Boyle ice-making plant of 1879, using the ice-can system in favour of his earlier plate-ice plants

Boyle ice-making plant of 1879, using the ice-can system.

David Boyle

1837 – 1891

David Boyle

Mechanical Engineer Who Pioneered The use of Ammonia as a Refrigerant

Engineering Achievements

Boyle developed an improved form of ice making machine in a time when most ice was harvested in winter from lakes and rivers, transported long distances and stored for months. He is credited with being the first person to make the use of ammonia as the working fluid in a vapour-compression refrigeration system reliable and commercially successful and he established an ice machine manufacturing company in the very early days of mechanical refrigeration.

Working with his younger brother James, he developed an improved form of compressor valve which became the standard way of achieving inlet and outlet control in many makes of compressor.

His Life

  1. 1837 Born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire on 31 October, the son of a grocer & spirit dealer
  2. app 1851 Age: 14 Apprenticed as a grocery clerk, becoming foreman of a wholesale grocer
  3. 1859 Age: 21 Emigrated to Mobile, Alabama, USA
  4. 1869 Age: 31 The Boyle family moved to San Francisco
  5. 1869 Age: 31 Studied refrigeration texts at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute
  6. 1870 Age: 32 Purchased an ice-making machine under the Van der Weyde patents in New Orleans, which was a failure
  7. 1872 Age: 34 Granted US Patent #128448 on 25 June 1872 for his own ice-making machine using an ammonia refrigerating compressor
  8. app 1873 Age: 35 Established an ice-making factory in Texas
  9. 1874 Age: 36 Moved to Quincy, Illinois having secured financial backing
  10. 1877 Age: 39 Founded the Boyle Ice Machine Company in Chicago and expanded into refrigeration and selling to breweries
  11. 1884 Age: 46 Boyle Ice Machine Company merged with the Empire Refrigerating Company, St Louis to form the Consolidated Ice Machine Company
  12. 1891 Age: 54 Died after a heart attack while on a business trip to Alabama


Boyle’s success with his ammonia compression system led to the rapid adoption of ammonia as the preferred refrigerant for industrial systems, to the almost complete exclusion of all other substances. This created a huge industry in America and Europe which is still going strong. Ammonia is still regarded as the pre-eminent working fluid in industrial refrigeration systems and although not the first fluid to be used in compressor systems it is the only one that has been in continuous use for 150 years (2022 is the 150th anniversary of Boyle’s ice machine patent). Ammonia had been used in absorption systems since 1857 but not previously in compressors. Other fluids were used in compressors before ammonia but were permanently discontinued (eg diethyl ether) or fell out of use and have been rediscovered (eg carbon dioxide). Boyle's machines continued to be sold by his or successor companies after his death until about 1905. 

Contrary to some claims, Carl von Linde did not start to use ammonia in this way until 1876, having previously used dimethyl ether. 

David Boyle is described in an 1885 article (The Western Brewer) as "a man of sterling integrity, quick, sensitive and eager to succeed. His every thought is towards the advancement of the world’s knowledge of the science of artificial refrigeration." 

His obituary in 1891 (Ice and Refrigeration) said: "few have obtained as thorough a knowledge of the science of artificial ice making and refrigeration". 

An 1895 article in Ice and Refrigeration by "The Boy" (possibly Eugene Skinkle, a relative of Crane Company board member JW Skinkle) described Boyle as: "the father of successful artificial refrigeration and ice making: for although many had spent years of toil and vast sums of money in experiments in the art before he entered the field, yet to David Boyle is due the honour of having accomplished more in the advancement of the science than the combined results of the efforts of all of his predecessors".

In 1896, a 'reminiscence' of Boyle in Ice and Refrigeration by W.J. Rushton of Birmingham, Alabama, observed that "Discouragement had been his close companion for so many weary days that had it not been for his dogged Scotch will, there would have been failure," 

More Information

Download: David Boyle Patent Boyle's US Patent No. 128448. Granted 25 June 1872.

Memorial to first Ice Factory in Texas

Brian Roberts. David Boyle. CIBSE Heritage group. 

Inventing the Ammonia Refrigeration Compressor. ASHRAE Journal March 2020

Cite Top