Royal Society names refrigeration most significant invention in the history of food and drink

13 September 2012

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, has today named the fridge, pasteurised milk, and the tin can as the three most significant inventions in the history of food and drink. These relatively modern innovations outscored more ancient inventions including the fishing net, the plough, and the cork.

You can vote for what you think is the best innovation ever on the Royal Society Facebook page.

The announcement is the outcome of a project which saw a steering group of Royal Society Fellows –including a Nobel Prize Winner – reduce a list of approximately 100 innovations down to just 20, chaired by Royal Society Treasurer Sir Peter Williams FRS.  The shortlist was then voted on by Fellows of the Society and experts in the food and drink industry who judged each innovation on four criteria: accessibility, productivity, aesthetics, and health.

The top three result from Anglo-French scientific successes in the 18th and 19th centuries:  Artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated in Glasgow in 1748 and then produced commercially in 1805; the first pasteurisation test was completed in France in 1862; and a British merchant patented the tin can in 1810 (although a year earlier a Frenchman applied a similar process with glass jars and cork).

Commenting on the findings, Sir Peter Williams said:

“Royal Society Fellows have played vital roles in improving people’s lives for 350 years and science has a major role to play in meeting the global challenges of the 21st century. We thought it appropriate to look at how that innovation has shaped what we eat and drink.  The poll reveals the huge role science and innovation have played in improving our health and our lives. This is something to which the scientific community continues to add.”

Find out more about the great food and drink served at the Royal Society, as well as venue hire options at the Society's home on Carlton House Terrace.

The Top 20

  1. Refrigeration
  2. Pasteurisation / sterilisation
  3. Canning
  4. The oven
  5. Irrigation
  6. Threshing  machine/combine harvester
  7. Baking
  8. Selective breeding / strains
  9. Grinding / milling
  10. The plough
  11. Fermentation
  12. The fishing net
  13. Crop rotation
  14. The pot
  15. The knife
  16. Eating utensils
  17. The cork
  18. The barrel
  19. The microwave oven
  20. Frying
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