Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Same old sad story, from ice machines to solar power

We’ve seen this before in Florida: An upstart business based on a new technology that challenges a powerful monopoly. What happens next ain’t pretty.

Lately, the state’s fledgling solar power industry has discovered that it’s not enough to offer a great innovation, not in Florida. Because in the Sunshine State, the electric utilities have the money and the political clout to blot out the sun.

The utility companies invested some $12 million in state political campaigns since 2010, most of it going to political action committees, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Big money talks in Tallahassee. And if legislators can’t grasp the lingo, then utility lobbyists are there to make it plain what the electrical power monopolies want — or rather what they don’t want — which would be legislation that loosens up restrictions on rooftop solar.

You might think that solar energy would be a no-brainer in Florida, given the economic advantages of free, abundant sunshine. But great ideas aren’t enough.

Consider U.S. Patent 8080, issued to Dr. John Gorrie in 1851. Dr. Gorrie, a tropical medicine specialist practicing in Apalachicola, invented a “mechanical refrigeration” machine that could cool indoor spaces and make ice. Sounds like another no-brainer.

Except Gorrie’s device threatened to undermine the Ice King, Boston businessman Frederic Tudor, who had built a multimillion-dollar monopoly harvesting northern lake ice and shipping it to his network of ice houses in southern climes. Tudor, anxious to protect his business plan, savaged Gorrie.

Norman Berdichevsky, writing in the New English Review, described how the Ice King paid northern newspapers to launch a smear campaign against Gorrie and his “insane notion” that humans could create ice. The New York Globe called him a “crank down in Florida who thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty.” Rumors were spread that Gorrie’s machines were rife with bacteria.

It worked. Investors were spooked. Gorrie was ruined.

“It was a classic case of a dominant industry disparaging a much more powerful new technology,” wrote Steven Johnson in his newly published, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. “He died impoverished in 1855, and the idea of air-conditioning languished for 50 years.”

“He died sad and lonely, knowing that he was ‘in advance of the wants of the country,’” Elli Morris, author of Cooling the South, The Block Ice Era, 1875 to 1975, told me via e-mail.

Morris wrote that Gorrie’s technology languished until the late 1890s, when the natural ice industry’s own reputation was damaged by trafficking in ice carved from industrially polluted waters.

Finally, Gorrie was recognized as the “Father of Mechanical Refrigeration.” A John Gorrie Bridge crosses Apalachicola Bay. A John Gorrie State Museum sits on Gorrie Square in downtown Apalachicola. In 1914, Gorrie was the first of still only two Floridians honored in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Yet, a powerful monopoly had impeded Gorrie’s great innovations for decades — a sobering history lesson for Florida’s solar pioneers.