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Thomas Elkins

Thomas Elkins folding table that could be used for dining, quilting and ironingThomas Elkins designed a device that helped with the task of preserving perishable foods by way of refrigeration. Elkins patented this refrigerated apparatus on November 4, 1879. and had previously patented a chamber commode in 1872 and a dining, ironing table and quilting frame combined in 1870.

Dr. Thomas Elkins was a pharmacist and respected member of the Albany community. An abolitionist, Thomas Elkins was the secretary of the Vigilance Committee. As the 1830’s drew to a close and the decade of the 1840’s began, committees of citizens were formed all across the north with the intention of protecting fugitive slaves from re-enslavement. As slave catchers sought fugitives vigilance committees provided legal assistance, food, clothing, money, sometimes employment, temporary shelter and assisted fugitives in making their way toward freedom. Albany had a vigilance committee in the early 1840’s and into the 1850’s.

Thomas Elkins was an avid inventor and designed many improvements for everyday items. Living in Albany New York he designed a new refrigeration device, that strangely enough could also be used to store corpses. At the turn of the century, the common way of keeping food cold was by placing items in a large container and surrounding them with large blocks of ice. Unfortunately, the ice generally melted very quickly and the food soon perished. On April 11, 1879 Thomas Elkins received patent number 221,222  for a "Refrigerating Apparatus" for "food or corpses," which provides a convenient container and method of chilling using the evaporation of water.

In 1805, an American inventor, Oliver Evans, designed the first refrigeration machine. The first practical refrigerating machine was built by Jacob Perkins in 1834; it used ether in a vapor compression cycle. An American physician, John Gorrie, built a refrigerator based on Oliver Evans' design in 1844 to make ice to cool the air for his yellow fever patients. German engineer Carl von Linden, patented not a refrigerator but the process of liquefying gas in 1876 that is part of today's basic refrigeration technology.

Thomas Elkins multi use table patentThomas Elkins patent was for an insulated cabinet into which ice is placed to cool the interior. As such, it was a "refrigerator" only in the old sense of the term, which included non-mechanical coolers. Elkins acknowledged in his patent that "I am aware that chilling substances enclosed within a porous box or jar by wetting its outer surface is an old and well-known process."

A patent was also issued to Thomas Elkins on February 22, 1870 for a "Dining, Ironing Table and Quilting Frame Combined" (No. 100,020). The table  (shown here) seems to be little more than a folding table.

The Minoans of Crete are said to have invented a flush toilet thousands of years ago; however, there is probably no direct ancestral relationship between it and the modern one that evolved primarily in England starting in the late 16th century, when Sir John Harrington devised a flushing device for his godmother Queen Elizabeth. In 1775 Alexander Cummings patented a toilet in which some water remained after each flush, thereby suppressing odors from below. The "water closet" continued to evolve, and in 1885, Thomas Twyford provided us with a single-piece ceramic toilet similar to the one we know today. In 1872, a U.S. patent was issued to Thomas Elkins for a a new article of chamber furniture which he designated a "Chamber Commode" (Patent No. 122,518). It provided a combination of "a bureau, mirror, book-rack, washstand, table, easy-chair, and earth-closet or chamber-stool," which might otherwise be constructed as several separate articles.


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