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The Biography of James Harrison - Journalist and Engineer

written by: johnsinit•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 11/30/2009

James Harrison was not only a pioneer in Australian journalism, he was also a pioneer in the development of refrigeration technology. Harrison led a fearless life, standing up for his political beliefs, speaking his mind, coming back from failure several times, and learning from his mistakes.

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    James Harrison

    James Harrison PotraitJames Harrison Photo
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    Early Years

    James Harrison is believed to have been born in 1816 in Dunbartonshire in Scotland to a fisherman and his wife. James apprenticed with a printer in Glasgow while in his teens. At that time he also attended Professor John Anderson's Evening College and later studied at the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution. There, he studied chemistry and won prizes for his essays.

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    He worked as a compositor in London from 1832 until 1837. At that time he traveled to Sydney, Australia for the English company Tegg & Co. to set up the printing equipment there for the Literary News. He chose to remain in Australia and went to work for John Pascoe Fawkner as a compositor on Fawkner's Port Phillip Patriot, a publication Harrison later edited. He also worked during that time for the Sydney Herald and the Sydney Monitor and moved to the town of Geelong.

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    Engineering Interest

    But journalism wasn't Harrison's only interests during this time. While he was owner of the Advertiser, a weekly in Geelong, he developed a keen interest in refrigeration and ice-making. The story is that while he was cleaning movable type with ether, he discovered that the evaporating fluid would make the metal type cold to touch. His interest led to many inventions, which were great achievements, but left him financially ruined.

    The concept of cooling foods, wines, juices, and liquors had been around for a century or more using techniques like evaporative cooling and saltpeter dissolved in water. The first artificial refrigeration was demonstrated at the University of Glasgow in 1748 by a man named William Cullen. He let ethyl ether boil into a vacuum. This invention was never put to any use, however.

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    Patent and Independent Venture

    In Geelong Harrison designed and built the first Australian manufacturer or ice, taking out a local patent in 1854. In 1856, he went to London where he patented his mechanical refrigeration process and apparatus. The company Siebe Brothers of Holburn used Harrison's designs to create improved ice machinery that was shipped to Victoria in 1859. This system used a compressor to make the refrigeration gas pass through a condenser where it cooled and liquified. The liquified refrigerant circulated through refrigeration coils and vaporized again, losing heat to the surrounding system. It used an enormous 16 ft. flywheel, and made 6,600 lbs. of ice per day.

    It soon became clear, however, that Geelong couldn't consume three tons of ice per day, so Harrison moved operations to Melbourne. He joined Sir Peter Nicol Russel to form the Sydney Ice Co. in 1860, but the plant was soon bought out by competitors.

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    The Refrigerator

    However, also in 1860, Harrison designed and patented a refrigerator. Scotland began using it the next year for distillation of paraffin, at roughly the same time as Alexander Catlin Twinning's refrigeration machine was being adopted in the U.S. In France at this time, Ferdinand Carre developed a more complex refrigeration based on expanding ammonia, which is able to absorb more heat than water. The brewing and meat-packing industries were the first to adopt refrigeration technology.

    Harrison then entered into the debate over how to compete with the advantage America had with shipping unrefrigerated beef to the UK. In 1873, he won a gold medal at the Melbourne Exhibition for proving that frozen meat remained edible for months and that frozen meat could be shipped to England for only 7 shillings per ton. He used his £2500 prize to outfit the sailing ship Norfolk for a trip to the UK. This meat was to be refrigerated rather than frozen. However, his use of a cold room system rather than a full-on refrigeration system didn't work: the ice melted faster than expected and the 25 tons of beef and mutton spoiled.

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    Later Years and Legacy

    But Harrison, like the best engineers and inventors, did not give up. He and his family moved to London, where he patented his refrigerated shipboard rooms. He died in 1893, back in Geelong, survived by his children and third wife. His portrait now hangs in the Geelong Art Gallery. To this day, the Australian Institute of Refrigeration Air Conditioning and Heating's most preeminent honor is the James Harrison Medal.