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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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 markjuddery.com.