One-time Skokie Resident Enjoys a Patented Place in History of the Essential Kitchen Appliance: The Refrigerator Freezer
In 2012, Scientists Declare the Refrigerator “The Most Significant Invention in the History of Food and Drink” … We salute a local inventor…
HERBERT PHILLIPS, RESIDENT OF SKOKIE FOR 18 YEARS, ENJOYS A PATENTED PLACE IN THE MESSY HISTORY OF DEFROSTING THE ICE BOX
Many people remember when defrosting an iced-up refrigerator-freezer compartment was a household task that was both messy and time-consuming. But, thanks to Herbert Phillips, a resident of Skokie from 1965 to 1982, a patented solution for that sloppy task was developed in 1953. While he working as a research and development engineer for the famous Philco brand of appliances in Philadelphia, Phillips was awarded a US patent for a device that simplified one of the worst jobs in the mid-century “modern” kitchen.
A report last month by the Smithsonian Institution noted that scientists have declared the refrigerator to be the single “most significant invention in the history of food and drink,” In fact, his industry has been so successful at stabilizing food, there is now an annual “National Clean Out Your Fridge Day,” coming up on November 14, as a reminder to make room for the bounteous preparations for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast --- and its inevitable left-overs.
Now again a resident of Philadelphia and in active retirement at The Watermark at Logan Square in Center City, Herbert Phillips reflected on his patented contribution to the invention that has transformed eating as we know it.
“I grew up in the era of the iceman delivering blocks of ice with tongs. Back then, you had to shop frequently because you didn’t have a reliable way to chill food and prevent it from spoiling quickly,” recalled Phillips, who was raised in Pottstown, PA and then launched an international career in mechanical engineering through a degree at Purdue University in Indiana.
“The electric refrigerator with a freezer made it possible to store fresh frozen foods a very long time. After World War II, I became part of a team working on improving consumer appliances at Philco. Even though the modern refrigerator was a major convenience, we hadn’t yet solved the problem of the frozen-over ‘ice box’ --- a big mess for our customers, which included my own family home. I won a patent for developing a removable, flexible metal ‘sleeve’ that surrounded the freezer compartment and lifted out the icy mess in one piece, so you could take it to the sink to defrost and clean, without all the puddles in front of the door."
"Eventually, my industry developed ways to use the compressor itself to circulate heat back into the freezer compartment to prevent icy build-up in the first place," he continued, "but, while that was in development, my low-tech sleeve was considered a solution worthy of a United States patent.”
Speaking from his comfortable apartment at the Watermark, Phillips now cooks in an up-to-date galley kitchen, where the fridge, range and microwave are supplemented with the latest countertop appliances like a k-cup coffeemaker and a sandwich press. Phillips pointed out that even though prepackaged frozen food takes up a huge portion of today’s supermarket, the home refrigerator-freezer actually hit the market before there was much commercial food to fill it. Brands like Birds Eye® had to play catch-up, developing effective ways to preserve and ship the frozen food to fill those small compartments and eventually the big stand-alone freezer boxes that held hundreds of pounds.
During his many years in Skokie, working for the American Home Laundry Manufacturers Association, Phillips eventually consulted to the permanent-press clothing industry to make sure washers, dryers and irons had settings that were in synch with the developments of textile manufacturers. Over the course of a long career, Phillips had a hand in developing reliable consumer appliances from dishwashers and hair dryers to microwave ovens and window air conditioners, as well as large commercial air conditioning and refrigeration standards.
“It was an exciting time in America to be working in industries that were revolutionizing our home lives, making them more comfortable and convenient,” recalled Phillips. “And I’m proud that I continued my career working for the appliance manufacturing trade associations that ensured those products were safe and reliable for consumers, so we know we’re getting the quality and performance we expect.”