Historically, fresh food was kept cool using ice harvested in winter and stored in caves, pits or icehouses. Systems of artificial refrigeration were first developed in the 18th century: it was discovered that when volatile liquids evaporate they draw in heat from the surrounding air, rapidly cooling nearby matter.
In the 1850s, Scottish Australian engineer James Harrison developed an ether liquid-vapour compression refrigeration system which was adopted by meat packers and breweries. The race was soon on for a refrigeration system that could be fitted in ships for the transport of meat; the first successful installation came aboard the Dunedin in 1882. Carl von Linde's work on ammonia-based refrigeration cycles played an important part in extending the commercial adoption of refrigeration systems.
A cold storage building was constructed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, boasting the latest ice-making machinery, five storeys and a skating rink. The hazards of this new technology became clear when the grand building caught fire and collapsed, killing 17 firemen.
The earliest cold storage buildings in London were constructed around the docks (such as Poplar) and the Smithfield meat market towards the end of the 19th century. An article in the Adelaide Advertiser (1902) describes the new cold storage building at Poplar with "a storage capacity of 150,000 carcasses of mutton" (of particular interest to Australian exporters), rail connection, hydraulic lifts and a "special cable from the borough of Poplar generating station" to supply the electricity.