Late 1890s Coolgardie safe invented

Image: Museum Victoria

The Coolgardie safe was Australia’s precursor to the domestic refrigerator. It was invented in the late 1890s on the Western Australian goldfields, an invention credited to a local contractor named Arthur Patrick McCormick.

The appliance used evaporation to keep the food inside cool while protecting it from flies and scavengers. It consisted of a timber or metal-framed cabinet with open sides covered in hessian fabric. On top of the cabinet, a tank was filled with water and strips of felt trailed down from the tank to the hessian. Through a wicking action, water dripped onto the hessian, keeping it damp. The safe was generally kept on a verandah or in a breezeway. As the breeze evaporated water from the fabric it absorbed the heat from the surrounding air and kept the contents cool. The feet of the safe were often placed in another tray of water to deter ants.

Although McCormick is credited with the invention, the principle of keeping things cool with wet fabric was not new. A columnist in the Melbourne publication “Table Talk” wrote in 1911: “It is just a variation of the bushman’s hessian bag hanging in a tree, but whereas that has to be wetted constantly, with this idea of having a tin full of water, it only needs to be filled once or twice in the twenty-four hours.”  Agricultural journalist and educationist William Catton Grasby attributed the invention of the first water-cooled safe to Mr. B. Seppelt of Seppeltsfield in South Australia, in 1895.

The Coolgardie safe was a boon to those on the goldfields of Western Australia. Coolgardie, the largest township, was more than 550km from Perth. After the discovery of gold in 1892 the influx of miners meant fresh food was in demand, scarce and expensive. With a latched door and internal shelves, the device could store and prolong the life of meat and other fresh foods.

Coolgardie safes were sold commercially, but many were also homemade. There were many different manufacturers in Western Australia and elsewhere. The Trafalgar Cold Safe was widely distributed throughout Australia and promoted as “Cold Storage Without Ice”.

The Coolgardie safe was widely used in country areas well into the 20th century. However, as ice-making technology became more widespread early in the century, the icebox replaced the safe in cities and country towns where ice was readily available. In rural areas, the introduction of the kerosene fridge in the 1920s provided an alternative before the widespread availability of electricity. However, these were expensive to run and regarded as luxury items, so the Coolgardie safe remained the main method of food storage in country Australia for many decades.

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