How would your life be different without the refrigerated rail car?

How are perishable foods transported from producers to consumers?

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Some technology is so woven into our lives that we barely notice it. We go about our daily routines without giving it a thought, yet, were it not for these advancements, our routines would be very different. The refrigerated rail car is such a technology. Many of us would hardly consider this technological advancement worthy of mention among such obvious achievements as the printing press or the radio. But this single development may be the most important factor in what we eat, how our food is produced, and where we live. Look at the food in your refrigerator. Where did it come from? How did it get to you? How would your life be different without it? The answers to these questions are all part of the story of the refrigerated rail car. In this Inquiry Unit, students will explore the evolution of refrigeration transportation technology, the economic and political factors that contributed to it and the impact it has had on our society and culture.

The refrigerated rail car was not simply a railroad innovation, but one significant component of centuries-long efforts to chill and preserve perishable foodstuffs. It can be understood in the historical context of refrigeration, agribusiness, meat packing, global trade, food transport, and consumerism. Furthermore, the impact of widespread use of refrigerated rail cars can be seen in population shifts evident in census reports since the late 19th century.
Teachers are encouraged to use the following notes as they prepare for this unit. In addition to the many excellent resources listed at the end of this document, Refrigeration in America: a history of a new technology and its impact, by Oscar E. Anderson (Princeton: Published for the University of Cincinnati by Princeton University Press, 1953), is a very succinct history of the refrigerated rail car and its place in the world. An online version may be found here: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b3428844;view=1up;seq=26

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Supporting Questions

  • STEM Interdisciplinary – Temperature Tactics: From TryEngineering, “Lesson focuses on how thermometers have been impacted by engineering over time, and also how materials engineering has developed temperature sensitive materials. Student teams design and build a temperature gauge out of everyday products and test a variety of materials for thermal properties.”

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  • East Rochester Historical Society
  • The Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum
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