James Harrison – AIRAH’s guiding light

A pioneer of mechanical refrigeration, HVAC&R owes much to James Harrison (1816–1893). After making the trek from his native Scotland to the Australian colonies, Harrison charted a life of extraordinary achievement. Among his many notable accomplishments were the founding of newspapers that survive today, 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 that later evolved, and of course, of AIRAH itself. It’s not for nothing Harrison is known as the “father of refrigeration”. 

A Scotsman by birth and printer by trade, James Harrison emigrated to Sydney aged 21 in 1837. Having completed his printing apprenticeship in London, Harrison had responded to an advertisement by London-based company Tegg & Co for a compositor to be based in its Sydney office. 

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 eventually moved to seaside Geelong. 

Ink and ice in his veins

After establishing the Geelong Advertiser in 1840 and eventually becoming its sole owner, Harrison became 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.

The bridge over the Barwon River is named in his honour.

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.

And 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 led eventually to establishing, in partnership with blacksmith John Scott, an ice works on the banks of the Barwon River at Rocky Point.

The landmark year of 1854

The year of 1854 was an important one in Australian history. In December of that year, 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 in Franklin Street. The following year, Harrison ordered another machine for the establishment of the Sydney Ice Company, in partnership with P.N. 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.  

The Harrison tradition

In commemoration of Harrison, one of the industry’s true trail blazers, AIRAH bestows the James Harrison Medal. 

The most prestigious award presented by AIRAH, it is only awarded to recipients of the highest calibre. To date 25 individuals have earned the honour.

Harrison’s was a life characterised by exploration, curiosity, rigour, technological advancement and discovery. His dedicated though unfulfilled work paved the way for those who came behind.

This sentiment was immortalised on Harrison’s epitaph: “One soweth, another reaps.”

So it is with AIRAH, which was established in 1920, and to this day continues the pioneering work begun by the titan of refrigeration.

James Harrison Day is celebrated annually on April 17, James Harrison’s birthday.

More information

For more information about James Harrison, please watch "Great Aussie Inventions" or read "The world-changing Australian inventor no one has heard of". Culture Victoria has also published a video called "James Harrison: Journalist, Inventor & Visionary".