The Gorrie Museum

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Two bucks.  That’s what it costs to enter the the State of Florida’s Gorrie Museum.  Given a spare 15 minutes, that’s something to do, right?  Even if it’s 10 or 20. It takes however long it takes.  But, it was there in Apalachicola, so why not?



Dr. John Gorrie (1803 - 1855) was granted the first U.S. Patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851.  How that refrigerator works is probably the least interesting thing in the building.  Here’s a mockup of what it looked like:


So much so that the “guide” was at a loss to explain it.  It’s written elsewhere, but it involves air, water, brine and compression, and results in ice being formed in the upper box.

The better question is “Why?”

Well, malaria.  Or, mal-aria (bad air).  Let’s get the gory details.  “Yellow fever” was common in hot, tropical areas with high humidity and rapid decomposition of vegetation.   It starts with shivering, violent chills, high fever, insatiable thirst, headaches, drenching sweat and back and leg pain.  In a day came jaundice and yellow body color.  And, later, 12% to 70% of its victims survived, and the remainder coughed up dark blood, body temperature drops, the pulse fades, and the comatose patient, cold to the touch, would die in 8-10 hours.

And it struck Apalachicola in 1941.  Dr. Gorrie, born in Charleston, SC and educated at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York (CPSWDNY?), happened to be a local business and civic leader of a town and port doing well at the time, due to cotton.

Regrettably short of being a healing aide, then ice was at least helpful for comfort.  Said ice, cut in the winter in northern lakes, was stored in underground ice houses, packed in sawdust and shipped around the Florida Keys by a sailing vessel.  Available in the summer in Apalachicola at a dockside near you.

Why not make it instead?

"If the air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression. If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box." The compressor could be powered by horse, water, wind driven sails, or steam power.”

Ice making wasn’t new, but his particular method and purpose of air-conditioning was a major step towards life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  He never made any money off of it, however.  It worked, but it wasn’t reliable to scale it as a business, and others moved the innovation forwards.

The museum had a diorama essentially showing that you put ice at the ceiling, cool air travels down, and the air is recycled from floor level to the attic for airflow.


A bonus fact was the Apalachicola Sponge Exchange.  Key West was the largest producer of sponges, and the locals were #2, supplying up to a third of the sponges in Florida.   More evidence of a pretty interesting ecosystem.

Oh, and here’s our hero:


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