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ARTICLE BY M a r g o t R i l e y , S t a t e L i b r a r y o f N S W G r a h a m R e e d , M . A I R A H

8 EcoLibrium September 2004

Eugene

Dominique

Nicolle

PIONEER REFRIGERATION ENGINEER

The State Library of New South Wales is presenting

an exhibition entitled Vive la différence! The French in

NSW, which includes the history of Eugene Nicolle, an

engineer who was a contemporary of James Harrison and

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and an important figure in the early

development of refrigeration in Australia.


Figure 1 - Nicolle and Mort’s patent

revolving freezer c. 1874 – NSW Patent

429 (ink drawing on paper, State Library

of NSW)

The Vive la difference exhibition includes

a design by Eugene Nicolle for an ice

making machine (Figure 1) that used

ammonia to chill a metal cylinder which

revolved in a bath of cold water, causing

ice to form on the outside of the cylinder.

The ice was then scraped off, dropping

down a chute to be compressed by

hydraulic rams into ice blocks.

Born in 1823 in Rouen, France, Eugene

Nicolle arrived in Sydney in 1853 and

started work as an engineer soon

afterwards. He later became manager for

P N Russell and Son, where he remained

for several years before leaving to set up

his own business at Circular Quay. He

designed and supervised the erection

of the sawmills for Wilkinson and Co.,

and installed the colony’s first vertical

saw system. At times long distances

had to be travelled in connection with

the erection of milling and brewery

machinery.

In late 1859, Nicolle decided to construct

an ice making machine based on a

process using the compression of

ether that had been invented by James

Harrison. The Sydney Ice Company had

been formed by P N Russell & Co.

and James Harrison and as Nicolle

had shares in P N Russell, he put

aside his lucrative saw milling

and brewery work to become

involved in the newly-formed

company.

In those early days natural ice,

cut from rivers and lakes, was

imported from America, and

stored at Circular Quay. But

the waste and losses of this trade

were so unsatisfactory that they

spurred Nicolle to further efforts in the

manufacture of ice himself.

At first his efforts were to refine the

Harrison process but in 1861 he

registered a patent, jointly with Richard

Dawson, for an ice making machine.

Freezing works were erected at

Darlinghurst, and there for several years

Nicolle carried on the manufacture of

ice by a new process for which he took

out patent rights. This process was the

liquidation by pressure of ammonia gas.

No mechanism was required, or motive

power, the process being purely a

chemical one and capable of producing

a low temperature of -56ºC.

It was in 1863 that Nicolle took out

the first patent for ice-making, and not

only was he able to stop the American

importations, but supplied the northern

ports of Queensland as well.

The following year he and Dawson,

together with the Wilkinson brothers,

who had previously employed him,

bought the Sydney Ice Company

(subsequently renamed the NSW Ice

Company) and in 1863 they began to

produce ice with Nicolle’s machine.

Nicolle and his partners designed and

built a variety of cooling apparatus

and successfully applied them to both

domestic and industrial use, such

as making powdered milk, the first

refrigerated meat works in Darling

Harbour, as well as the refrigeration

of railway vans for meat and milk.

They convincingly demonstrated that

it was both possible and safe to

freeze food for long periods and

then thaw it for human consumption.

Nicolle’s techniques included ammonia

absorption, air expansion, low pressure

ammonia absorption and ammonia

reabsorption.

Figure 2 – gold medal awarded to Nicolle

and Mort in 1874 by the Agricultural

Society of New South Wales for their

refrigeration machine (State Library

of NSW)

feature

The one challenge that eluded Nicolle

throughout his career was the design

and manufacture of special refrigerating

machinery for shipping meat overseas.

In the mid-1860s he began work on this

project with an enthusiastic new partner,

Augustus Morris, who had large pastoral

interests. Morris introduced Nicolle to

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, who offered to

find the capital if Nicolle contributed

the skill. Mort had read about a frozen

mammoth being found in Siberia, making

him think that frozen meat was the only

answer for long haulage transportation

and that the frozen conditions must

be maintained on ship for a minimum

of three months to deliver the cargo to

markets in Europe.

Nicolle designed a machine able to

store and freeze some 40 tons of meat

in 1867. A trial of the apparatus was

conducted lasting over 12 months and

was very satisfactory. Always with

the future in view, this apparatus was

designed to suit shipboard use and it

was in connection with this that the

partners met their first rebuff.

At that time ships rarely exceeded 600

tons, and shipmasters were unwilling to

alter the internal construction for fear of

weakening their vessels. Exception was

also taken to the circulation of ammonia

gas at high pressure that might escape

in heavy weather, and perhaps damage

the rest of the cargo.

To get over this difficulty a second

apparatus was constructed on the lowpressure

basis, capable of freezing half

a ton of water daily, and still maintaining

an even temperature. A freezingchamber

was erected at the rear of the

Royal Hotel, George Street (on the site

of the Dymocks Building) and was

in operation for some 15 months,

during which time thousands

of people visited the place and

witnessed the experiments being

carried out.

It was at this stage that Mort

decided something more ambitious

should be attempted. Large freezing

works were erected at Darling

Harbour under Nicolle’s supervision

and designs. An attempt was made to

fit up the Whampoa, a large steamer,

which seemed to possess the necessary

space. Negotiations were entered into,

backed up by Captain Farquhar, a retired

P & O commander who at the time was

the manager of the F F and I Company.

The proposal was vetoed, however,

EcoLibrium September 2004 9


feature

Figure 3 – Eugene

Dominique Nicolle

by the captain of the vessel on learning

that liquefied ammonia was the freezing

agent.

Nicolle and Mort were mortified at the

captain’s refusal, but recognised that

either a high or low pressure ammonia

apparatus would be against insurance

regulations. Therefore, they turned their

attention to the compressed air system

but this was discarded for another

ammonia plant. The next attempt,

in 1877, was to fit up the Northam,

an iron sailing vessel, for which they

paid a heavy fee (demurrage) to hold

the ship in port for three months whilst

the refrigeration plant was installed and

commissioned.

Originally, the ship was to sail in April but

it was July before the plant was finally

operating perfectly. The temperature of

the meat chamber was reduced to 2ºC

in only sixty hours and thus all seemed

ready to go. Alas, a few hours before

the prepared frozen meat was to be

loaded onto the ship, it was discovered

that the ammonia had reacted with the

iron of which some the components

were made.

Repairs would have taken another three

weeks. The heavy demurrage and

outraged protests from the captain and

other shipping agents caused Mort to

reluctantly allow the Northam to sail

without the meat on board but with

the machinery and engineering staff to

affect repairs and test the equipment

on the voyage. These men, returning

from England on a mail boat, proved by

records taken that the apparatus had

performed its work satisfactorily.

In 1878, two unfortunate incidents

occurred: the death of Mort, aged 61,

About the authors

Margot Riley is the curator of Vive la différence!, assisted by Emeritus Professor Ivan Barko, former McCaughey

Professor of French at the University of Sydney. Graham Reed is currently involved in the upgrade of the HVAC

systems at the State Library of NSW.

The exhibition will be on show in the Picture Gallery of the State Library of NSW until 10 October 2004.

10 EcoLibrium September 2004

at his Bodalla estate; and the loss at sea

of the Northam on her return voyage to

Sydney with the refrigeration plant.

Elsewhere, other trials were being carried

out. In 1873, James Harrison

of Geelong had sent off an

unsuccessful shipment from

Melbourne to England on the

Norfolk. A shipment of frozen

meat on the French vessel, La

Frigorifique, sailing from Buenos

Aires to Rouen arrived in August

1877 successfully using the

process built by the French

engineer M. Tellier who had

been experimenting for some

ten years. The first successful

shipment from Australia to

England, on the Strathleven,

arrived in February 1880.

Despite this, both Mort and

Nicolle should be rated highly as

pioneers of refrigeration. Many

minor features incorporated in

refrigeration systems were first identified

by Nicolle. Together Nicolle and Mort,

from 1864 to 1876, were issued with

twelve patents. Importantly, Mort’s

vision, energy and determination made

refrigeration transportation widely

accepted in Australia. Indeed, by

1937, some 60 years after the Northam

experiment, the statistics for Australian

export of frozen (or chilled) products,

show that some 2,300,000 tons of beef,

over 1,900,000 tons of mutton/lamb and

1,700,000 tons of butter had been sent

overseas.

In July 1875, Nicolle sold his interest in

the business and most of his patents

(except for the revolving freezer) to Mort

and associates who formed The NSW

Fresh Food and Ice Company. Nicolle

declined shares in this firm preferring

to continue in a consulting capacity

for another three years. After a trip to

Europe in 1879 during which his wife,

Jane Williamson, died, he retired to his

300-acre property Whiteheath at Lake

Illawarra, where he continued to tackle

problems with the same dedication that

characterised his professional life.

He kept himself abreast of the scientific

times and had a keen interest in

photography and medicine. Eugene

Nicolle died in 1909 and was survived

by a son, twin daughters and a

stepdaughter.

Figure 4 – section of ship fitted for cold storage

(planned by Nicolle, 1867) - Selfe (1900)

Bibliography

Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1851-

1890, vol 5. p. 342

Barnard, A. (1961) Visions and Profits

(Studies in the Business Career of

T.S.Mort) Melbourne University Press

Ice & Refrigeration, Vol. 16, No. 1-6

(April 1899), “A Pioneer Refrigeration

Engineer, by Norman Selfe”.

Lang, W.R. (2003) James Harrison,

pioneering genius. IMAG Digital Media

Royal Australian Historical Society

Journal and Proceedings, Vol. 24, Part 5,

(1938) “Thomas Sutcliffe Mort: A National

Benefactor” by James Jervis

Royal Australian Historical Society

Journal and Proceedings, Vol. 34, Part 5,

(1948) “Notes on the Lives of Augustus

Morris & Eugene Dominique Nicolle” by

James Jervis

Selfe, N. (1900) Machinery for

Refrigeration H.S. Rich & Co. Chicago

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