Kelvinator was an American home appliance manufacturer founded in 1914 by Nathaniel B. Wales and Frank Stimpson in Detroit, Michigan, to manufacture and sell electric motors. (The name “Kelvinator” was drawn from the Kelvin temperature scale, which started at absolute zero.) Best known in history for its refrigerators, Kelvinator made also many other appliances over the years.
Life of the Founder
Nathaniel B. Wales was an American inventor and entrepreneur who founded the Kelvinator company, which became a leading manufacturer of refrigeration equipment and other home appliances.
Wales was born in 1866 in Fort Ann, New York, and grew up on a farm. He received only a few years of formal education and was largely self-taught. In his youth, Wales worked in a variety of jobs, including farming, lumbering, and working as a telegraph operator.
In 1902, Wales moved to Detroit, Michigan, and started working as an inventor and mechanic. He began to focus on refrigeration technology and developed a new type of refrigeration unit that was more efficient and reliable than existing models. He founded the Kelvinator company in 1914 to manufacture and market his invention.
Under Wales’s leadership, Kelvinator became a major player in the refrigeration industry. The company’s refrigeration units were used in homes, businesses, and even on ships and airplanes. In 1923, Kelvinator introduced the first electric refrigerator with an automatic temperature control, which was a significant technological advance at the time.
Wales was a prolific inventor and held numerous patents for his innovations in refrigeration technology. He was also known for his commitment to quality and safety in his products. In 1926, he was awarded the Hoover Medal by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in recognition of his contributions to the field of engineering.
Wales continued to work as an inventor and consultant after leaving Kelvinator. He died in 1941 at the age of 75.
Prior to the development of electric refrigerators, people relied on iceboxes to keep their food and beverages cold. The Kelvinator Company’s electric refrigerators revolutionized the way people stored and preserved their food, and the company quickly became a leader in the home appliance industry.
In 1916, Kelvinator introduced the first self-contained and reliable domestic refrigerator – the Overnighter – to the market and the following year, it became the first refrigerator manufacturer to use CFC-free refrigerants.
The company continued to introduce innovative technologies over the next several decades, including the first automatic defrost and cyclic defrost features in the 1950s and the first self-contained icemaker in the 1960s. Larger commercial units may have also appeared in grocery stores.
In the late 1970s, Kelvinator embarked on an expansion program, acquiring other appliance makers including Hotpoint and White-Westinghouse. The company launched a range of new products, including air conditioners and microwave ovens.
Kelvinator also expanded its product line to include air conditioners, electric ranges, and other home appliances.
Here are some of the main products the company has produced over the years:
Early Years (1910s-1920s):
Refrigerators (electromechanical models)
Mid-20th Century (1930s-1960s):
Refrigerators (with new features such as automatic defrost and adjustable shelves)
Late 20th Century:
Refrigerators (side-by-side, top-freezer, bottom-freezer, French door styles)
Freezers (upright and chest models)
Air conditioners (window units, split systems)
Washers and dryers (top-load, front-load, and stackable models)
Dishwashers (built-in and portable models)
Microwaves (countertop and built-in models)
Commercial refrigerators and freezers (for use in restaurants, hotels, and other businesses)
Natural Gas Power Too
Gas refrigerators, also known as absorption refrigerators, work on a different principle than electric refrigerators. Instead of using a compressor and refrigerant to cool the interior of the refrigerator, gas refrigerators use heat and a mixture of chemicals to create a cooling effect. The technology was commonly used before the widespread adoption of electric refrigerators.
Kelvinator’s gas refrigerators were known for their reliability and efficiency, and they were popular in rural areas where electricity was not yet available or reliable. However, with the increasing availability and affordability of electric power, electric refrigerators eventually became the dominant technology in the home appliance industry, and gas refrigerators fell out of favor.
Gas refrigerators, also produced by Servel, Consul, and Electrolux, were relatively common in the early to mid-20th century, particularly in areas where electric power was not yet available or reliable. However, as electric power became more widely available and affordable, electric refrigerators became the dominant technology, and gas refrigerators fell out of favor. Today, gas refrigerators are still used in some off-grid and specialized applications, but they are no longer widely used in the home appliance market.
Challenges and Changes
Despite Kelvinator’s success under Wales’s leadership, the company faced financial difficulties during the Great Depression. In 1934, Wales sold the company to Nash Motors, which later merged with Kelvinator’s competitor, Hudson Motor Car Company, to form American Motors Corporation. Under AMC’s ownership, Kelvinator continued to grow and expand its product line. In the 1950s, the company introduced the first side-by-side refrigerator and the first frost-free refrigerator.
Kelvinator remained a leading brand in the home appliance industry throughout the latter half of the 20th century. However, in the 1980s, the company began to face increased competition from other manufacturers, particularly those based in Asia. In 1986, Kelvinator was acquired by White Consolidated Industries, which later became part of Electrolux, a Swedish multinational home appliance manufacturer.
Kelvinator was still a leading brand in the home appliance industry for much of the 20th century, but it faced several challenges in the latter half of the century that contributed to its decline and eventual loss of market share.
One of the main factors was increased competition from other home appliance manufacturers. As more companies entered the market and developed new technologies, Kelvinator found it difficult to keep up and differentiate itself. The company also faced challenges from lower-priced competitors, which eroded its market share.
Wrong Product for Changing Times
Another challenge for Kelvinator was the changing consumer preferences and lifestyles. As people became more mobile and started living in smaller homes and apartments, the demand for larger home appliances, such as refrigerators and freezers, decreased. Kelvinator’s focus on larger appliances meant that it was less well-suited to meet the needs of this new market.
In addition, the consolidation of the home appliance industry in the latter half of the 20th century also played a role in the decline of Kelvinator. Larger companies, such as General Electric and Whirlpool, acquired smaller brands and increased their market share, making it harder for smaller companies like Kelvinator to compete. Electrolux eventually merged with Frigidaire. The Kelvinator brand continued to be used until 2004, when it was replaced with the Frigidaire brand.
- Year Started: 1914
- Year Ended: 2004
- Origin Of Name: Kelvin Temperature Scale
- Location Sales: Worldwide
- Brand Name Predecessor: N/A
- Brand Name Successor: Frigidaire
- Owner Original: Nathaniel B. Wales and Frank Stimpson
- Owner While In Use: Publicly Traded
- Owner Successor: Frigidaire
- Year Resurrected: N/A
- What’s Popular Today: Frigidaire
- Naics Code: 335220
- Location Headquarters: Detroit, Michigan, USA