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‘A magnified piece of thermodynamics’: the Promethean iconography of the refrigerator in Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 1999

IAN HIGGINSON
Affiliation:
Centre for History & Cultural Studies of Science, School of History, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NX
CROSBIE SMITH
Affiliation:
Centre for History & Cultural Studies of Science, School of History, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NX

Abstract

Refrigeration has become so well established over the last 125 years that today a crude ice maker becomes a boon for primitive people in the jungle or desert. Only a total dislocation in energy sources will quickly loosen the connections between people and cooling. A few centuries ago, Hippocrates (460–377? B.C.) observed: ‘most men would rather run the hazards of their lives or health than be deprived of the pleasure of drinking out of ice’ … In the U.S.A. [today], 750 million frozen Eskimo Pies are sold annually and seven ice cream plants are said to be operating in Moscow … Like the men of Hippocrates, a lot of people will resist any curtailment in food and freezing operations. They have come to expect these for survival in our present social and industrial orders.

These remarks, asserting the extent to which the people of the United States of America regarded refrigeration not as an optional luxury but as a necessity for survival even at the height of the energy crisis of the late 1970s, formed part of a contribution to a massive 11-volume international compendium, Alternative Energy Sources, produced in 1978 in response to Western concerns about rising oil prices and falling reserves. An enthusiastic advocate for geothermal energy, the contributor's perception provides a vivid contextual starting point for our study of Paul Theroux's novel The Mosquito Coast (1981). In this novel the central narrative focuses upon a New England family's rejection of post-war American consumer society with its imperative to ‘build automobiles that would fail within five years and refrigerators that would fail in ten’. The novel indeed explores some of those very kinds of alternative energy sources which had been exciting scientists and inventors (often on or beyond the fringes of scientific orthodoxy) since the early 1970s when journals such as The Ecologist had begun to prophesy an end to energy-driven economic growth in the western world.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© 1999 British Society for the History of Science

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