Refrigerators took a long time to become commonplace

The first household refrigerator powered by electricity was called the Domelre, a name derived from “domestic electric refrigerator.” Chicago inventor Fred Wolf conceived the appliance as an improvement on the incumbent icebox that was a familiar fixture in turn-of-the-century homes. Buyers would mount the unit atop their iceboxes, where it kept select food items cooler for longer than its underlying companion.

Stewart SchleyThe fact that the 1913 Domelre offered only a modest improvement to an existing appliance was one reason for a relatively cool reception. Another was its cost. The Domelre’s price of $900, at the time equal to 7 percent of the average U.S. household’s income, put it out of reach for most people. Even a more advanced successor, a self-contained unit produced by the Detroit-based Guardian Refrigerator Co., failed to gain traction. Two years after the first Guardian was built, according to a history of refrigeration maintained by Wright State University, the company had produced fewer than 40 units.

Still, the concept of mechanical refrigeration was intriguing. The prevailing approaches for acquiring and maintaining food – daily visits to the market, morning deliveries from the milkman and the hauling around of heavy ice blocks – cried for improvement. Or so believed W.C. Durant, the president of General Motors. He bought the Guardian Refrigerator Co. in 1918, renamed it Frigidaire Corp., and replaced Guardian’s laborious, manual production process with the same sort of mass production techniques GM had applied to automobiles.

GM wasn’t the only big believer. By the early 1920s, Detroit’s Kelvinator and General Electric Co. were also building refrigerators, convinced that Americans – or at least wealthy Americans – would gladly discard their iceboxes.

Yet for all of its revolutionary qualities, mechanical refrigeration was no overnight sensation. It took roughly 30 years after the introduction of Wolf’s Domelre for refrigerators to reach half of U.S. homes. Even after applying a more charitable starting point – the 1918 introduction of GM’s Frigidaire – it still took 25 years for the refrigerator to reach the 50 percent penetration mark. Refrigerators didn’t hit 70 percent penetration until the early 1950s, more than 30 years after their commercial debut.

One factor contributing to the prolonged ascension of household refrigeration was price. For much of its early history, the household refrigerator we now take for granted was affordable only for wealthy families. In 1924, GM’s $1,000 Frigidaire engulfed nearly 8 percent of an average family’s annual income. Today, Best Buy sells a $359 entry-level refrigerator that costs less than 1 percent of what an average U.S. household earns.

There are numerous contributors to adoption rates associated with modern technologies, but as Federal Reserve Bank economist W. Michael Cox has observed, one of the most important is the relationship between costs and earnings. In 1984, the average U.S. worker had to put in 435 hours to earn enough money to buy a personal computer – one reason hardly anybody did. Today, about 25 hours of work at the average wage will do it. That has helped boost household computer penetration to 80 percent.

The same dynamics affect video technologies. Easy affordability was one reason the DVD player became the champion of video technology adoption, achieving 70 percent penetration just six years after its commercial introduction in 1998. At less than $100 for many models, DVD players are affordable to almost anyone.

The same can’t be said about the latest rage in video: 3-D. The least-expensive 3-D TV sets are priced at close to $2,000, more than what the average household spends on clothing in a year. Worse, 3-D sets are coming to market smack in the middle of an existing upgrade cycle for HD sets. History tells us that if 3-D is to achieve mass-market appeal, it will need to deliver more than stunning visual experiences. As compelling as those may be, they’re really just incremental enhancements to a pretty good TV experience already available through digitally connected HD sets. To really take off, 3-D video technology needs to do what refrigerators did: chill out on the cost.

Addendum: My November/December 2009 column credited Jones Intercable of Augusta, Ga., with launching one of the first fiber-optic transmission networks for cable TV in the late 1980s. Equal billing should have gone to Time Warner Cable’s Oceanic Cablevision in Honolulu, which activated a fiber supertrunk in 1988. Thanks and “Aloha” to Oceanic Time Warner Cable vice president of engineering Michael Goodish for the clarification.