Before Scottish expatriate James Harrison, then a member of the Victoria Legislative Council and owner of the Geelong Advertiser newspaper, making ice was difficult. In fact, no one had invented a mechanical method to produce ice or refrigerate items.
Whenever you use your ice machine to create a delectable cocktail for guests, or crack open a cool one on a scorching day, remember James Harrison. It is because of his ingenuity that you are able to enjoy beverages like this.
When Harrison Made Science Cool
The world was still using ice boxes and ice harvesting on that fateful day when Harrison noticed something remarkable while using sulphuric ether to clean movable type. When the fluid evaporated, the metal felt cold to the touch. This eureka moment led him to invent a mechanical ice-making machine in 1854, which developed into a vapour suppression refrigeration system he patented as a “refrigerating machine”. Applying for patents in a timely matter was smart, for the work of intellectual property, he who holds the patent goes down in history as the inventor.
Harrison’s novel refrigeration system utilised a compressor to force ether vapour into a condenser. The ether reverted to liquid form and then moved through refrigeration coils. As it turned back into vapour form, it cooled the surrounding machine.
Using a five-metre flywheel, his machine could produce 3,000 kilograms of ice per day. Inevitably, he was commissioned to design something for the noblest of purposes. To cool beer!
Tom Jackson, the author of Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and May Do So Again, called Harrison the “stepfather of refrigeration”. He noted that Harrison’s first attempt was essentially a small cold house. At least Harrison could fill it with meat and beer.
Rightfully, the Glasgow & Co. brewery was the first company to use Harrison’s improved refrigeration system, making everything right in the world. Soon enough, breweries, hotels and meatpacking factories were using the system.
Harrison went on to found the Victoria Ice Works in 1859 and partnered up with Sir Peter Nicol-Russell to establish the Sydney Ice Company in 1860. At the Melbourne Exhibition in 1873 he proved that meat that was frozen for months was still edible, winning himself a gold medal.
It was when Harrison tried to successfully ship frozen meat that he encountered financial disaster, as well as a hit to his reputation. Rather than use the refrigeration system, he opted for a cold room approach but, along with other factors, such as rough handling and inadequate machinery, he underestimate how quickly the ice would melt. After this blunder, he returned to journalism to edit the publication, The Age.
One of Australia’s Finest Inventions
Although the process has been refined and people no longer use ether as a refrigerant, Harrison’s refrigeration system is still the blueprint for today’s refrigerator4s. James Harrison has taken his place amongst the most significant pioneers. He even has the honour of having the Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH) name its most prestigious award after him: the James Harrison Medal. According to AIRAH there have only been 25 recipients so far.
To this day people celebrate Harrison’s birthday, which is April 17, as International Refrigeration Day.
As you enjoy your refreshing, ice-cold beverages this season, be proud of the accomplishment of your compatriot, James Harrison, one of several Australians who has changed the course of science, technology and history.