People love natural foods and natural products… but what is “natural,” really? In this episode, we explore that question by going back to one of the very first times anyone claimed a natural product was better than a man-made one: It’s the great war between the “natural” ice industry and the brand-new refrigerator industry. And it can teach us a lot about the decisions we make today.
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I'm Jason Feifer. We tend to think that the internet brought us animal humor. Icanhazcheeseburger, Grumpy Cat, a billion cat memes and twitter videos of dogs being good boys, but you know what? We invented nothing.
Long before the internet, old newspapers were a gold mine of weird animal stuff. And before that, maybe some long lost Cuneiform tablet told the tale of Grumpy Goat. Give us a means to communicate, and this is what we do.
Take for instance, the early 1900s. So much good stuff. Headline in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, 1909, Girl Bitten Trying to Make Peace Between Dog and Cat. That same year, the Valley Times Star of Newville, Pennsylvania, had this headline, Eats Dog Meat and Likes It. And it's not about a guy who ate food made for dogs. It's, well, you know.
Anyway, here's my favorite. It's ... Actually, you know what? I'm going to declare it right now. This is not just the best animal story. It's also the best thing to ever appear on the front page of the New York Times, period. And, yeah, yeah, the front page of the Times has reported every major global event since 1851. But stick with me here, because this isn't just an animal story. It is an allegory for the human condition.
So, February 2, 1908. The headline is this.
Speaker 2: Dog, a Fake Hero.
Jason Feifer: Dog, a Fake Hero. You want to know more, don't you? You have to know more.
Speaker 2: The dog is the property of a man who lives on the banks of the Seine just outside Paris.
Jason Feifer: And at the time, in 1908, Paris was looking for a few good dogs. They were, according to the story, employing dogs, quote, "For the patrol of lonely beats in the outskirts of Paris." End quote. Which, I suppose means pairing them up with police officers. This would have been a pretty new thing at the time. Belgium was the first to organize a police dog program, and that was in 1899.
So now, Paris was following suit, and the police there had heard about this one supposedly heroic dog who lived near the river. A little while ago, a child had fallen in and was close to drowning, and the dog leaped over the hedge, ran down the bank, and plunged into the water just in time to save the kid. A hero.
Speaker 2: Naturally, the brave animal was made much of. And the father of the child, by way of recompense, presented him with a succulent beef steak.
Jason Feifer: But shortly thereafter, the neighborhood needed it's hero again.
Speaker 2: Two days later, another child fell into the water and was rescued by the dog. The life saver received the same caresses, and another beef steak.
Jason Feifer: Boy, it's sure good to have this dog around, isn't it? And now, just so you can experience it the way the people of 1908 did, here is the rest of the story that ran on the front page of the New York Times.
Speaker 2: Up to this point, there was nothing extraordinary, but rescues became more and more frequent. Hardly a day passed that some unfortunate infant was brought safely to the bank by the dog after an involuntary bath. It began to be suspected that the neighborhood was haunted by a mysterious criminal, and a special watch was inaugurated. Then the truth came out. It was the dog, the noble lifesaver himself, that was the guilty one. Whenever he saw a child playing on the edge of the stream, he promptly knocked it into the water, and then nonetheless promptly, jumped into the rescue. He had thus established for himself a profitable source of revenue.
Jason Feifer: The dog just wanted some beef steak. And, okay, that is a funny story. But I got to thinking about it and realized this story is so much bigger than a fake hero dog. Because consider it, was that dog doing anything wrong? It depends on your understanding of the situation.
Because, a dog operates on incentives. If you want to teach a dog to shake your hand, then you associate the action of shaking a hand with the reward of a treat. Does that make any logical sense in some objective world of right or wrong? Not really.
Why would a dog get food for mimicking a human handshake? But whatever, the dog doesn't care about that. The dog only cares that it's getting it's treat. So, it's happy to repeat whatever action leads to the reward. Shake a hand, fish a child out of the river. I mean, what's the difference?
And maybe you think, ah, that's just a dog. But no, that's not just a dog. When my wife and I were potty-training our son, we'd give him a little treat whenever he peed in the toilet. So you know what he did? He started peeing just a tiny bit. He'd pee a little, hold the rest in, get a treat, wait a minute, pee a little more, ask for a treat, and so on. Later, to incentivize him to sit on the potty long enough to poop, we'd give him a phone so he could watch videos. But then, he started telling us he had to poop all the time because he knew it would mean that he could sit there and watch videos.
Dog, A Fake Hero, and Boy, A Fake Pooper. Same thing. And this is so common that there's even a great economic term for it. Welcome to Goodhart's Law.
Speaker 3: Goodhart's Law, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
Jason Feifer: Which, right, that's how it's usually stated. But could we break that down into English more?
Speaker 3: When someone knows what gets them a reward, they optimize their actions for the reward.
Jason Feifer: There we go. And this is problematic, because it totally ruins the point of incentives. I mean, think about what we as people, or as a society, do when we want people to do the right thing. We create incentives. And the incentives are designed to shape broader action.
My wife and I incentivized peeing in the toilet not because we cared about peeing in the toilet specifically, but because we cared about potty-training in general. But people and dogs don't actually respond that way. They'll just react to the incentive.
I mean, here's another classic case. If you're running a car dealership, and you want to increase sales, you might create a reward. Whoever sells the most cars gets a big bonus. But then, the salespeople will all just discount their cars to sell the most, because it's the number that they're being measured by.
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. And maybe you're saying, "Okay, that's interesting and whatever, but what does this have to do with refrigerators? Because this episode is apparently about refrigeration, not Jason's economic dog metaphors. But so far, nothing here is being refrigerated."
Which, fair point. So put your jacket on, because we are about to crank up the cool. The thing is, the history of refrigeration isn't exactly a story of Goodhart's Law. But it is definitely a story in which incentives lead people to wildly incorrect conclusions. And that has a lot to teach us about innovation today.
There was a very cold battle. A cold war, you might say, between two sides in the refrigeration business. And it resulted in telling people that bad was good, or good was bad, or doing things that led to short-term success and long-term failure, and that even set the stage for problems we still wrestle with today.
So, that's what we're going to examine on this episode of Pessimists Archive. It is a story about how ice turned into refrigeration, and then ...
Jonathon Reece: I'm going to stop you right there.
Jason Feifer: Oh, hello, Historian Jonathon Reece. What's up?
Jonathon Reece: So, this sounds a little technical, but it is kind of important. Ice is a refrigeration. So when you see the word refrigeration, really, until 1930, chances are they're talking about ice. So, an ice box, which we consider to be a refrigerator, used to literally be an ice box.
Jason Feifer: Right, good point. Ice is refrigeration. And this industry began, not with coils and coolants, but with ice. And the question of where the ice came from and where it was going, and who was selling it, and why. So, those are the first questions we're going to answer right after this break.
Pessimists Archive is a show all about being open to change. So here is a very personal kind of change that, I admit, sounded a little weird at first. What about a pillow that isn't fluffy or squishy? What about a pillow that's firm and filled with buckwheat?
I know, sounds weird. But this is the Hullo Pillow, and people love it. And I have to say, once I tried it, I love it too. Because I don't know about you, but as I've gotten older, I've started getting really annoyed at fluffy pillows. I fold them in half or use two of them just so my head doesn't sink in.
And then, this Hullo Pillow arrived at my home. And okay, it takes a minute to get used to. You can't flop your head on it, because it'll feel like you whacked something. But then, oh, it is a really great support for your head and neck. And I could customize it, emptying out a little of the buckwheat to make the pillow just a little less thick.
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Oh, and one percent of profits are donated to the nature conservancy. And if you try more than one pillow, you get a discount of up to 20 dollars per pillow. Try it. Once again, hullopillow.com/pessimistsarchive.
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All right, we're back. So in this episode, I'm going to tell you the history of refrigeration, from ice to machine. And there are two moments we're going to really investigate, and those are the moments just before the machine, and then what created the machine as we know it now.
But before we get to any of that, let's back up to the very beginning. Because here's the thing about refrigeration. Unlike some innovations, which required a lot of convincing and introducing people to something that they had no idea they needed, refrigeration is something that people have wanted for centuries.
It was always just a question of how.
Jonathon Reece: People were cutting ice off mountains in Roman times. Ancient Chinese societies were cutting ice off mountains.
Jason Feifer: That's the historian you heard a minute ago. So, time for a more formal introduction.
Jonathon Reece: My name is Jonathon Reece. I am a professor of history at Colorado State University, Pueblo. And I've actually written three books on the history of refrigeration.
Jason Feifer: And so that you can fill that bookshelf next to your refrigerator, those books are called Refrigeration Nation, Refrigerator, and Before The Refrigerator. And I'll add one more, which is Innovation And It's Enemies, by Calestous Juma, which has a chapter on refrigeration that I also relied on for this episode.
So, why were ancient Romans and Chinese cutting ice off mountains? Well, the most basic reason was that they understood the importance of keeping food cool. Food lasts longer that way. And so, these cultures were interested in storing ice and creating cooled spaces. But of course, this was difficult and often impractical work. And so, the world evolved without making ice a necessity.
Up to the 1800's in America, for example, farmers would just transport their products by night when the air was cooler. Occasionally, fishermen and farmers would display their products on ice the way we'd see in Whole Foods today, but most of the time they'd just hold all their sales early in the morning. Or, they'd keep their fish alive until it was sold. And food would become preserved through salting, spicing, and pickling, and so on.
But in 1806, change started coming. A Boston merchant named Frederic Tudor started to cut ice off of a local pond in the winter, and then put it on boats heading south.
Jonathon Reece: And then, he turns that into an industry, selling it to places all over the world.
Jason Feifer: Tudor once wrote that he wanted to become, "inevitably and unavoidably rich," which is a pretty delicious ambition. And ice would indeed, go on to make a lot of people inevitably and unavoidably rich. But at first, Frederic Tudor didn't really see ice as a big money maker.
And it wasn't. It was actually just an add-on. You had these ships coming into New England carrying goods. And it didn't make sense to let them leave empty. Why not put something on them for the return trip so that they could be sold wherever the boats went next?
So, Tudor started carving ice out of a local pond and sticking it on the boats that were leaving Boston. The boats would go off to all these southern states, and to the Caribbean, and even to India. The first time he sent ice to India was in 1833, and just so you can get a sense of the undertaking here, first he had to insulate the floors and sides of the interior of the ship with layers of wood and dried tree bark that he'd gotten from leather makers.
And then, it was time for the ice.
Speaker 3: The cubes of ice were then packed or built together, so close as to leave no space between them, and to make the hull one solid mass. About 180 tons were thus stowed.
Jason Feifer: This is from an article that I found in something called The Journal Of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1833, which chronicled this whole adventure.
Speaker 3: On the top was pressed down closely, a foot of hay. And the hull was shut up from the access of air, with a deer plank in one inch thick, nailed upon the lower surface of the lower deck timbers. The space between the planks and the deck being stuffed with [inaudible 00:13:30].
Jason Feifer: Which sounds about as good as it's going to get for the time. So okay, here's the weirdest SAT question, 180 tons of ice are going on a boat from Boston, Massachusetts to India during the summertime. How much ice do you suppose you'd lose along the way?
The answer is, an estimated 55 tons of it melted by the time it reached shore. Then, it was all loaded into more boats to be floated upriver, where another six or eight tons melted away. And then, another 20 were lost as they tried to get the ice from the river into an ice house, which could be stored until ... Well, when exactly?
The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal is diplomatic about what happened next.
Speaker 3: The sale has not, we believe, been so rapid as might have been expected.
Jason Feifer: Though, here's a more colorful way of putting it.
Jonathon Reece: There are stories from India where people go, "Oh, it burns, it burns."
Jason Feifer: Because if you're from a part of the world that basically, never drops below freezing, ice is about the least natural thing you have ever seen. Your body wouldn't even know how to process it. So, Tudor had spent all this time not just selling a heavy product that literally disappears on it's way to the destination, but he also had to create people's desire to have this product at all.
Jonathon Reece: He starts giving it away in bars in the southern United States for a year, just so people would decide that they wanted ice in their drinks. And after that, he would sell it. So, you create the market, you create the demand, and then people will pay for it.
Jason Feifer: He's eventually successful, of course. People like ice in their drinks. They like the extravagance of it, and they like the coolness of it, especially in a part of the world where boiling summers were once inescapable.
I found this fun piece in the New Orleans Crescent from September 8th, 1848, during what must have been a crazy heat spell. It says ...
Speaker 2: One ill effects all. One wont is everywhere felt. One sentiment has taken possession of all minds, and we greatly fear but one prayer is seriously offered up, and that is for ice. More ice, some ice, a little ice.
Jason Feifer: So, business eventually takes off, and it spawns a bunch of new industries. You've got more and more competitors harvesting ice, of course, and you've got manufacturers creating ice boxes, which are basically, early refrigerators.
Jonathon Reece: It would be sort of cabinet shaped, but there's one drawer where you put the food, and another drawer where you put the ice, because the ice and the food can't touch.
Jason Feifer: And imagine the work that goes into this. I mean, to keep your food cool, you have to be sparing about when you open the ice box. And, you need to sit around receiving constant deliveries of ice.
Speaker 5: We'd die with the heat before those dumb ice men get here. Yesterday, they put the ice in the radio.
Jason Feifer: That's actually the very beginning of a Three Stooges film where they play ice men. It opens with them dozing away in the ice truck, and then they wake up to discover that Curly's entire head is stuck in a block of ice.
Curly: Hey fellows, get me out.
Moe: What are you using ice for a pillow again? Get the tools.
Curly: Woop, woop, woop, woop, woop.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, you can see how this system left room for improvement. So that's why an entirely different set of people came at the problem from an entirely different manner.
Scientists were asking, "Can we actually make ice? Instead of sitting around waiting for winter, can we just build machines that make it?" It must have seemed like an insane question at the time, almost like today we wonder if we can make meat in a lab.
Of course, most people today distrust the idea of meat in the lab, and back in the 1850's when the artificial refrigeration industry began, people distrusted that, too. Though they had very good reason. Because the first mechanical refrigerators operated using ammonia, and ...
Jonathon Reece: Ammonia has a tendency to leak, and people do not like it if a refrigeration plant goes into their neighborhood, because often they can smell it. And periodically, those plants are going to blow up.
Jason Feifer: It was a song of ice and fire. But despite the dangers, people kept at it because there was a lot of money to be made in getting this right. First of all, many industries were willing to buy their own mechanical refrigeration equipment. The beer industry was one of the first, because lager beer requires very cold temperatures and previously, could only be made during winter.
Grocery stores also became interested, and so did ... well ...
Jonathon Reece: Mortuaries by ... Really, ice, the refrigeration machines. They're not using it to buy ice.
Jason Feifer: No, it's true. It can be confusing. Refrigeration machines and ice machines are basically, the same thing. It's just a question of whether you're cooling the air or cooling water.
But whatever, wait a second. I can't be the only one now wondering what mortuaries did before refrigeration, because oh, that sounds awful. And the answer is somehow even more awful.
Charles Dickens: One Christmas day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in to see an old gray man lying all alone in his cold bed with a tap of water turned on over his gray hair. And running drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn and made him look sly.
Jason Feifer: That's Charles Dickens, from The Uncommercial Traveller in 1861. And he's describing the world famous Paris Morgue. Many cities had morgues where the average person could just pop in and view bodies. It was a way for cities to identify the dead. But the Paris Morgue had turned into a tourist attraction, and to keep the bodies from decomposing too fast, they had cool water constantly dripping on them.
And so, I now apologize to you for the nightmares you're going to have tonight. But hey, back to the history of refrigeration. So, all of this refrigeration technology is being developed in the 1850's. But it's not until a couple decades later when, I mean, well, it's hard to say exactly when.
Jonathon Reece: You're sort of looking for these really sharp transition points, and in terms of refrigeration and refrigerators, there are none.
Jason Feifer: Jonathan had to stress this to me a couple of times. But Jonathon, it is so much easier to write a podcast script when history has sharp transition points. So here, how about this? Around the 1870's and 1880's, artificial refrigeration technology had improved to the point where it was actually usable. Which meant that yes, mortuaries and grocery stores and breweries can now keep their places cool. But let's not forget about people who just want ice in their homes.
Families wanted to keep their food cool in their ice boxes. And they wanted ice in their drinks. And it required those constant deliveries of ice. And now, where would that ice come from?
Well, of course, until now, it had literally been carved out of frozen lakes. But now, artificial refrigeration facilities were able to produce their own blocks of ice, and that ice could be delivered to people's homes, too. So the ice industry started splitting apart. You had competing camps.
There was ice carved out of lakes, which became known as natural ice. And then, you had ice made in a facility, which is often referred to as mechanical or artificial ice. For awhile, it was no contest. Natural ice was unshakable. People trusted it, it was familiar, it was cheaper. But then ...
Jonathon Reece: The problem is that water sources are all getting polluted.
Jason Feifer: An increasingly industrialized America was dumping it's waste into major urban water sources, which also happened to be the place where ice was coming from. Now, this didn't really matter to people who were just placing the ice into ice boxes because that never actually touched the food.
Jonathon Reece: But if you're dropping it in your drink, it becomes a matter of huge concern if there's dirt or leaves or even worse, black pollution.
Jason Feifer: You'd think that this would be the end of natural ice, the final melting of a product that was never meant to last. But ...
Jonathon Reece: Natural ice lasts longer than you would think it does.
Jason Feifer: As it turns out, the natural ice industry still had a couple powerful things going for it. One was pure incumbency. They'd been around longer, and many producers had consolidated into politically connected local monopolies. In New York, for example, the local monopoly bought up all the regional ice fields and then paid kickbacks to the corrupt mayor so that nobody else could unload ice on the local piers, and so that artificial ice was kept out of the city.
But that was all behind the scenes. You know what consumers heard about? Well, for a long time, they didn't hear anything about monopolies and kickbacks. Instead, they heard a powerful word, a natural word, if you will, and a natural concept that naturally holds a lot of natural sway over our naturally made minds. You want to guess what it was? Here's from a pamphlet that natural ice merchants distributed to consumers in the late 1800's.
Speaker 9: Natural ice is always more than 90 percent purer than the water on which it forms. Natural ice is stored in ice houses, from three to 12, or even 20 weeks before it is consumed. Twelve week storage makes ice practically sterile.
Jason Feifer: That's not science. Though to be fair to them, germ science wasn't sophisticated back then, and a lot of people believed that when you froze water, you killed everything harmful inside of it. So this was basically the natural ice industry's play book. Natural ice comes from nature, and therefore, it's better.
The natural ice industry even created a new product. Ready? Melted natural ice, placed into bottles. Also known as bottled water. There was actually already a bottled water industry, but some of the water was making people sick. So, the natural ice industry stepped in with it's claims of healthfulness.
I found this piece in a paper called the Scranton Truth in November of 1911. It has the headline, Natural Ice Versus Bottled Water, Nature's Ice Melted Nearly Absolutely Pure, Free From Bacterial Germs. And then, it quotes Professor John C. Sparks, described as a noted water expert of New York, who said ...
John C. Sparks: I think it would be apparent to you that a more extensive use of ice as drinking water would aid in the reduction of typhoid fever and make a useful and easily attainable extra supply of safe drinking water within the reach of everyone.
Jason Feifer: And if you're thinking, hmm, this sounds a lot like the stuff people say today, well, you are correct. Like this ...
Speaker 11: While people around us or others we don't even know are suffering or feeling scared with COVID-19 making it's way around the globe, we want to share some healing crystals that can boost your immune system and help protect you and your loved ones.
Jason Feifer: That, I swear to you, was the beginning of an email I got from a company called Crystal And Rocks just as the Coronavirus outbreak hit America. The natural ice from the 19th century were able to see the early echoes of today's wellness industry. And it all started, well, pretty logically.
Alan Levinovitz: The contrast between natural ice and artificially produced ice was one that would evoke for many consumers, a broader contrast between natural and artificial, or, if you want to think about it, adulterated, foods that they were trying to deal with.
Jason Feifer: This is Allen, who spends a lot of time thinking about the meaning of naturalness.
Alan Levinovitz: My name is Alan Levinovitz. I am an associate professor of religion at James Madison University, and I've just finished writing a book called Natural: How Faith In Nature's Goodness Leads To Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.
Jason Feifer: And Alan says that just around the time when technology could freeze water into ice, the world was also entering the era of truly manufactured foods. And things were not going well. Kids were buying candy and their mouths were swelling up, because the candy or the wrappers contained lead or sulfur or mercury. Until the 1880's, there weren't many safety laws in place, which left people fearful of what they'd put in their bodies.
So you could see how people would have started making associations. If manufactured food is problematic, then manufactured ice could be problematic. And in fact, manufactured anything could be problematic. It is a natural way to look at things.
And Alan says that this can teach us a lot about the way that people react to change more broadly.
Alan Levinovitz: When people face new technologies, and especially when those technologies are bound up with a sense of risk, what they end up wanting is a simple juristic to cut through complexity, and allow them to make decisions that would otherwise be ambiguous or overwhelming. And so, when you have people picking natural over unnatural, it's the result of being in a kind of landscape of choices where they see dangers and benefits to the natural product. They see dangers and benefits to the unnatural, or technological product. And they don't know how to make a decision. And so, what cuts through that noise is an almost theological binary that favors naturalness over what's unnatural.
That's how to think about the preface for natural. It's a choice-making juristic that gives us confidence when we don't know how to otherwise make our decisions.
Jason Feifer: And this isn't just a product of manufactured food. Alan says this goes way, way back. You can find Aristotle talking about how unnatural it is to charge interest, because it leads to the unnatural creation of money. But then, we run into a problem because the world is full of natural and unnatural things. And they aren't so easily divided.
I mean, just consider ice. The natural ice industry was asking you to drink water out of polluted waterways. But the unnatural ice industry, the artificial ice industry, was increasingly perfecting it's technology, and ultimately creating cleaner and healthier ice.
So, what are you going to do? Who do you trust? This is why Alan studies this subject, because he wants people to stop thinking that natural is synonymous with safety. Natural can be good, he says, but it cannot be sacred. Because if we trust something blindly, we'll make blind choices that can ultimately harm us. Like, oh, warding off Coronavirus with crystals, or just generally wasting money on expensive products that don't work, or resisting vaccines, or resisting contraception.
Alan says there are so many stories of women who have trouble breastfeeding, but won't give their children formula because it's unnatural. And then, they show up at the hospital with a malnourished child. And there's even our own food where our quest for natural sometimes doesn't even make sense.
Alan Levinovitz: So, a really good example of this is natural vanilla. People want to buy natural vanilla. People are interested in natural vanilla flavor, and they don't want the synthetic stuff. The stuff that's been steam cracked out of petro chemicals, or the stuff that's been made by genetically modified yeast.
But here's the thing, virtually all vanilla that's on the market, with some exceptions, is grown in lands where it is not native, and it is all artificially inseminated orchids. So, every single vanilla bean we have on the market has been the product of insemination by a human being in an environment where the plant isn't native. And now, that means that vanilla is very, very expensive. So, people are trying to develop greenhouses in which you can grow vanilla orchids. And of course, that's actually a highly technological endeavor.
And so, when we're trying to figure out, well gee, what's the best kind of vanilla to buy? We need to understand that it's not so easy as creating a binary between the natural version and the unnatural version. That in fact, almost everything we use today is the product of a complex origin story that can't be neatly boiled down to natural or unnatural, and moreover, can't be evaluated according to where it is on the scale of natural to unnatural.
Jason Feifer: Which is also exactly what happened to the ice industry. Because by World War I, the artificial ice industry had all but destroyed the "natural" ice industry. The health concerns over natural had grown to great. Artificial ice, it had gotten cheaper and more reliable, and places like hotels were starting to create their own ice. So, the natural ice industry just melted away.
And that meant the artificial ice industry had won. It had, de facto, become the ice industry. So from now on, when we're talking about the ice industry, we're basically talking about companies that use technology to create ice, and then deliver that ice to people's homes for their ice boxes.
And then around 1915, the very first electric home refrigerators came along. You might think the ice industry took notice, but nah, the first of these refrigerators were ridiculous. You literally had to cut a hole in the floor so that machinery could be installed in the basement. And a belt would go between the machinery and the refrigerator.
Though only the ultra wealthy people could buy these things. Here's a trade publication called Ice And Refrigeration in April of 1924, voicing what many in the ice industry thought.
Ice And Refrigeration: You know the American people are always prone to take up a new fad and run away with it. I don't know whether they're going to put the ice man out of business. I don't think so, not for a few years, at least.
Jason Feifer: Fidget Spinners, jeans with Bedazzled pockets, and the electric refrigerator. Americans sure love their fads. But that writer was right about something. A few years, they wrote. And a few years, indeed. In 1927, General Electric came out with the first truly modern refrigerator. It was called the Monitor Top, and it was effective and reliable, and relatively quiet. Now, the ice industry was paying attention, and it geared up for a fight.
And what was it's weapon of choice? Well, irony of ironies, the ice industry, which was now run by artificial ice manufacturers, went back to the old playbook of the natural ice industry they defeated. And they started saying stuff like this.
Speaker 3: There's no refrigerant like ice. It is the natural way of chilling food, to keep it fresh and juicy and full of flavor.
Jason Feifer: The natural way. That's from an ad for Henneberger Ice And Storage Co, which ran in a newspaper in Princeton, Indiana, in 1927. And isn't this exactly like what Alan Levinovitz was talking about a few minutes ago with the vanilla beans? The ice industry was claiming to be natural, but what was natural at this point? The ice was being manufactured. The actual natural ice was long gone, destroyed by the industry that now waved the natural flag.
But, people like natural things. So, ice kept hammering at it. The industry ran tons and tons of ads like this. Ice was natural, they'd say. Refrigerators were unnatural, and would do unnatural things to your food. The industry even created a lobbying group called The Household Refrigeration Bureau, and a woman named Dr. Mary Pennington became it's director.
She was the former head of the Department of Agriculture's Food Research Laboratory, and she started producing pamphlets with names like The Romance Of Ice. And most delightfully, the ice industry also produced poetry. There was a piece called To Ice, which was a take on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. And yes, we will now proudly reproduce this masterpiece for you in full, and in song.
Speaker 14: Tinkle, tinkle, little chunk, how I wonder if it's bunk. All these stories that I hear, that you've something now to fear. Ice machines are springing up, thick as fleas upon a pup.
Proud their chorus, watch us grow, when we come in ice much go. Tell me then my chilly friend, do you see in them your end?
Speaker 15: I am ice, came proud reply, on me, millions still rely. I am faithful, safe and sure, qualities that must endure. Foods entrusted to my care, I keep fresh beyond compare. Simple saving, pure and cold, I work without being told. This I take, much I give, who dare say I shall not live.
Jason Feifer: And that last line was written in all caps, like a rallying cry. You can imagine it being performed in a theater, and all the ice men rising to their feet at the finale, throwing celebratory cubes of ice in the air, and then realizing that the ice is going to come falling down on them hard. Which metaphorically, is what happened.
Jonathon Reece: The [inaudible 00:33:29] refrigerator is about one of only two or three industries that actually grows during the depression. Everybody who has any money wants a refrigerator, because it's such a life-changing thing.
Jason Feifer: The natural argument did work for a few decades, but there was no stopping the refrigerator's growth. It was too convenient, too much of a game-changer. And so, the refrigerator grew and grew, and not just in numbers. In size, too. Jonathon says that those early refrigerators were tiny. An American might think it looks like a dorm room fridge today. And in many countries, including some in Europe, the fridge basically has stayed that size. It's stayed small.
But not in America.
Jonathon Reece: That's the process from '27 to the present, is upselling refrigerators so they get bigger, so that you can store everything. So, if the apocalypse comes, you will have food around, or guests come for a party, you'll have food around whether you really need it or not.
Jason Feifer: Which got me wondering something. Is this why Americans refrigerate so many things? I grew up in a household that refrigerated butter and peanut butter and maple syrup. And now as an adult, people keep telling me, "No, no, no, you don't need to refrigerate that stuff." So I asked Jonathon, was the refrigeration industry convincing us to refrigerate stuff so that they could constantly upsell us on larger refrigerators?
Jonathon said it might be the opposite, that the food industry kept making more things that needed refrigerating. I mean, remember when frozen orange juice was a big thing? But neither of us are experts on this. And now, I really wanted to know, because I feel like the answer tells us something about why technology evolves in the way it does.
So I called a guy named [Sajeed Sadi 00:35:02].
Sajeed Sadi: Hi, my name is Sajeed, and I am SVP of research at Samsung Research, America. And I run a team called The [inaudible 00:35:10] Team, which basically has the mandate to find new business opportunities for Samsung.
Jason Feifer: So, here's what I said to Sajeed. I said, "Look, I am a big believer in innovation and the drive to constantly improve and solve problems. And yet, I have also always been fascinated with razors. You know, razors for shaving made by Gillette or Schick. Because the razor seems like a case study in the innovation processes down side. Think of it, Gillette's Mach III Razor came out in 1998. And it was basically, perfect. Three blades, gives you a close shave, leaves the skin feeling smooth, what more could you want from a razor? What more could you want?
But Gillette just couldn't kick back and relax. It has competitors who will try topping the Mach III, and it needs to put new things into the marketplace so it has new things to market. So, it has to innovate for what it seems to be the sake of innovation. Soon, you've got the Mach III Power Nitro, in which they took the Mach III and made it vibrate, because why? And then, they added more blades, bigger handles. And here's a YouTuber named Sinatra Lennon checking out the Gillette Fusion Five Pro Shield Chill.
Sinatra Lennon: The flex ball rotates, pivots, five precision blades. It's got a trimmer on the back, and it's got cooling, the little blue strip around it, which we'll look at in a minute. So, it's chill, so it's got some menthol in it somehow.
Jason Feifer: And it makes me think, how much of our technology has evolved like this? Is this why we've got Clippy on Microsoft Word? Is this why we have giant refrigerators? Not because we need them, but because the refrigerator companies just needed something new to release? How should I understand all this?
And Sajeed, well, he gets what I was saying. In fact, Gillette once came to speak with him when he worked at MIT's Media Lab. But look, he said, if you want to see how innovation should work, then the refrigerator is actually a pretty good place to start. Because think about it, the refrigerator hasn't functionally changed much since 1927. It's a big box with shelves, an internal cooling system, and doors that open and shut. So, what's next?
Sajeed Sadi: Maybe for refrigerators, there is some kind of issue that all of us are irritated about. Like, why can't a refrigerator stay open all day? [inaudible 00:37:22] because all the ones at the store seem to stay open all day, and they don't seem to have a problem. So, why can't the home one?
If we think about things like that, then maybe there is room to completely change the form of the refrigerator. In addition to maintaining the 20 lines of refrigerators that we [inaudible 00:37:38].
Jason Feifer: In addition to maintaining the 20 lines. It's an important balance, he says. To properly innovate is to look at things in two different ways at the same time, which is what his team is doing. First, there's maintaining a product line. Because parts get old. Because there are new consumer trends. Or sometimes, just out of industry tradition, like if there's an expectation of a new model every year.
And then, there's blue skying it, looking at something from a totally new light, asking big, fundamental questions about how something can be improved or rethought. If you get that balance wrong, or if you stop thinking blue sky, you will get off track. And that's what happened with razors.
The razor companies lost track of where the problem was. It wasn't in creating a closer and closer and closer shave, because that problem had basically been solved. The problem was that people didn't want to go to the store and buy expensive razors. The problem wasn't in product. It was in process. And that's why when Dollar Shave Club and Harry's came along and solved the process problem, they took so much market share away from companies like Gillette, which was entirely focused on product.
To properly innovate, Sajeed says, you need a balance between big thinking and small thinking. And if you look at it like that, you see that technology isn't just created in a lab somewhere, then forced upon people.
Sajeed Sadi: I don't think that the refrigerators got bigger because the manufacturer working making them bigger. Other things became bigger. Our kitchens became bigger. Our lifestyles required more refrigeration. Our distribution channels, supermarkets appeared, right? Volume, the discount stores appeared. We buy at Costco now. Costco is not a thing in France. Nobody buys four liters of orange juice and stuffs it in the fridge.
So, if you think about it, every piece of technology is actually responding to people in some meaningful way. You can't just make people ... I mean, you can to some extent, in terms of marketing and a lot of money, you can make people do things. But over the long term, those trends will not be the sticky ones. The ones that are really sticking are the ones where people are really seeing their own needs reflected in it. They're seeing the utility, and they're buying into that.
Jason Feifer: I mean, do you go grocery shopping once a week? I do. That's also why we have larger refrigerators. We had a decades long conversation with our technology, and we both evolved as a ... Whoa, hold on, boy. I'm delivering an important revelation about refrigerator sizes right now. Can't this wait?
What? Timmy is stuck in a well again? Oh, no. Sorry, I misunderstood. You were asking what all this has to do with that fake hero dog story from the beginning. Right, that is a good question. Because we have come to the end of this episode, and it's now time for the classic writer trick of tying the end back to the beginning.
So listen, you might recall that the fake hero dog was a great example of Goodhart's Law, which is basically a critique of incentives. Give people a target, and they become blinded by it. And generally speaking, I'd argue that we have a version of that filtering through the refrigeration saga.
For example, just look at this, in 1913, as the natural ice industry was on it's heels, the Natural Ice Association of America issued what it called a call to arms to it's natural ice dealers to keep pushing that message of natural, natural, natural. They wrote ...
Speaker 3: So long as the people of your community are in ignorance of the special advantages of natural ice, just so long will capitalists continue to invest money in ice-making plants.
Jason Feifer: So, if you're the natural ice industry, what have you just done? Well, I'd argue that you pushed your people towards failure. You told them to repeat the same losing message until they inevitably lost.
But imagine the alternative. Imagine if these people were instead, incentivized to think of new ideas, to research their consumers needs, to blue sky it. But they didn't do that. They couldn't do that. They were so afraid of change and afraid of what's next, that they incentivized failure.
I often think about this article that I read in Harvard Business Review called Why Big Companies Can't Innovate. It's by Maxwell Wessel. He's the chief innovation officer at SAP, and he started it like this.
Maxwell Wessel: Big companies are really bad at innovation because they're designed to be bad at innovation.
Jason Feifer: So, what are big companies designed to be good at? The answer is, they're good at being themselves. A company innovates at the beginning, develops something new that people want, and then structures itself to do that same thing more and more efficiently. It stops inventing, and it starts refining. And this is why when the world begins to change, big companies cannot adapt. They end up defending their turf instead. They just don't know how to do anything else.
Here's another way of looking at it, the incentives in the company are all wrong. Managers are incentivized towards efficiency, so they'll do what they're asked to do until the company just stops making a thing that anyone wants, or becomes very good at making a product people shouldn't have. That's this story.
When I look at the story of refrigeration, I see a natural ice industry that was incentivized to keep selling dirty ice, even when they knew it was wrong. I see a consolidated ice industry incentivized to sell ice, even though they knew there was no possible way they could compete against the household refrigerator. I see a natural wellness industry incentivized to capitalize on people's distrust of modernity, and bonus, I see a razor industry incentivized to make razors bigger and more expensive, which blinded them to what people really wanted.
And what's the solution? What do you do instead? Well, if you're a creator, if you're a person in business, and I think the answer comes from Sajeed at Samsung. You create a conversation with the world, and shift as it shifts. You innovate around the edges, but keep asking big, fundamental questions that might force you to scrap and rethink the entire endeavor. You never stop doubting.
And if you're the consumer, you do what natural author Alan Levinovitz says. You resist the urge to filter information in simplistic ways. And instead, take the world for all it's complexities.
In both cases, you're thinking clearer and bigger. You're seeing yourself as one part of a larger system. You're acting today, knowing that the world is bigger than you understand it to be, and that it'll be even more complicated tomorrow. You're seeing the unknown as opportunity. I mean, push a kid into a river a few times and fish them out, and you'll get a beefsteak. But that is a short-term game. You'll be found out, and then no more beefsteaks for life. So, let's not play for the short-term. Let's play for the long-term. Let's figure out not the straight path that dead ends, but the winding path, the weird path, the one that leads into the fog, destination unknown, except we at least know this. The path keeps going. And there are many beefsteaks along the way.
And that's our episode. Now, we just talked about the natural ice of yesterday. But is there a natural ice movement today? I wondered. Maybe you did, too. The answer is coming up. But first, I'm going to give you a second to think of a friend who'd love Pessimist Archive. Got one in mind? I love that friend, too. Now, please tell them about the show. Word of mouth helps us grow, especially during socially distant times, which helps us make more episodes. So, thanks for your support.
And while you're at it, here are some other ways to get involved. You can also follow us on Twitter at pessimistsarc. That's @pessimistsarc, where we're always Tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. Our website is pessimists.co. It has links to lots of things discussed in this episode, and also an archive of historical pessimism that's searchable by innovation. We also love hearing from you, so drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us what you think or even suggest a future episode subject.
Oh, and the next time you look at your podcast player, why not give us a five star rating? For real, that stuff helps. Thanks to our wonderful voice actors. As always, they were Brent Rose, so you can find at Brentrose.com and Gia Mora, who you can find at giamora.com. Our theme music is by Caspar Baby Pants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation at CKF.org/tech. We were recorded by Charlie Colbert at DeGrasse Sounds, and sound edited by Alec Bayliss. Our webmaster is James Stewart.
And all right, the moment you've been waiting for, the natural ice of the 19th century was really a matter of necessity. But when I was talking to Alan Levinovitz about natural movements of today, I got to wondering, do you have any idea if people are obsessed with natural ice today?
Alan Levinovitz: No, but you know what? I'll say this, I hadn't thought about it until right now. If I were an entrepreneur, I'd get on it. But you know what people are obsessed with? So, this is the closest thing. I don't know if you've seen this, is raw water. And if you're not talking about it in this episode, you should. There's people that are paying four to five times the price for water, "raw water," natural water, if you will, that hasn't been filtered.
Jason Feifer: What? Well, we obviously hadn't talked about it in this episode. But it's not too late. Take it away, Channel Six, KOYN.
Speaker 19: If you think bottled water is already too extensive, imagine paying 16 dollars, yeah, 16 dollars for one bottle. That's the price that one company is, in fact, charge for Oregon Spring Water.
Speaker 20: We asked the question, is that legal?
Jason Feifer: Spoiler alert, it's legal. But watch out, because your raw water is also infused with the essence of long-haired new age dude.
Speaker 21: The first time I drank fresh, living spring water, a surge of energy and peacefulness entered my being.
Jason Feifer: I mean, I now also feel a surge of something, but it isn't peacefulness. All right, that's all for this time. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer, and we'll see you in the near future.
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