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Outside the Box

By France Griggs Sloat

The refrigerators of the 1950s were an improvement over the ice box—but not by much. If they weren’t so cold that layers of frost covered the inside, then they were so hot their motors burned out. Enter John J. O’Connell, a World War II Navy veteran who was part of the wave of soldiers returning to Xavier on the GI bill. Earning a physics degree in 1950, O’Connell took his skills to General Electric, the Crosley company and, eventually, Frigidaire. There, he garnered a majority of the 21 patents that bear his name, including the automatic ice maker’s belt and bucket process, for which he is the lone patent holder. He perfected the ice maker by adding the bucket in the door and the traveling belt that moved the cubes to the bucket. His first patent, however, was the meat tender. The drawer had an independent control to keep meat at a constant 32 degrees without drying out.

“That was fun,” he says.

He also improved on the design of the Frost Proof refrigerator by developing the single fan that prevents ice crystals from forming. It may have been his most important work.

“It freed people up from having to take all their food out, letting the ice melt and then putting the food back in,” says his son, assistant professor of counseling Bill O’Connell. “With these refrigerators, that job became obsolete.” Now, if they could just make refrigerators self-cleaning.

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