The next time you find yourself drinking something served on the rocks, take a moment to admire the cubes inside your glass. Long ago, ice used to be a novelty, shipped across the world in massive chunks carved from frozen lakes and rivers.
We've come a long way from 19th century pond water: Robots inside our homes spit out cubes on demand, and silicone trays can produce an array of ridiculous shapes, ranging from robots to fake teeth. You know what though? More than a hundred years and countless designs later, most ice cube trays still suck.
Since fridges first entered homes in the early 20th century, freezing ice in our kitchen has not been the problem. The issues with ice are, well, everything else that surrounds that action. Ideally, an ice tray should be easy to fill, easy to empty, and between the time we put the water in and take the cubes back out, they shouldn't have taken on the flavour of the egg roll experiment at the back of the freezer.
Most trays ignore the splashy march from the sink to freezer completely. With water pooling on the edges of the tray plus the back and forth sloshing of 12 overfilled slots, the design is clearly not made for tottering humans.
And then once the tray is in, the open container becomes a host for freezer funk. The H2O will welcome smelly molecules from nearby food, which, if you're not careful, can add an eau de shrimp to an after-work cocktail. Oh, and topless trays are prone to the stale taste of freezer burn, which you don't want paired with anything, ever.
Finally, you get to the transfer from container to tumbler. Perhaps because this action is the only thing standing between us and our drink, the last step is arguably the hardest-and also the centre of most of the tray's design changes over time.
A 1937 advertisement in Life magazine exclaims the virtues of "a sensation! A revelation!" a…. baking tin (essentially) with a removable rubber grid. Later, midcentury models used a lever to move a more stable grid that would dislodge the cubes. (We hated this thing.) Modern varieties, though, have stripped out all the moving parts, requiring users to wrestle with the tray itself. Over time these trays crack. But there's immediate damage, too. The twisting motion tends to shatter some cubes and send others airborne. Sure, silicone trays allow you to nudge cubes out or bend back the tray itself, but if there's a pesky layer of ice layer on top, you still need to do some additional cracking. Plus, they're pains in the ass to use.
But there are a few still working at the problem. A couple of years OXO came out with a tray topped with a sliding cover. It offered a one-cube at a time exit, and limited splashing. (This one we loved.) But, says OXO senior engineer Liz Grasing, the company's last attempt still wasn't quite good enough: "The ice cubes were still connected, there was not a total seal on top so air could still get in, and it still has the issue of balancing."
The product development team had been thinking about an ice tray redo when they got a submission from an inventor that seemed to make a lot of sense: What if, the inventor suggested, the top was silicone instead of plastic? A flexible silicone layer smoothed over a rigid polyethylene tray would create a seal, which would properly separate the ice cubes, stop them from spilling over in the freezer, and lock the unwanted smells out. Boom.
Keeping each cube to itself makes ejection easier, too. In fact, in the revamped tray design, which they released this August, the cubes aren't actually cubes; they've got a flat top with a curved underside. Apply a little pressure to one end, and the wedge will slide right out. (Oxo's rigid-topped model works pretty much the same way.)
The OXO tray also solved the sloshing-en-route-to-the-freezer issue by employing a moat. If a few drops make an escape before their destination, they'll get caught in an indented ring that circles the tray. The seal and moat combo also means that you can throw the tray in on its side at a 45-degree angle without worrying about raining on your grandma's frozen rum cake below.
The redesign, even with the inventor's tip, took OXO eight months or so to nail down. That's a lot of time thinking about frozen water-too much, perhaps, for Grasing. She admits, "in restaurants, I prefer not to have ice."
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
Drawing Board is where we explore the amazing origins of everyday objects.