Napoleon and the Ice Machine on St. Helena

After Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled to St. Helena, a remote British island in the South Atlantic. Napoleon had a number of admirers in Britain, including Lord and Lady Holland, who regularly sent books and other gifts to him. In the summer of 1816, they sent Napoleon an ice machine.

John Bull and his family at an ice café in Paris, 1815

John Bull and his family at an ice café in Paris, 1815

The ice machine was delivered to Napoleon’s residence of Longwood House on August 16, 1816. It was a pneumatic device, invented in 1810 by Scottish mathematician and physicist John Leslie. Leslie had observed that concentrated sulphuric acid, which absorbs water, could accelerate the evaporation of water in a container to such a degree as to freeze the remaining water. (1)

John Leslie’s apparatus for cooling and freezing. Napoleon’s ice machine was a version of this.

John Leslie’s apparatus for cooling and freezing. Napoleon’s ice machine was a version of this.

As soon as the ice machine was set up, Dr. Barry O’Meara went to inform Napoleon.

He asked several questions about the process, and it was evident that he was perfectly acquainted with the principles upon which air-pumps are formed. He expressed great admiration for the science of chemistry, spoke of the great improvements which had latterly been made in it, and observed that he had always promoted and encouraged it to the best of his power. (2)

Meanwhile, in the room containing the ice machine, British Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm found Napoleon’s companions looking at the contraption with great interest. Andrew Darling, a local upholsterer “who understood the process,” attempted to make ice. (3) O’Meara noted:

In a few minutes Napoleon, accompanied by Count Montholon, came in and accosted the admiral in a very pleasant manner, seemingly gratified to see him. A cup full of water was then frozen in his presence in about fifteen minutes, and he waited for upwards of half an hour to see if the same quantity of lemonade would freeze, which did not succeed. Milk was then tried but it would not answer. Napoleon took in his hand the piece of ice produced from the water, and observed to me what a gratification that would have been in Egypt. (4)

Napoleon was pleased with the results.

He remarked it appeared so simple he was surprised it had not been invented sooner. He said he had encouraged the study of chemistry in France; that the English had some clever men in that science, but it was not so general a study. The Admiral mentioned Sir Humphry Davy, and Bonaparte observed he had seen him at Paris. From his questions Bonaparte did not appear to be himself a chemist, nor did he understand it. General [Gaspard] Gourgaud seemed to be best informed on these subjects. A small thermometer was put into one of the freezing-cups, to show the changes of the temperature of the water, and became frozen; Bonaparte, endeavouring to put it out by force, broke it, and seeing his awkwardness, he exclaimed, laughing, ‘That is worthy of me.’ (5)

Napoleon put Gourgaud in charge of the ice machine, which was duly installed in the general’s quarters so he could conduct further experiments. Unfortunately, the only liquid the machine was able to freeze was water. On March 4, 1817, Gourgaud wrote, “I try my hand again at ice-cream making,” but there is no record of any success. (6)

For the residents of St. Helena, the miracle of ice was enough. O’Meara tells us:

The first ice ever seen in St. Helena was made by this machine, and was viewed with no small degree of surprise by the yam stocks [the natives of the island]; some of whom could with difficulty be persuaded that the solid lump in their hands was really composed of water, and were not fully convinced until they had witnessed its liquefaction. (7)

Though Napoleon did not have any ice cream on St. Helena, he does get to enjoy some in Napoleon in America.

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  1. “The most elegant and instructive mode of effecting artificial congelation is to perform the process under the transferrer of an air-pump. A thick but clear glass cup being selected, of about two or three inches in diameter, has its lips ground flat, and covered occasionally, though not absolutely shut, with a broad circular lid of plate glass, which is suspended horizontally from a rod passing through a collar of leather. This cup is nearly filled with fresh distilled water, and supported by a slender metallic ring, with glass feet, about an inch above the surface of a body of sulphuric acid, perhaps three quarters of an inch in thickness and occupying the bottom of a deep glass basin that has a diameter of nearly seven inches. In this state the receiver being adapted, and the lid pressed down to cover the mouth of the cup, the transferrer is screwed to the air-pump, and the rarefaction, under those circumstances, pushed so far as to leave only about the hundred and fiftieth part of a residuum; and the cock being turned to secure that exhaustion, the compound apparatus is then detached from the pump and removed to some convenient apartment. As long as the cup is covered, the water will remain quite unaltered; but on drawing up the rod half an inch or more, to admit the play of a rare medium, a bundle of specular ice will, after the lapse of perhaps five minutes, dart suddenly through the whole of the liquid mass; and the consolidation will afterwards descend regularly, thickening the horizontal stratum by insensible gradations, and forming in its progress a beautiful transparent cake.” John Leslie, Treatises on Various Subjects of Natural and Chemical Philosophy (Edinburgh, 1838), pp. 368-369.
  2. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 58.
  3. Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm, edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), p. 50.
  4. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. I, pp. 58-59.
  5. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena, p. 50.
  6. Gaspard Gourgaud, The St. Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud, 1815-1818, translated by Sydney Gillard (London,1932), p. 145. Napoleon’s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, corroborates the lack of success with lemonade and milk. See Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 428-429.
  7. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. I, p. 59.

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Napoleon took in his hand the piece of ice produced from the water, and observed to me what a gratification that would have been in Egypt.

Barry O'Meara