Printing, Ice & Lager

One soweth, another reapeth...

James Harrison (1816-1893)

Another Australian connection – Before they each immigrated to Australia, I believe Edward Khull jnr employed James Harrison at 65 Virginia St. circa 1833-34.

James Harrison was born at Bonhill near Renton on the River Leven, Dumbartonshsire, Scotland, 17th April 1816, the son of William Harrison, a salmon fisherman, and Margaret McGregor. After the family moved to Glasgow, James served an apprenticeship with the printer David McClure.

From about 1828 James Harrison was apprenticed to David McClure from the age of 12 for a 10 hour day, six days a week in his print works at 43 Argyle Street, Trongate the same address Khull had used previously between 1810-12.

(father? of Andrew McClure d1885 engraver & lithographer, his son Frank would go on to be made lithographer to Queen Victoria. The firm was est. 1835 Trongate and was the first in the UK to utilise steam power for a lithographic press.)

James Harrison to further his formal education attended evening classes at Anderson University in philosophy, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, mathematics and phrenology and later the Glasgow Mechanics Institute specialising in chemistry while still apprenticed to McClure.

On leaving McClure’s employ he joined the firm of Edward Khull. Did he assist with the construction of the steam powered printing press used at Virginia Street? He appears
to have the ingenuity and mechanical aptitude as Khull jnr I suspect was not quite as innovative.

On corresponding with Harrison’s great grandson in Australia he states that apparently the reason for moving from Glasgow to London was the rates for printing – four pence per thousand words in Glasgow versus six pence in London.  Also Edward Khull jnr’s well documented abrasive nature couldn’t have helped any decision to remain. He spent a year in London as a composter 1835-36 before emigrating in 1837 at the age of 21. So the timeline would appear to place Harrison at 65 Virginia Street at this crucial time when Khull jnr would have been building Glasgow’s first steam powered printing press.

Geelong Advertiser Building. photographer unknown.

After arriving in Sydney Australia on the Persian in 1837 he founded the Geelong Advertiser newspaper in 1840, now the 2nd oldest in Australia, and was a member of the Victorian Legislative Council(1854-6) and the Victorian Legislative Assembly (1859-60).

His personal life was also active, marrying three times and fathering 12 children.

Harrison pioneered refrigeration at Geelong in Victoria in 1854. He liked to fish and wanted to keep his catch fresh before making landfall. His role as a printer was crucial for his serendipitous ‘eureka’ moment. Metal type needed regular cleaning with sulphuric ether. Scrubbing away, Harrison noticed that ice crystals formed when the ether evaporated as he blew on the raised letters. Ether evaporates very fast due to its high volatility. This vaporization takes latent heat thus cooling the surface. This is a key component of any refrigerant.

His genius was realising this physical property could be leveraged and if harnessed correctly under compression could make the production of ice commercially viable. The path to success was not easy. In fact it was dangerous. He blew himself up at least twice, needing hospitalisation on one occasion. He was assisted by blacksmith and fishing buddy John Scott.

He was granted a British patent in 1856 and was co-founder of the Sydney Ice Co. in 1860, with Sir Peter Nicol Russell (1816–1905). The 3.5hp machine could manufacture 3,000kg of ice per day.

Pilsner (lager), an obscure brew, colonised Europe in the late 1850s. James Harrison whose ice making machine (with Siebe & Co. steam engine engineers of Mason Street, London) made it possible to control temperature during the brewing process is credited with enabling the worldwide spread of the drink we take for granted today. From 1857-61 his machines were in use from Truman’s Brewery London to Europe, Peru, Argentina, Calcutta and Sydney. The basic design of the machine did not change for quarter of a century implying just how innovative the design was. The development cost for the prototype was apparently £1,200.

The Siebe-Harrison refrigerating machine exhibited 1851
A steam engine drove ether evaporation by removing air from above the ether. This cooled the ether, which in turn cooled a strong brine solution. The cooled brine was circulated around the vessels containing the water to be frozen. This circulation of a cooling fluid is still the principle on which fridges work today.

In 1870 he began to develop an idea of refrigeration for ships. He’d known the shipping time of over two months from Australia to Europe was prohibitive to the trade of fresh perishable produce. Australia had an abundance of mutton & beef from its large cattle ranches. But the potential market for this produce was restricted by geography.

In 1873 he won a gold medal at the Melbourne Exhibition by proving that meat kept frozen for months was perfectly edible. Shortly after, Harrison invested all his funds in an historic first; sailing frozen Australian meat in the Norfolk to Britain. On the 34th day, halfway to London the cooling system was compromised. All 20 tons of meat had to be thrown overboard. His choice to utilise a cold room instead of utilising a refrigeration system had proven fatal. He arrived in Britain a broken man.

Moving to England in 1873, Harrison was London correspondent for The Age for many years. Harrison corresponded with Darwin, Faraday and Huxley, warned vegetarians about “pumpkinheadedness”, championed women studying medicine, wrote of vaccination and inoculation, butter versus margarine and a universal language.

Harrison received medals of commendation from exhibitions in London (1863) and Melbourne (1873) where he showed his refrigeration machines. He also won a prize from the Geelong and Western District Agricultural and Horticultural Society for his “Self-acting beer preserver” in 1863.

Little did Harrison know that his invention would lead to not just a global trade in meat but that staple of western cuisine… the frozen TV dinner.

Harrison suffered pleurisy in 1891, returned to live outside Geelong and, though frail, trudged often into town to send copy to The Age. On September 3, 1893, he died in bed, an unfinished article beside him.

In Harrison’s lifetime, eight of his ten patented inventions were commercially successful, though when he died in 1893, he left a modest estate. His headstone reads: One soweth, another reapeth.

He deserves recognition for his impact to humanity. The world’s refrigeration industry commemorates Harrison’s birthday — April 17.  The increased shelf life of not just fresh produce such as food but also medicine, vaccines, blood, organs all rely on being chilled to preserve their usefulness. Harrison’s inventions with their commercial viability opened the world up to new possibilities.

The entrepreneurial spirit evident to him in Georgian Glasgow must have been formative. His inventions may not have been Clyde built but their foundations were certainly set in the print works & educational institutions of his youth.

© Cicerone: MerchantCityGlasgow.  All Rights Reserved. 2021 

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