From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Ice cream scoop was broadcast on the 26th March 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Just as there’s always a debate about whether gelato is superior to ice cream, the means of serving either is open to argument. While there’s nothing wrong with using a simple spoon, at least two people thought they had a better way of doing it. Unsurprisingly, both had their flashes of inspiration in America, a country that adopted ice cream as its unofficial national dish back in the early 1800s.
The first design was created by an African-American called Alfred L. Cralle. Called an Ice Cream Mold and Disher in its patent of 1897, it was based on two intersecting metal scoops, one moving over the other when the handles were squeezed together, so that the ice cream would fall cleanly onto the plate. It was a simple idea which became quickly popular not only for ice cream but for anything that was sticky, like mashed potatoes. And while you might imagine it made Cralle’s fortune, it was copied so much by so many that he saw very little financial reward. Which was sad, given that Cralle was the son of slaves in Virginia. His invention, thought, meant ice cream would be served in neat little mounds all over the country, perfect for the quintessential apple pie.
Just over thirty years later, his invention was challenged by a much simpler design usually known as the Zeroll ice cream scoop. It was the brainchild of Sherman Kelly who saw how ice cream often stuck to serving implements. He designed a chunky metal scoop that had a liquid like alcohol or water contained within its handle. Warmth from the hand would quickly heat the liquid and then the metal, and the cold ice cream would slide easily into the dish. Called, rather unappetizingly, a ‘tool for handling congealed materials’, its patent was granted in 1939 but, thanks to metal shortages in the Second World War, it wasn’t properly available until the war had finished. There’ve been refinements and evolutions of both designs, showing that ice cream is obviously too precious to waste.
Ice cream and gelato evolved over many centuries, from the iced milk of 7th century China to the still-popular kulfi of India that first appeared in the 16th century. By the 17th century, water ices, known as sorbetti in Italy, had become fashionable, and thereafter the careful balance or addition of key ingredients from egg yolks and fruit to cream or milk, gave the world the distinctive flavours of soft ice cream and dense, rich gelato. The invention of freezing machines in America and Britain made the dessert even more popular. It was often served by street vendors in tiny glass dishes that would be quickly rinsed before being used again, the perfect vector for passing contagion. Thankfully, in precisely the same year that Cralle released his ice cream scoop, an Italian in New York called Italo Machiony created a thin cone made from a curled waffle, meaning both ice cream and its container could be devoured at leisure and with less fear of disease. So if you say gelato and I say ice cream, we can at least agree that there are two extremely good ways to dish it straight from the freezer. Unless, of course, you’re happy to cut out the middleman and lick it straight from the tub.