Harrison’s ice-making machine

This Week in 1861: Successful invention comes in from the cold

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If you find yourself in a park reading The Engineer with an ice cream in hand, you may wish to thank a Mr James Harrison of Geelong, Victoria, for making this idyllic scene possible. Harrison, a Scot who moved to Australia, was the grandfather of the refrigerator. He came from the unlikely background of publishing, working as a printing apprentice in London before moving to Sydney to set up a printing press.

It was there that he developed his idea for the first refrigerator. While cleaning movable type, he noticed that the evaporating fluid left the metal much colder.

When cleaning movable type the evaporating fluid left metal colder

In 1861, The Engineer reported on one of Harrison’s initial designs: ’The peculiarity of the invention consists in the arrangements for evaporating the ether at a low temperature, and condensing it at a higher, precisely the reverse of ordinary evaporations processes.’

In the machine, ether was contained in air-tight vessels. A cylinder at the centre was fitted with valves, so that each stroke of a piston would withdraw a quantity of ether vapour from the left hand side, forcing it into a condensing vessel on the right.

’Where the vapour is raised an intense cold is produced; where it is condensed a corresponding degree of heat is evolved,’ said the article. ’The ether, after resuming the liquid state, returns by self-regulating valve to the evaporating vessel, and the process thus continued uninterruptedly.’

Harrison’s first machine was made in Geelong in 1855, but proved unsuccessful in trials. However, his invention soon allowed meat and other products to be transported through the tropics and has since helped in the development of refrigeration.