It would have been more pleasant to me, and gratifying to you, if I had come forward to announce a success… My task is indeed twofold—to describe a success and record a mischance. The success was that of a principle and a process; the failure was that of the workmen who were entrusted with the construction of the requisite mechanical appliances.
When American railroads debuted cold cars in the mid-1800s, they moved milk and butter only: They weren't nearly cold enough to safely carry raw meat from place to place. In 1867, when J.B. Sutherland patented the first fully refrigerated car in America, he couldn't even find investors. But the next year another inventor, William Davis, manage to sell his design to a meatpacker. In Davis's car, carcasses hung from hooks over a bed of ice and salt. Though they were top-heavy, they worked well enough, and meat began making its way across the country.
Around the same time, England was hungry for meat. Its own stocks were not large enough to meet the country's demand, and as James Troubridge Critchell writes in A History of the Frozen Meat Trade, "It was plain that the inhabitants of England would have to be content with less meat or pay fancy prices for it."
Certain British colonies, though, had more than enough meat. In Australia and New Zealand, inventors were busy working to prove that frozen meat was perfectly safe to eat and planning how to take it on the three-month sea voyage to Britain. By 1873, James Harrison, a Scottish-born journalist and businessman, showed that meat that had been frozen for months was perfectly safe to eat. He won a prize and the chance to ship 25 tons of beef and mutton to England.
In November of 1873, he reported to the Society of Arts' Food Committee. It was not the triumphant report he had hoped for:
Harrison did not completely throw the workmen under the bus; he admitted he held "a fair share of the blame." The meat tanks leaked, and the brine that was meant to keep the mutton and beef cool did not. The meat was spoiled by the time the ship reached England. But that didn't stop people from trying. Within a couple of years, American entrepreneurs had shipped beef to England, a much shorter trip, using blocks of ice. One sent a sample to Queen Victoria, who said it was "very good."
By 1881, Argentina, Australia, and, finally, New Zealand were shipping frozen meat to England, too. The Pacific colonies could now do so thanks to a refrigeration system that depended on compressed air. But this was not without its risks, either. On the Dunedin, the first boat to successfully ship meat from New Zealand to Britain, the refrigeration machinery reportedly lit the sails on fire—twice—and, since air in the cargo hold wasn't circulating enough, the captain of the ship crawled into the hold to cut air holes and nearly froze himself to death. And of course today frozen meats shipped from all over the world grace the grocery aisles.