Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Harrison (1816–1893)

by L. G. Bruce-Wallace

This article was published:

James Harrison (1816?-1893), journalist and inventor, was born at Bonhill near Renton, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, the son of a fisherman. James was apprenticed to a printer at Glasgow where he managed to attend the Evening College founded by Professor John Anderson (Anderson's University) and later the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution, where he specialized in chemistry and won two prizes for his essays. He went to London in 1835 and worked as a compositor. Engaged by Tegg & Co., publishers and booksellers of Cheapside, he sailed for Sydney in 1837 with printing equipment for the Literary News to be edited by William a'Beckett. After five months with this journal, Harrison repaid his passage money and became foreman of the Sydney Monitor; he also contributed to it a refutation of Dr William Bland's specific against spontaneous combustion in wool, and worked for the Sydney Herald.

In 1839 Harrison joined the Port Phillip Patriot under John Pascoe Fawkner who next year commissioned him to found and edit the weekly Geelong Advertiser. In partnership with John Scamble he bought this newspaper in 1842; together they also produced a Geelong Almanac, but Harrison soon became sole owner and emerged as a journalist of power and parts. His standards were high, his policies broad and progressive; he was a fearless humanitarian, devoid of humbug and sectarian prejudice, with natural and acquired width of knowledge. As a stationer and job printer he published such works as Alexander Skene, Map of the District of Geelong and James Dredge, Aborigines of New South Wales in 1845, the Australia Felix Monthly Magazine in 1849 and Garrard and Shaw, Map of the Town and Suburbs of Geelong in 1850. He also established the Intelligencer in 1850 as a summary for both isolated settlers and overseas readers. His Advertiser became a daily in 1850 and next year was first in announcing news of gold at Clunes. Always alert for worthy causes, it achieved more than local importance during the gold rushes. Earlier, Harrison had been the squatters' advocate in their struggle for secure tenure of leases. Under the influence of T. C. Riddle, he began to support protection in 1852, and as the number of farmers increased, his advocacy intensified, although his was a lone prophetic voice. He was a member of Geelong's first town council in 1850 and represented Geelong and Geelong West in the Legislative Assembly in 1859-60. But in 1862, although his assets were worth £22,000, he had to sell his Advertiser to escape bankruptcy. He was retained as editor, and in 1865 founded the Geelong Register; but he could not keep it and in 1867 he became an editor of the Melbourne Age.

Harrison's greatest achievement and much of his financial failure stemmed from his inventions: he was a pioneer in all kinds of refrigeration. At Geelong he designed and built the plant for the first Australian manufacture of ice and began production at Rocky Point, taking out a local patent in 1854. The Bendigo brewers, Glasgow & Co., soon adopted his principles in a pioneer mechanical refrigerator. In 1856 Harrison went to London where he patented both his process (747 of 1856) and his apparatus (2362 of 1857) and had talks with Faraday and Tyndall. Siebe Brothers of Holborn used his designs to make improved machinery which was shipped to Victoria in 1859. A short trial at new works convinced Harrison that Geelong could not use three tons of ice each day, so he moved to Melbourne where his daily output of ten tons also exceeded demand. In 1860 he joined (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell in forming the Sydney Ice Co., but it was soon bought out by rivals. Finding ice unnecessary for many industrial purposes, Harrison designed a revolutionary refrigerator, and patented it in 1860. It was used next year in Scotland to distil paraffin, about the same time as Twining's machine in the United States.

Before 1870, as his finances recovered, Harrison began pioneering work on the refrigeration of ships for the export of meat, while competitors were still thinking only of direct freezing. In 1873 he won a gold medal at the Melbourne Exhibition by proving that meat kept frozen for months remained perfectly edible and that it might be shipped to England for 7s. a ton. As a result he was given £2500 for an experiment: in July the Norfolk sailed with twenty-five tons of beef and mutton. Unfortunately lack of funds for adequate machinery, rough handling and ignorance that beef should only be chilled made the cargo unusable.

Harrison stayed in Britain where he patented his refrigerated ship chambers, improved his earlier patents, and resumed journalism as Oedipus of the Age. After some nineteen years he returned with his family to Geelong and settled in a small cottage at Point Henry, where he continued to write and planned to produced soda from his barren block. He died on 3 September 1893, survived by his third wife and several children. His portrait is in the Geelong Art Gallery. Public subscription gave him a tombstone in 1896 with the quotation 'one soweth, another reapeth'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • M. E. Webster, ‘James Harrison, 1815-1893’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 21, no 2, June 1945, pp 1-13
  • R. B. Alexander, ‘Prominent Personalities of the Eighteen-Fifties’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 24, no 4, Apr 1952, pp 121-39
  • R. T. B. McKenzie, ‘James Harrison, Gentleman … Father of Refrigeration’, Refrigeration Journal, vol 10, no 3, Sept 1956, pp 24-30
  • L. G. Bruce-Wallace, ‘James Harrison: A Study in Entrepreneural Failure’, Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, vol 1, no 9, 1961, pp 50-56
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Sept 1893
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Sept 1893
  • Geelong Advertiser, 25 Mar 1846, 4 Sept 1893, 13 Sept 1956.

Citation details

L. G. Bruce-Wallace, 'Harrison, James (1816–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Bonhill, Dumbartonshire, Scotland


3 September, 1893 (aged ~ 77)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

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