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7 Inventions You Didn't Know Were Australian

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When asked to name an Australian invention, most people might not be able to come up with anything more recent than the boomerang. But Aussies are a surprisingly inventive bunch. Here are some common items most of us don't realize were invented (or partly invented) in Australia.

1. Wheat stripper
Since ancient times, farmers had relied on the slow process of using sickles and other tools to harvest wheat—so it's perhaps surprising that the first successful harvesting machine wasn't invented until 1843. In the nineteenth century, South Australia's wheatfields had become victims of their own success, with too few laborers to cope with the ideal conditions. With the wheat growing ridiculously tall, the South Australian government offered a prize for the best harvesting machine. None of the entries made the grade, so the prize went unclaimed.

Enter flour miller John Ridley, a former preacher from England. Taking one of the more promising competition entries, he improved on the design, producing a wheat stripper that worked by combing the wheat, then beating the grain with a thresher. Later models of the machine would sell worldwide, but Ridley didn't reap what he had sown. Not only was he too late for the competition deadline, but he also refused to patent his machine. He didn't even enjoy his status as a local hero, selling his mill and moving back to England in 1853.

2. Refrigerator-freezer

fridge.jpgAs with so many household items, there is much argument over who deserves credit for inventing the refrigerator. An American, Jacob Perkins, invented an expansion-valve refrigerator in 1834. But James Harrison, a journalist who had founded a successful newspaper in his spare time, invented a more efficient refrigeration process some years later. His "Eureka!" moment happened when he noticed that if ether was used to clean a metal surface, it cooled the metal as it evaporated. This identified the cooling effect of gas evaporation. Through much of the 1850s, he experimented in a cave (yes, literally), finally producing the world's first artificial ice. In 1859, he set up the Victorian Ice Works in Melbourne. Harrison won a gold medal at the 1873 Melbourne Exhibition and received a government grant to ship a load of frozen beef to England. Though things were going well, Harrison would eventually go bankrupt after a technical problem caused a consignment of meat to thaw and go rotten while on a journey to England.

Australia's hot summers must have inspired more iceboxes. While Franklin was experimenting with refrigeration, engineer Eugene Nicolle was making his own artificial ice using ammonia gas. He was backed not by a grant, but by a local businessman, Thomas Mort. After setting up a trial plant in Sydney, Mort built a freezing works. Meat would arrive by a special rail line from an abattoir in the country. By 1879, he was also exporting meat from Australia to Britain.

3. Television
Well, not exactly. But there is some argument over who deserves credit for inventing television. The name of Scottish engineer John Logie Baird is perhaps the most famous. But in 1885, three years before Baird was born, Henry Sutton invented the telephane, a device that used telegraph lines to transmit visual images. It did not have a screen, so viewers had to look into a hole at the end of a long tube, and as it used telegraph lines, the pictures weren't exactly hi-res.

Sutton is forgotten today. A shame, as he was one of Australia's most prodigious inventors. Before the age of 25, he had invented a new type of lead storage battery, a torpedo, a color printing process, a telegraph facsimile, a signaling method using gas and water pipes, and a carbon filament lamp—only to discover that Thomas Edison's workshop had invented the same device just 16 days earlier. After reading an account of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in the Scientific American, Sutton installed what was probably Australia's first telephone line, connecting his music emporium with his warehouse in the town of Ballarat.

At age 28, Sutton designed the telephane so that he could see the famous Melbourne Cup horse-race from his home town. It was the world's first proposed television, involving scanning, synchronising, a light-sensitive cell and a vacuum tube, but—here was the problem—no signal amplifiers. It might still have worked, except that radio wouldn't be invented for another ten years.

Four decades later (and ten years after Sutton's death), Baird would use Sutton's patent to help him make the first television transmissions. Naturally, most of Sutton's design was already obsolete—but of course, Baird's system would also be superseded before long by electronic systems.

1887-Hargrave.jpg4. Airplane
Sydney engineer Lawrence Hargrave experimented with flying machines late in the nineteenth century. Following the lead of birds, his first success was the model "˜ornithopter' (pictured), an aircraft with flapping wings, that flew 35 yards in 1885. "If there is one man more than any other who deserves to succeed in flying through the air," said German scientist Otto Lillenthal, "that man is Lawrence Hargrave." In his experiments, Hargrave invented the box kite. On 12 November 1894, he flew 16 feet into the air on a flying machine assembled from box-shaped kites—and would probably have flown much higher, except that (more safety-conscious than many of our early aviators) he had used a wire to anchor the machine to the ground. Always thinking outside the square, he chose not to patent his discoveries, preferring to release them into the public domain. "A safe means of making an ascent with a flying machine," he announced, "[is] now at the service of any experimentor who wishes to use it."

It was almost a decade later that the Wright Brothers tested their first mechanical flying machine, achieving an 852-foot flight and a place in the history books as the "real" inventors of the airplane. Hargraves, who had seen the potential of the brothers (and kept correspondence with the elder brother, Wilbur), was overjoyed. For their part, the Wrights would acknowledge the crucial role that Hargrave's experiments had played in their work.

5. Electric drill
As an employee of the Union Electric Company, Melbourne boffin Arthur James Arnot patented the world's first electric drill on August 20, 1889, primarily to drill rock and dig coal. As exciting as it was, the design that really caused a fuss was the Calyx Drill, developed by another Australian, Francis Davis, around 1893. This tool, used for drilling large holes in rock, was adopted in many countries around the world as it reduced waste and was highly economical. In 1917, U.S. company Black & Decker introduced the trigger-like switch, mounted on the handle, that has been used for the past 90 years.

6. Notepads
It is strange to think that writing paper was in loose sheets for some 2,500 years, between its invention in Ancient China and 1902, when J A Birchall, proprietor of the Tasmanian stationery company Birchall's of Launceston, decided that it would be a good idea to cut the sheets in half, back them with cardboard and glue them together at the top into a convenient form (like a primitive, non-detachable version of Post-It notes). Though other designs (like spiral binding) would later catch on, the basic idea was an immediate hit.

7. Armoured tracklaying machine (otherwise known as a "˜tank')
In 1911, while struggling through difficult Outback terrain in Western Australia, mining engineer Lancelot de Mole had the idea for a tracked vehicle to handle such environments. Recognizing the military potential for such a vehicle, he sent his design to the British War Office the next year, only to have it rejected. But with the outbreak of World War I, he took a working model of his tank to Britain. Still, the military brass were not interested.

Then, in 1916, they introduced an armored tank to the Western Front, using many of the features of de Mole's design. Credit was given"¦ to two British inventors. After the war, de Mole requested an award for his design. The War Office refused him yet again, but he was granted expenses for his work and the honorary rank of corporal.

Expenses? An honorary rank? Was he happy to lose millions in royalties for that? Well"¦he didn't have much choice. He couldn't exactly afford to sue them.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]