James Harrison – the pioneer of refrigeration

AIRAH’s guiding light and the pioneer of mechanical refrigeration, HVAC&R owes much to James Harrison (1816–1893). Today, AIRAH celebrates his memory and ingenuity with:

  • James Harrison Medal

    This recognition is bestowed upon an individual at the AIRAH Awards, in honour of the highest levels of achievement in the Australian refrigeration and air conditioning industry.

  • James Harrison Day

    James Harrison Day is celebrated annually on April 17, marking the anniversary of Harrison’s birthday and honouring his contributions to Australian HVAC&R. AIRAH encourages recognition of the many people and organisations who contribute their time, energy, creativity, innovation and countless hours to deliver products, services and facilities in communities around the world.

  • James Harrison ~ Pioneering Genius by WR (Roy) Lang

    For James Harrison Day on April 17, 2020 and in celebration of AIRAH’s Centenary year, we are pleased to offer free digital access to the 1982 book James Harrison ~ Pioneering Genius and to a limited print run, available for purchase here.

About James Harrison


After making the trek from his native Scotland to the Australian colonies, James Harrison charted a life of extraordinary achievement. Among his many notable accomplishments: the founding of the Geelong Advertiser, and of course, his astonishing refrigeration invention.

Harrison was the first to create ice via mechanical means, laying the foundation for the Australian HVAC&R industry and, by extension, AIRAH.

A printer by trade, Harrison emigrated to Australia at the age of 21. After completing his printing apprenticeship in London, he responded to an advertisement by London-based company Tegg & Co, seeking a compositor for its Sydney office.

Portrait of James Harrison, AIRAH's guiding light Following contributions to the first edition of Tegg’s short-lived Literary News, and a stint with the Sydney Herald, Harrison set out for the settlement of the newly named Melbourne. From there, he would move to seaside Geelong.

Harrison established the Geelong Advertiser in 1840 and eventually became its sole owner. He was seen as a respected pillar of the community.

An inaugural member of the Geelong Council in 1850, Harrison represented the area in both the upper and lower houses of Victorian Parliament.

A man of eclectic talents, skills and interests, the science of refrigeration had long intrigued Harrison. Before settling on printing as his trade of choice, Harrison had attended Anderson's University and also logged time at the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institution, where chemistry had been a focus.

Although refrigeration and journalism might seem odd companions, it was the latter that gave rise to the former in Harrison’s case.

While cleaning the Geelong Advertiser’s movable type on printing presses with sulfuric ether, he realised that the chemical could have other uses.

Experimentation with the ether and a whorl coil sourced from a heating apparatus followed.

This eventually led to establishing, in partnership with blacksmith John Scott, an ice works on the banks of the Barwon River at Rocky Point. Today, a bridge over the Barwon is named in his honour.

The year 1854 was an important one in Australian history. In December, the Eureka Stockade took place.

It was also the year when the first ice is reported to have been made by Harrison’s ether-vapour compression refrigeration system, which used a compressor to force ether through a condenser, where it cooled and liquefied. The liquefied gas was then circulated through refrigeration coils, and vaporised again, cooling down the surrounding machine. 

By the following year, the system was refined such that he submitted his first patent application in Victoria – granted in February 1855 with the title “Refrigerating Machine”.

After fine-tuning and exhibiting his invention across Europe, Harrison set up the machine in Melbourne, where he began producing slabs and blocks of ice of various weight. 

In 1859, he founded the Victoria Ice Works on Franklin Street. The following year, Harrison ordered another machine for the establishment of the Sydney Ice Company, in partnership with PN Russell.

A true pioneer, his obsession with refrigeration would unfortunately not translate to sustained financial success. His attempts to establish shipboard refrigeration between Australia and the UK met with abject failure. This disappointment resulted in his life’s work remaining unfinished. 

Nevertheless, Harrison’s boldness, creativity and ingenuity will long be remembered, even as the Australian HVAC&R industry continues its unstinting evolution.

Today, AIRAH’s home is in the James Harrison Centre in Melbourne. The figurehead of our organisation, we remain committed to the continuing promotion of his achievements and innovation.


For more information on James Harrison, please visit AIRAH’s Centenary website.


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James Harrison Book     James Harrison Day     James Harrison Medal

This page was last updated June 17, 2022