The Coolgardie Safe

The invention of the Coolgardie Safe is credited to Arthur Patrick McCormick, a contractor in Coolgardie, and later the Mayor of Narrogin. Coolgardie is in the Eastern Goldfields region of Western Australia. Gold was first discovered there in 1892; the townsite became a municipality in 1894, and by 1898 its population of 15,000 made it the third largest town in Western Australia after Perth and Fremantle. In the last decade of the 19th century, Coolgardie was the capital of the West Australian goldfields. Being 180 kilometres from the nearest civilisation, food supplies were initially scarce and expensive. As fresh food was a valuable commodity there was incentive to preserve it, and keep it out of reach of scavengers such as birds, dingos, dogs, ants, and flies. It was in an effort to do this, in the extreme heat of the Australian interior, that McCormick came up with his design for the Coolgardie Safe.

McCormick noticed that a wet bag placed over a bottle cooled its contents. He further noted that if this bottle was placed in a breeze, the bag would dry out more quickly, but the bottle would get colder. What McCormick had discovered was the principle of evaporation: ‘to change any liquid into a gaseous state requires energy. This energy is taken in the form of heat from its surroundings.’ Employing this principle, McCormick made a box for his provisions which he covered with a wet hessian bag. He then placed a tray on top, into which he poured water twice daily. He hung strips of flannel from the tray so that water would drip down onto the hessian bag, keeping it damp. As the water evaporated, the heat dissipated, keeping the food stored inside cool and fresh.

The success of McCormick’s invention would not have worked without a steady supply of water. Fresh water was scarce in the eastern goldfields at this time but the demand for water from a steadily growing population encouraged innovation. The solution was to condense salt water. Heating salt water in tanks produced steam that was condensed in tall cylinders, cooled and then collected in catchment trays. By 1898 there were six companies supplying condensed water to the goldfields, the largest company producing 100,000 gallons of water a day.

Coolgardie Safe patented by W.J. Rawling circa 1915

Coolgardie Safe patented by W.J. Rawling circa 1915
Photographer: Dr Charlotte Smith. Source: Museum Victoria

McCormick’s safe was handmade using materials he had on hand. Many other prospectors in the Coolgardie region copied the design, and home made versions of the safe soon also spread to other parts of Australia.

In the early 20th century, Coolgardie Safes were also manufactured commercially. These safes incorporated shelving and a door, had metal or wooden frames and hessian bodies. The feet of the safe were usually placed in a tray of water to keep ants away.

The safe pictured from the Museum Victoria collection is an excellent example of a commercially produced Coolgardie Safe - The Trafalgar Cold Safe, manufactured in Adelaide, South Australia, by W.J. Rawlings c.1915.

Coolgardie Safe patented by W.J. Rawling circa 1915

Coolgardie Safe patented by W.J. Rawling circa 1915
Photographer: Dr Charlotte Smith. Source: Museum Victoria

Further Reading

Worth its weight: a celebration of Coolgardie’s centenary, 1892-1992, Perth, LISWA, 1992.

Bonney, W.H., The History of Coolgardie, Perth, Hann, Enright & Co., 1895.

Bosworth, Michael, Australian Lives: A history of clothing, food and domestic technology, Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Farrer, Keith T.H., A Settlement Amply Supplied: food technology in nineteenth century Australia, Victoria, Melbourne University Press, 1980.

Ingpen, Robert, Australian Inventions and Innovations, Australia, Rigby, 1982

Comments (17)

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Alex hughes 1 May, 2013 14:21
This web site helped me a lot and a thank who wrote if
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Steve Zeunert 23 March, 2013 21:54
Hi. I have a Number 1 trafalgar cold safe. Well...I have the base, top surround and the tank with excellent sticker intact. Just wondering where I might be able to acquire the safe section. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
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Olivia Richards 23 October, 2012 18:52
I am researching Australian inventors for my grade 3 assignment and I am very interested in Arthur Patrick McCormick, but am finding it difficult to find a lot of information about him. Could you please point me in the right direction?
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Discovery Centre 22 May, 2011 13:27

Hi Michelle, records indicate that prospectors Arthur Bayley and William Ford were the first to find alluvial gold near the present site of Coolgardie. It was in September 1892. About a month later they found gold in a nearby quartz reef.  Doing an internet search for Coolgardie gold discovery 1892’ brings up a great deal of information. You may also find newspaper articles about the discovery by searching online newspapers at Trove.

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Jane Bristowhughes 20 May, 2011 13:11
My Coolgardie Cold Safe was patented on 11 Dec (cannot read the year any idea - probably 1915) Serial No 3140
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michelle 10 May, 2011 19:40
hi my son is doing a project for school about coolgardie gold and i cant find anywhere the name or names of the people who discovered gold there in 1892, ive been to every site i can think of.. thanks
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Dave Stannard 8 February, 2011 11:00
Interesting to read about the Coolgardie safe. My maternal grandfather (farmber Brown!) lived on his dairy farm about 30 km south of Toowoomba. His only refrigeration until about the 1950's was a Coolgardie safe but instead of hessian it was surrounded by charcoal which was kept moist and used the evaporation the same as the hessian. All of his perishables were kept in it and he only shopped once a week at the most. I can remember it clearly and have many happy memories of spending school holidays with him 'on the farm'
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Discovery Centre 14 January, 2011 12:26

Hi Be,

A quick search on the internet found the following;

The Zeer Pot from Africa, a simple, but effective evaporation cooler.

The 're-invention' of the Coolgardie Safe by a design student from England, for use in developing nations.

The Mitticool from India, a clay version of the Coolgardie Safe.

There are also other sites with instructions on how to build your own Coolgardie Safe. Hope this helps!

 

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Be Ward 12 January, 2011 13:50
Hullo. Thanks for your informative and helpful site. I am wondeing if you know if there have been any recent efforts to revive the use of Coolgradie Fridges; - in the light of the need to reduce the carbon footprint of our high energy input modern consumer lifestyle? Thanks in advance for any information on this topic you may be able to share with me! Best regards,. Be Ward.
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Discovery Centre 14 August, 2010 10:51
Hi Suzanne. Unfortunately we don't have any specific information on this individual. You could try contacting the Eastern Goldfields Historical Society on 08 9093 3360 or via email on history@kalgoorlie.com or possibly contact the Coolgardie Visitors Centre who may be able to provide further avenues for your research. There may also be police records available for this individual through the State Records Office of Western Australian Police Records Collection.
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Mrs suzanne landers 11 August, 2010 11:55
Hi. I am researching Jarlath stephen duffy who was the first police trooper appaointed to Coolgardi in 1892. Have you any info on hist time there we have some record of his time there
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Jack Shortland 17 December, 2012 14:51
I have been chasing up facts about my Grandfather and his brother who were in Coolgardie at the time J d Duffy was there. You'l find that he was a partner of my g/father's brother If you care to Google Stodart Duffy and co You'll see. also try Looking up Trove and you'll find an article on Duffy <Hope Ive Helped
Brendan O'Regan 29 July, 2010 10:08
Hello there, I am a PS teacher at St Kevin's College Primary School and one of my students is researching facts/information to do with Arthur Patrick McCormick - inventor of the Coolgardie Safe. He just requires simple facts, e.g DOB, Birthplace, Interetsing facts, etc. Your help in reference to any websites/books/articles would be greatly appreciated. Brendan O'Regan Yr 4 Homerrom Teacher SKC Toorak
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Patrick McCormick 19 November, 2012 14:07
Would be great to hear about what people find out about Arthur Patrick McCormick. He was my great great great grandfather, and I don't have much written family history (though I think my dad and Aunties have some items that were his).
Jack Shortland 3 September, 2012 12:11
I am researching my Grandfather and his brother who were in Coolgardie in 1900 My grandfather was Arthur Stodart (my Mothers father) and his brother Thomas Stodart who had T Stodart and co in Coolgardie. Can you tell me any thing of him Thomas Many Thanks Jack
Discovery Centre 6 November, 2009 11:03

Hi John - Thank you very much for thinking of us! The Museum certainly appreciates the contributions of the public, and considers donation offers. You can see our donation guidelines and submit an offer at this Discovery Centre site.

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john morrow 5 November, 2009 11:13
hi i writing to you about coolgardie pioneer 1897 news paper 15 pages i have got on ebay for auction just want to let you know if interested ,,as i do not know if you have seen antique thanks
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