About 1.54 billion gallons of ice cream and related frozen desserts were produced in the U.S. alone in 2015 (most recent data).1 It is estimated that by 2022, the global ice-cream and gelato market will reach $89 billion.2 Can you imagine a world without ice cream? But who invented the first ice-cream maker? How did that one invention impact the production of ice cream and affect society?
Imagine a world without ice cream. How boring would dessert be without that frozen, delicious, creamy concoction? We take it for granted that ice cream is a choice, but this has not always been the case. By changing how ice cream was made, one woman created a truly valuable final product for the masses and influenced a huge worldwide industry. But first, consider how long people have enjoyed icy treats and the lengths they went to in order to acquire them.
The History of Ice Cream
The history of this frozen delight is long and somewhat surprising. Ice cream was a delicacy usually reserved for the wealthy.
Ice Cream in America
Thank the Quakers for bringing their recipes with them to America. During the colonial period, ice cream was sold in New York shops. Early adopters included Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who brought a “cream machine” home with him from France when he was secretary of state.
A merchant in 1790 reported that George Washington purchased $200 worth of the confection. Ice cream was often served at his presidential Thursday dinners. And an entry in his ledger states that he purchased a “cream machine” for his home at Mount Vernon.4
Nancy Johnson’s Ice-Cream Revolution
Nancy M. Johnson was an “ordinary housewife,” living in Philadelphia in the 1800s. She became a real game changer when her simple hand-cranked ice-cream churn launched a “disruptive technology” that made it possible for everyone to make quality ice cream.
Born in 1795, she died in Philadelphia at the age of 95. No one seemed to know exactly where she was from, though people say Washington, DC, Philadelphia, or even New Jersey.
Johnson was the creator of the first ice-cream maker; it was her only invention. She made her final adjustments to the patent on September 9, 1843, receiving Patent No. 3,254; but she unfortunately did not reap many of the benefits from her creation.5
In an article from March 25, 1971, titled “VALUABLE FINAL PRODUCTS,” L. Ron Hubbard says: “By definition, a valuable final product is something that can be exchanged with other activities in return for support. The support usually adds up to food, clothing, shelter, money, tolerance and cooperation (goodwill).”
What a valuable product Nancy Johnson created! With her hand-cranked ice-cream maker, this little-known woman brought her homemade frozen concoction to the populace, and the basic design she developed is still used today.
Much of the lack of credit to Ms. Johnson comes from the fact that, in 1846, she sold her rights to William Young for just $200 (which was still a pretty good sum in those days). He at least had the courtesy to call the machine the “Johnson Patent Ice-Cream Freezer.”6 The cash and the naming of the product were her only exchange for inventing this awesome product.
Johnson’s invention simplified the process of making ice cream, marking a revolution in the history of the dessert. From this time on, anyone could make the very best quality ice cream at home, especially since rock salt—which was called “ice-cream salt” until the early twentieth century—had become a cheap commodity.
Meanwhile, by 1919 the ice-cream industry was churning out (but NOT by hand!) 150 million gallons a year; so if you really didn’t want to invest the time to hand-crank your own, you could probably have run down to the general store for a cup or a cone.
As with so many inventions in the Industrial Revolution, Nancy Johnson’s device was a stepping stone in the burgeoning technology of the frozen treat. She had a great ability to observe and introduced some basic changes to the way ice cream was made.
How It Worked
Before Ms. Johnson perfected her creation, ice cream was made by the “pot freezer” method. One placed a metal pot inside a bin or bucket filled with ice, then added the ingredients to the inner pot and stirred like mad. That method was a lot of work with unpredictable, often lumpy results.
Nancy Johnson’s hand-cranked ice-cream churn was simple but elegantly genius. It consisted of concentric cylinders, a lid, a paddle and a crank. Here’s her patent design drawing.
An inner can was placed inside the main bucket. Ice and rock salt were placed between the two vessels. Because salt lowers the temperature of ice, a thin layer of milk froze in the inner can.
Ingeniously, Nancy Johnson used a crank on the outside that was connected by meshed gears to a paddle inside. The hand crank moved the paddle, which scraped the frozen milk from the walls to expose a layer of milk not yet frozen. The consistent stirring and temperature resulted in smoother ice cream with a consistent texture.7
Thanks to Nancy Johnson’s product, ice cream could be made much faster than before. And because her device was small, less salt and ice were necessary; thus, ice cream was affordable for everyone.
Nancy Johnson’s Design Still Used Today
As progress occurred in the technology of manufacturing and freezing, ice cream became a mega industry. Today, ice cream is made much the way it was when Nancy Johnson invented her hand-cranked ice-cream freezer, except on a larger scale.
The ice-cream ingredients of milk, cream, sugar and flavoring get whipped around (and thus aerated) by a blade in a tube that is chilled from the outside. In Johnson’s day, ice and salt did the trick, whereas nowadays liquid ammonia is more often used outside the tube. Whenever the ice-cream mixture touches the wall of the tube, it freezes. To prevent the crystals from getting too big, the blade inside the tube scrapes the crystals off right after they form. “That clears the walls and more ice crystals form,” said Chris Clarke, author of The Science of Ice Cream. “The colder and better the scraping, the smaller the ice crystals.” According to Clark, the key to producing ice cream is to make the bubbles and ice crystals small; the smaller they are in the first place, the better the ice cream will be.8
Impact of Ice Cream on U.S. Economy
Nancy Johnson certainly created a very valuable final product, which led to many other desirable products.
Mr. Hubbard says, “Civilizations which facilitate production and interchange and inhibit crime and fraud are then successful. Those that do not, perish.”
With Johnson’s astute observational skills and penchant for tinkering, she perfected the technology of ice-cream making, which opened the way for mass production to occur, resulting in over 1.5 billion gallons of ice cream being produced in America each year. With a simple idea, she created a product that was the catalyst for a booming industry, and which, 176 years later, still puts a smile on the faces of adults and kids every time ice cream is consumed.
Lesson learned: It is possible to see a need, invent a valuable product and make a difference to the whole society.