John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader.

Tiring of the teaching and veterinary practice, he got it in mind to find a way to freeze meat so it could be transported without spoilage. He found one, patented the process in 1870, and six years later re-purposed the technology for his next highly unlikely enterprise: The rebirth of the Glaciarium.

The rink measured twenty four by forty feet. The base was concrete on top of which he laid earth, cow hair, and wooden planks. Refrigeration was achieved with a steam engine that forcing glycerin, either, nitrogen peroxide, and water through copper pipes. Water was spread over the surface and in due course, he had his ice rink.

The Glaciarium was a members only arrangement, aimed at rich Londoners who had learned the sport on vacation in Switzerland. Gamgee added a spectators’ gallery, artificial alps on the walls, and even a band. Initial success encouraged him to increase the size of the next installations to 25 by 114 feet.
It was innovative, but also expensive and inefficient, and within two years he was forced to shut it down. It was a start, however, and inspired others to try their hands as well. The basic technology is the same used in ice rinks to this day.

No matter for Gamgee. He was on to bigger and better things.

In 1880, he announced to the world that he had cracked the energy problem. Exploiting the temperature difference between ammonia and water, he had designed the so-called Zeromotor, a device which he declared would allow ocean going ships to run without the need of coal or oil. The US military, also looking for ways to save money, was intrigued. B. F. Isherwood, Chief engineer of the U.S. Navy, found the idea very compelling, and wrote up defense of the plan for the general public.

The scientific community was less impressed, and savaged the idea, and Gamgee. Well, why not? He was, after all, wrong about how people got sick, and that after all was the area in which he had trained. (The Zeromotor was, incidentally, the last perpetual motion machine to earn a patent under US law.)

He never quit. Back in England he earned another twenty four patents, one for a washing machine that formed the basis of a string of franchised laundrettes.

But business tend to fail and in has case, law suits attached to him like burrs. Between high living and disappointing revenue, he died in debt in 1894, never quite having reached the level of public acclaim he might have liked.

He does, however, live on in the form of the John Gamgee Award, presented to those who excel in the field of veterinary science.

Ice rinks and medals. There are worse legacies to have.

For more on the man, see Steve Humphrey’s Zeromotor Man.

Post script: If the name recalls Sam Gamgee of Hobbit fame, there is a reason, having to do with his brother same, another medical man.

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