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What you didn’t know you needed to know about Sarawak’s first ice machine

An ice machine, ice maker or ice generator is an appliance to make ice. Today, you can find a refrigerator in every household in Sarawak to store food and make ice cubes.

However in the olden days, an ice machine was even rarer than an endangered animal.

Have you ever thought who bought the first ice machine in Sarawak?

Here are five things you need to know about Sarawak’s first ice machine according to archivist Loh Chee Yin:

1.The second White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke was the first one to make an enquiry of an ice machine.

Charles wrote to the Borneo Company Limited London asking them to make an enquiry about an ice machine while he was in Singapore.

Here is the content of the letter which dated on May 27, 1897:

Dear Sirs,
I should be much obliged if you would make inquiry about an ice making machine for Sarawak capable of making from half a tonne to one tonne a day. Should Mr Ellis the Civil Engineer not have left, he might give you an opinion about such a machine and examine and see one in action, and have explanations how to work it from the makers.

I have long contemplated setting up such a machine to supply ice to the community at as cheap a rate as possible, and as the government have control over water, land, and also have competent engineers, we can do it more reasonably than any other party.

Three days later after writing this letter, Charles wrote another letter to his London agent, The Woodhead & Co.

He wrote, “Would you find out what kind of ice machine would us in Kuching to supply from half to one ton of ice a day. Mr Ellis, if he meets our terms could look out for the best kind and could information about working it, and also could information about working it, also could see it worked. If the Sarawak Government purchase, it would be under his superintendence. Please send a telegraph price etc.”

2.The Brooke government even announced the purchase of ice machine in The Sarawak Gazette.

Apparently, buying an ice machine in the 19th century was such a big deal that it had to be announced in the paper.

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This was what was written in the announcement which was published in October 1897:

“The Government have ordered an ice machine from England, which will produce a ton of crystal ice per diem. This machine, which will be a great boon to the community, should be in working order by the end of this year.”

3.Sarawak’s first ice machine finally arrived about A YEAR after it was ordered.

Again, the Sarawak Gazette reported in September 1898 the arrival of the ice machine.

“The long expected Ice Machine arrived on the 26th June and the first tonne of ice was turned out on the 18th August.

The temperature of the brine was 30o at 9.30am on the 18th and 1½ tonnes of ice were made by the same time on the 19th. The machine was running for 28 hours to obtain this result, which must be considered very satisfactory in view of the fact that it was the first run and that, in consequence, several stoppages had to be made for adjusting the machinery. The lowest temperature reached on this occasion 19o or 13o of frost, but, we understand, that later observations show that a temperature of 11o or 21o of frost, was obtained.

Everyone in the country is to be congratulated upon this acquisition, not only for the comfort of having always iced drinks but far more for its invaluable aid in sickness and accident.

This came home to all when its value was seen in the most unfortunate accident which occurred to Mr Gibson, when ice was at once applied to the fractured part and the inflammation and pain of a broken limb very much reduced.”

4.Who maintained the ice machine?

In the beginning, the Public Works and Survey Department was in-charge of the ice machine’s maintenance.

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As years passed, there was an increase in demand for ice in Sarawak.

Then, a new four-tonne ice machine was ordered in 1926 and started operations in 1927.

On the Jan 1, 1937, Sarawak Electricity Supply bought the ice plant for $30,000 and took over the ice production.

5.How much did the ice cost?

Ice was sold to the contractor at $1.00 per 100 lbs. In 1933, the figure was increased to $1.05 and again to $1.10 in 1934.

In 1935, the price was $1.13 and $1.19 in 1936. In the meantime, the sale price to the public remained at $1.25 per 100 lbs.

The selling of ice provided for a decent amount for the Brooke government in those days. For example from 1929 to 1933, the government earned $24,296.76 in profit for selling ice.

Refrigerators for home domestic use were first invented in 1913. However, the world only saw the mass production of refrigerators after World War II. As technology had become more advanced and Sarawakians, including services such as eateries and hospitals, began to afford their own refrigerators, there was no need to have a government-operated ice machine anymore.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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