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This Man Created the Ice Cube's Multimillion-Dollar Industry

Your everyday indulgence is thanks to a stubborn dude who created a multimillion-dollar business from extreme bullheadedness.
July 5, 2015, 2:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Raul Lieberwirth

The year is 1833 and you're sweating your balls off in Calcutta, India.

Being sweat-drenched is a fact of life here, much like your diet of mostly saffron-hued curries and rice. In fact, the heat at this very moment is as thick and viscous as the Mulligatawny soup that you had for lunch. It's so hot that a local rumor has spread like wildfire throughout the harbor: a miraculous cargo boat is supposedly due to arrive with over a hundred tons of ice.

READ: This Is Why You Should Stop Drinking Beer with Indian Food

This was the state of mind of for Indian harbormasters and their ever-thirstier laborers when Frederic Tudor's inaugural shipment of ice harvested from the ponds of Massachusetts cruised into Calcutta, India. Up until then, the denizens of India relied on a dirtier ice slush that was available for a few weeks each year. But "Ice King" Tudor wound up having the last laugh all the way to the bank. Flogging his "crystal blocks of Yankee coldness," Tudor managed to send over a hundred tons of intact "pure" ice, but he lost about 80 percent as collateral during the grueling four month journey.

Lucrative profits from shipping ice to India solidified Tudor's ice export company's success. The Indian Gazette even took out an official announcement, thanking Tudor for making "This luxury accessible, by its abundance and cheapness."

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In retrospect, recognizing Tudor's outsized success is easy when you tabulate that he wound up with a fortune of approximately 12 million dollars at his death. At the same time, the insanity of the endeavor made Tudor a regular target for mockery. The Boston Gazette famously wrote, "No joke, a vessel has cleared at the custom house for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation."

Tudor's first inkling of the idea to export Massachusetts's abundant supply of ice sparked when he took a trip to the Caribbean. A maverick from the start, he decided to eschew a Harvard education at age 13 and set out to create his own business in ice export.

Before Tudor, cooling down in the summer with an icy drink was nearly impossibile. Tudor ice eventually wound up reaching the far shores of India, closer ones in the Caribbean, and traveled into the deep South.

Tudor's business model was much like a modern-day drug dealer. He'd give away ice to barkeeps for free during the first year and once the locals were hooked on chilled drinks, he would start charging them.

What was once an unthinkable luxury became an everyday necessity. When the concept of having ice throughout the year became commonplace, warm winters sent panicked ice companies all the way to the Arctic, carving up icebergs to make sure that they made up for the shortfalls.

While you'd think that success would come easy, Tudor's ice business failed several times over in epic proportions. He was hounded by failures and creditors throughout the eleven years that it took him to establish global dominance.

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One competitor had to dump his ice in the harbor because Tudor made an ironclad arrangement with the Governor of Havana, Cuba. Though the Napoleonic Wars in Europe almost wiped his business out completely, he rebounded through trial-and-error, constructing ice houses and experimenting with different methods of preserving ice. Tudor's ice business went through a transformation the moment his foreman, Nathaniel Wyeth, invented a horse-drawn ice plough that made mass ice production possible, ending the laborious efforts of hand-cutting ice with saws.

Tudor not only revolutionized the ways in which bars served frosty cocktails, but also helped the entire food industry to reimagine food and food preservation.

So when you reach to beat the summer heat with slushies, cold beer, and chilled watermelons steeped in vodka, press a cold aluminum can to your cheek and thank the perseverance of Frederic Tudor and his unassailable dream of a frozen empire.