7 Inventions You Didn't Know Were Australian

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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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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