Refrigerated cargo ships
Reefers bring perishable cargoes to the masses
In the early years of the nineteenth century, improved technologies greatly reduced the cost of harvesting and storing blocks of ice obtained from frozen lakes in New England. It soon became profitable to transport those blocks of ice by ship to warmer US ports during the summer, where they could be sold for a respectable profit. Ships were adapted so as to minimize melting of the ice blocks en route. As insulation technics improved, ice blocks could be shipped from Boston to California with an average loss of only 20% of their weight. Ship owners soon learned that they could take advantage of the low temperatures in those cargo holds to transport perishable cargoes at an even higher profit. By the 1870’s, frozen beef carcasses were being shipped to London. The first ship with mechanical refrigeration was the Northam, but it suffered from breakdowns of the new equipment, which was soon removed. By 1877, though, steamers with improved mechanical refrigeration were carrying frozen mutton from Argentina to France and in 1879, the Strathleven carried frozen beef and mutton from Australia to England. In 1881, the clipper ship Dunedin was equipped with a compression refrigeration machine that worked by compressing air and then releasing it into the cargo hold. The expanding air cooled, lowering the temperature in the hold. In May 1882, after a voyage of 98 days, the Dunedin arrived in London from New Zealand carrying tons of mutton, lamb, pig, and butter, as well as hare, pheasant, turkey, chicken, and sheep tongues, providing the owners with a profit of over £4,000 on the single voyage. The era of the refrigerated ship had arrived. By 1900, there were over 350 reefer ships in operation worldwide. In 1901, specialized refrigerated banana carriers were built. In 1910, the United Fruit Company began calling its combination passenger and reefer ships the “Great White Fleet” due to their distinctive livery. Eventually, this Fleet numbered over 80 ships, making the company, which was later taken over by Chiquita Brands, one of the largest in the world. Many of these ships were requisitioned by the US Government during the two World Wars to transport troops and refrigerated supplies to combat theaters. The US Navy contracted for construction of its own refrigerated ships during both wars. In recent years, refrigerated ships have had to compete for cargoes with container ships carrying refrigerated containers. This has presented problems in some, but not all trades.