Block of the Week: Ice

Getting to grips with this slippery customer

The slippery properties of ice make it a surprisingly useful block. Pour water across its surface and items and players can move super fast in the direction of the water’s flow. Try dashing across ice enclosed in a two-block-high tunnel, and you’ll zip along at twice the speed of a minecart! Why? Because of SCIENCE. Well, it’s either that or a bug relating to how ground friction is calculated, but I’m going with science - and only partly because I fear Jens’ kung fu training.

Ice is also a rather charming-looking building block, but its aesthetic properties are rather undercut by its tendency to melt. Locate the rare Ice Spikes biome, however, and you can find packed ice, a variety of the chillsome block which doesn’t turn into a puddle under the glare of light sources. Be careful mining it though, as only a pick-axe with the Silk Touch enchantment will harvest it without shattering the block into nothingy nothingness - which makes ice almost as fragile as this segue: the transportation of ice has been a challenge throughout realworld history, too!

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, frosty treats could only be obtained by lugging huge quantities of ice from mountains or the frozen ends of the earth, then burying it in specially insulated pits. The ancient Chinese and Persians were both at it, the latter creating huge caverns, lined with a mortar paste made from a mixture of sand, eggs, lime, goat hair and ash, and topped off with conical cooling towers above ground. Some of these ice stores were truly huge - containing up to 5000 cubic metres of the cold stuff - but allowed the Persian aristocracy access to chilled delicacies even in the desert.

This ice house, or "yakhchal", is found in Yazd province, Iran. Photo by Wikipedia user Pastaitaken!

Alexander the Great, too, was a strong pioneer in the area of frozen food, building similar ice stores during the course of his Indian campaign to refrigerate wine and food for his army. He was also known to be rather partial to crushed ice flavoured with honey - an early precursor to Ben & Jerry’s.

Skip a millennia or so forward, and the transportation of ice was not a great deal easier - but it was becoming big business. And, as people got used to the supply of fresh food, it only got bigger still. One man, Frederic Tudor, delivered ice from the frozen lakes of Massachusetts to the shores of India in such industrial quantities that he became known as the Ice King.

The stony visage of Frederic Tudor, Boston's famed Ice King, and multimillionaire in today's money.

An ice delivery, circa 1918. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.

The dangerous process of ice harvesting from Spy Pond, in Arlington, Massachusetts, 1854.

It was not a process without hazard though - numb limbs, multi-tonne blocks of slippery stuff and large, horse-drawn cutting tools did not make for a safe working environment. Many suffered so you could enjoy a cone of soft scoop yumminess today. Luckily, things are a bit easier now with electric refrigeration. Or indeed the Frost Walker enchantment. Frederic Tudor would be very envious indeed.