresh with blocks of ice delivered daily by a multitude of ice men in horse-drawn wagons. By 1890, it was estimated that domestic ice consumption was more than 5 million tons a year, all cut in the winter, stored, and delivered without artificial refrigeration. Meat packers in Chicago shipped their products nationwide in refrigerated rail cars cooled by natural ice replenished by depots along the rail lines.

In the 1880s the first steam-powered ice making machines came into use. In India, they rapidly supplanted the imported American ice, and by 1882 the trade was essentially dead. In the early years of the 20th century, artificial ice production rapidly progressed in the US, and by 1915 the natural ice industry, which was at the mercy of the weather and beset by growing worries about the quality of its product as pollution increased in the waters where it was harvested, was in rapid decline. In the 1920s, electric refrigerators came on the market, and in the 1930s millions were sold every year. By 1950, 90 percent of Americans living in cities and towns had electric refrigerators, and the ice business, ice men, ice houses, and iceboxes were receding into memory.

Many industries are based upon a technological innovation which enabled them. The ice trade is very different, and has lessons for entrepreneurs. It had no novel technological content whatsoever: it was based on manual labour, horses, steel tools, and wooden sailing ships. The product was available in abundance for free in the north, and the means to insulate it, sawdust, was considered waste before this new use for it was found. The ice trade could have been created a century or more before Frederic Tudor made it a reality.

Tudor did not discover a market and serve it. He created a market where none existed before. Potential customers never realised they wanted or needed ice until ships bearing it began to arrive at ports in torrid climes. A few years later, when a warm winter in New England reduced supply or ships were delayed, people spoke of an “ice famine” when the local ice house ran out.

When people speak of humans expanding from their home planet into the solar system and technologies such as solar power satellites beaming electricity to the Earth, mining Helium-3 on the Moon as a fuel for fusion power reactors, or exploiting the abundant resources of the asteroid belt, and those with less vision scoff at such ambitious notions, it's worth keeping in mind that wherever the economic rationale exists for a product or service, somebody will eventually profit by providing it. In 1833, people in Calcutta were beating the heat with ice shipped half way around the world by sail. Suddenly, what we may accomplish in the near future doesn't seem so unrealistic.

I originally read this book in April 2004. I enjoyed it just as much this time as when I first read it.

July 2016 Permalink

Weightman, Gavin. The Frozen-Water Trade. New York: Hyperion, 2003. ISBN 0-7868-8640-4.
Those who scoff at the prospect of mining lunar Helium-3 as fuel for Earth-based fusion power plants might ponder the fact that, starting in 1833, British colonists in India beat the sweltering heat of the subcontinent with a steady, year-round supply of ice cut in the winter from ponds and rivers in Massachusetts and Maine and shipped in the holds of wooden sailing ships—a voyage of some 25,000 kilometres and 130 days. In 1870 alone, 17,000 tons of ice were imported by India in ships sailing from Boston. Frederic Tudor, who first conceived the idea of shipping winter ice, previously considered worthless, to the tropics, was essentially single-handedly responsible for ice and refrigeration becoming a fixture of daily life in Western communities around the world. Tudor found fortune and fame in creating an industry based on commodity which beforehand simply melted away every spring. No technological breakthrough was required or responsible—this is a classic case of creating a market by filling a need of which customers were previously unaware. In the process, Tudor suffered just about every adversity one can imagine and never gave up, an excellent illustration that the one essential ingredient of entrepreneurial success is the ability to “take a whacking and keep on hacking”.

April 2004 Permalink