Three generations of Harrisons with the Harrison Refrigerator Model. Left to right: Christopher, James and Mark Harrison.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
A model of the first industrial refrigerator, invented by James Harrison of Geelong in the 1850s, is now on display at Scienceworks. The model represents a local technological innovation with international significance.
Commercial-scale refrigeration was a major advance for industries that relied upon keeping goods cool. In the 19th century, unpreserved food spoiled quickly warm weather, and transport of fresh meat, dairy and vegetables was limited. Household food storage was difficult also, especially in Australia’s warm and mostly ice-free climate.
Harrison, a Scottish-born newspaperman who had worked with John Pascoe Fawkner on Melbourne’s first newspaper, developed the prototype for the machine. He also established and edited the Geelong Advertiser, the first newspaper in Geelong.
The link between printing and refrigeration may seem unlikely but for Harrison's keen powers of observation. He noticed that sulphuric ether, a fluid used to clean the printing type, left the type freezing cold as it evaporated. He used this cooling effect of evaporation in his refrigerator. By 1855 his refrigeration machine was working well, producing several tons of ice per day from Geelong’s Barwon River.
Harrison took his invention to London for commercial development by a leading engineering firm, Siebe & Co. The first Harrison-Siebe refrigeration machine was sold in 1857 to a London brewery. Within the next decade, machines were sold around the world and used in breweries, hotels and distilleries throughout Britain, Europe, South America and Australia. However Harrison’s initial success was followed by failed attempts to ship frozen meat from Australia to Britain, and he returned to journalism after near-financial ruin.
The model was on display at the Smithsonian between 1964 and 2002, where it was visited by Harrison’s great-grandson Jim. When the display was taken down, Jim Harrison contacted Museum Victoria, who brought the model to Australia. Described as a ‘working model’, it doesn’t actually contain refrigerant; instead a small electric motor operates the pump that was powered by steam in the actual Harrison Refrigerator.