A-Frame Compressor at the Industrial Museum

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Certainly one of the largest acquisitions for a Pennsylvania museum is the enormous A­-Frame Compressor recently accepted by the Industrial Museum of the York County Heritage Trust.

At a first glance, the machine’s sheer size is overwhelming – it towers thirty feet and weighs more than fifty tons. A closer look reveals the enormous amounts of engineering, labor, and materials expended to manufacture this revolutionary giant of technology. Built in 1904 by the York Manufacturing Company (now known worldwide as York International Corporation), the machine, originally called the Vertical Single-Acting Open-Column Ammonia Compressor, was driven by a Corliss steam engine.

The compressor is testimony to York County enterprise and industry on a grand scale, but it also documents the story of refrigeration and its impact on America and the world. With the production of ice possible through the year, food could be processed and shipped long distances. Cold storage also meant that perishables could be marketed beyond their seasonal availability. Museum officials believe this mammoth object “was an engine of change that molded human activity and shaped us socially and economically.”

The A-Frame Compressor made ice at the Cudahy Meat Packing Company (now OhSe Foods) in Wichita, Kansas, until it was retired in the late 1970s. For the last twenty years it was stored in a York International Corporation warehouse in York.

Founded in 1874, the York Manufacturing Company produced boilers, water wheels, steam engines, agricultural equipment, and paper-making machinery. The company manufactured its first ice machine in 1885, and designed the first air conditioning system for a movie theater in 1903.

York International Corporation donated the A-Frame Compressor to the Industrial Museum, along with one hundred thousand dollars for its restoration and for the development of an exhibit chronicling the history of the refrigeration industry. The exhibit will examine the impact of refrigeration on industrialization and urbanization, consumerism and mass marketing, and the rise of the engineer and emergence of large-scale enterprise. The compressor will serve as the centerpiece of this installation, which is expected to debut in 2001.

For more information, write: Industri­al Museum, York County Heritage Trust, 217 West Princess Street, York, Pennsylvania 17403; or telephone (717) 846-6452 or 848-1587.