Palmer’s Display Model of a Refrigerator Car (Patent Number 290,600) – ca 1883

In 1883 Cassius Clay Palmer of New York, NY applied for and received a patent for a railway refrigerator car that was cooled by mechanical refrigeration. This model was not filed as part of his application but was used for display purposes to explain the car’s operation and promote sales. At the time of Palmer’s patent refrigerated railcars depended upon large quantities of ice being loaded into the cars. Palmer claimed that his system was “..the first which has been devised by means of which the use of ice can practically be dispensed with….” The Palmer design took power from one axle of the car via a pulley and belt which drove the machinery. To provide a constant speed drive for the refrigeration compressor and to provide power during periods when the car was not in motion, Palmer used stored compressed air. The axle driven belt ran a two cylinder air compressor which fed compressed air to storage tanks mounted beneath the car. A check valve and pressure regulator supplied constant pressure air from the cylinders to an air-driven engine which in turn powered the compressor for the refrigerant (chloride of ethyl) returning from the cooling coils inside the refrigerated compartment. Palmer made provisions for some of the compressed air to be used to keep a positive pressure differential with the outside environment. This discouraged warm air and dust from entering the refrigerated portion of the car. The compressed air engine also powered an air circulation fan to aid maintaining a uniform temperature throughout the car. Palmer’s design proved successful in tests, and in 1888 Armour & Company had eight cars built for them. However, the Palmer car did not find lasting commercial success. The then existing refrigerated car infrastructure was based on ice, and those in charge of the industry did not want the status quo disturbed. As a result mechanical refrigerator cars were not a commercial success in the United States until 1950.
The display model is constructed of wood, brass and iron. It is of a natural wood color. The model includes details of double door openings on the sides as well as the compressed air cylinders beneath the car.
Currently not on view
Object Name
refrigerator car
display model, refrigerator car
date made
ca 1883
Physical Description
metal (overall material)
wood (overall material)
overall: 10 in x 32 in x 612 in; 25.4 cm x 81.28 cm x 1554.48 cm
place made
United States: New York, New York
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
patent number
Engineering, Building, and Architecture
See more items in
Work and Industry: Transportation, Railroad
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Miss Alma E. Palmer

Visitor Comments

Add a comment about this object

**Please read before submitting the form**

Have a comment or question about this object to share with the community? Please use the form below. Selected comments will appear on this page and may receive a museum response (but we can't promise). Please note that we generally cannot answer questions about the history, rarity, or value of your personal artifacts.

Have a question about anything else, or would you prefer a personal response? Please visit our FAQ or contact page.

Personal information will not be shared or result in unsolicited e-mail. See our privacy policy.

Enter the characters shown in the image.