07 September, 2011

A Scot on the rocks

James Harrison
There is one notable Geelong citizen who had strong ties to the Barwon River whom I have not yet mentioned in detail in any of my previous posts.
That person was James Harrison, founder of the Geelong Advertiser and the first person in the world to devise a method of making ice and he did this at Rocky Point, overlooking the river in Newtown.
Harrison was born in Scotland in 1816 and trained as a printer's apprentice in Glasgow, followed by a stint working in London before emigrating to Sydney in 1837. By 1839 he was in Melbourne and working with John Pascoe Fawkner, from whom he bought an old printing press. On 21st November, 1840, the first edition of the Geelong Advertiser was published and by 1842, Harrison along with John Scamble had bought out Fawkner. It was not long however, before Harrison became the sole proprietor, making the Advertiser successful on more than just a local level. It was his paper which was first to break the news of the discovery of gold at Clunes in 1850 and he also used it as a vehicle to agitate for the rights of squatters.
Nor was this his only project and it can be seen that his name was also associated with several of the earliest maps of Geelong, magazines and other publications, both locally and in NSW.  He was also active in local politics, serving as a councilor and in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, espousing progressive policies and maintaining a strongly humanitarian approach throughout his life.
Plaque at Rocky Point
However, it was his work in the printing industry which led to his eventually discovering a means of commercial refrigeration. Whilst using ether to clean the movable characters used to set type, he noticed that the metal became cold as the ether evaporated. It was this observation which led him in 1851 to develop the ether-vapour compression refrigeration system. His first mechanical ice-maker was built at Rocky Point in 1851 and then a machine capable of producing commercial quantities of ice (3,000kg per day) in 1854.
Over the next two decades, he twice attempted experiments aimed at shipping cold or frozen meat to London. Neither was successful and each ended in financial ruin, forcing him to turn back to journalism as editor and then columnist at the Melbourne Age to re-establish his finances.
James Harrison Bridge from the north bank
In 1892, after nearly two decades living in England and promoting his refrigeration techniques,  he returned to Geelong where he lived at Point Henry with his third wife and a number of children. He died there the following year and was buried at the Eastern Cemetery. Interestingly, his grave sits only a few metres away from that of his contemporary and fellow pioneer - Foster Fyans.
Whilst Harrison did not benefit financially in any great way from his pioneering work on ice-making, his contribution laid the foundations for the development of modern refrigeration. Recognition of this achievement came in 1990 when the newly completed bridge over the Barwon was named the James Harrison Bridge in his honour.
Plaque on the grave of James Harrison at the
Eastern Cemetery
The bridge - actually a pair of two-lane bridges -  is a concrete cantilever construction with box-girder sections on the south side of the river. It was built between 1988 and 1990, extending La Trobe Terrace and taking traffic from the Princes Highway off busy Moorabool Street and easing congestion through Belmont.
However, continued housing development south of the Barwon lead to significant congestion on this section of the highway and it was not until the opening of the long-awaited Geelong Ring Road in December 2008 that the problem was - at least in part - solved.
Grave of James Harrison at the Eastern Cemetery
Some sources report that a further tribute to James Harrison is planned in the form of a museum at Rocky Point where he conducted those first ice-making experiments on land leased from Ebenezer Davies, a local tannery worker. However, there does not seem to have been much progress of late and one recent report suggests that the project may not go ahead.

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