Ask most people what inventions they know Australia to have contributed to the world, and they’ll probably struggle to name many past the didgeridoo and Australian Football. They’ll also probably be unaware of just how many technologies of Australian origin are now central to their lifestyles.
Some of the world’s most significant inventions originated in Australia, yet in many cases, credit was not given where it was due, either because it took a while for the potential of the idea to be recognized, or, in some cases, because the inventor simply lacked the drive to attain the patent.
Examples of Notable Australian Inventions
- Refrigerator (1856): Quite a few people are credited with this invention. German engineer Carl Von Linde eventually attained the patent for it, and American Oliver Evans is named the “father of refrigeration”. But James Harrison, a Scottish emigrant who lived in Australia, is credited with inventing the first “practical refrigerator”. He started with a mechanical ice-making machine and then created the vapor-compression refrigeration system, using a compressor and condenser to liquify gas and then circulate it (Wikipedia). This would eventually allow the export of meat to the UK, and is still used in air conditioning systems today.
- Underwater Torpedo (1874): Irish-Australian Louis Brennan invented the underwater torpedo propulsion system, steered by two wires attached to a shore station. The patent was purchased by the British War Office and used to build torpedoes for defending British harbours. Brennan had begun work towards inventing the helicopter, but the air ministry abandoned the project in 1926.
- Electric Drill (1889): Arthur James Arnot had been employed by an electrical company in Glasgow before moving to Melbourne, Australia to aid in the construction of a power plant. He invented an electric drill for the purpose of coal mining, and his version was eventually replicated in a smaller form suitable for tool boxes.
- Powered Flight (1894): Lawrence Hargrave made essential contributions to the invention of aviation. He determined that wings with curved surfaces would lift more effectively then flat ones, and using this knowledge, linked box-kites together to form a glider capable of flying 16 feet while carrying a person. His wing design was utilized in the first airplanes. He didn’t care much for pursuing patents, seeing it as a waste of time and money. The Wright brothers knew of his findings but did not acknowledge their influence, though later aviation pioneers would; including Gabriel Volsin who named the first commercial aircraft ‘Hargraves’.
- Notepad (1902): It may not seem as significant as some of the others on the list, but before J.A Birchall, paper was sold in large sheets. Birchall came up with the idea of cutting them into smaller sizes and binding them together with cardboard at the back.
- Feature Film (1906): The Story of the Kelly Gang was a film about Irish-Australian outlaw and folk hero Edward “Ned” Kelly. At just over an hour long, it was the longest film yet seen and the world’s first “feature length” film.
- Tank (1912): The Mark I tank used by the British in World War I was conceived by Australian Lance De Mole. His ideas were initially dismissed, but he was eventually rewarded by the British once World War I had concluded.
- Electronic Pacemaker (1928): Doctor Mark C Lidwell and physicist Edgar H Booth invented the device which was able to revive a stillborn infant at the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney.
- Ultrasound (1961): Australia’s Ultrasonic Research Centre discovered “grey scale imaging” – a means of converting ultrasound echoes within the human body into TV images, vital in determining the health of developing fetuses. David Robinson and George Kossoff’s research is credited as instrumental to the breakthrough.
- Bionic Ear (1979): Professor Graeme Clarke of the University of Melbourne invented the first cochlear implant, which was placed in the ear of patient Rod Saunders. Electrical impulses to his auditory nerves allowed them to interpret sound, as it would for countless patients to follow.
- Wi-Fi (1992): The Wi-Fi trademark may be held by the Wi-Fi Alliance in Austin, Texas; but CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) scientists are credited with discovering a means to un-smear radio signals. Their lawsuits conducted against American companies such as AT&T for infringing on their patent sparked controversy as some accused them of ‘taxing’ Wi-Fi innovation.
Despite its relative isolation from the rest of the world (and perhaps partially because of it), Australia’s technological contributions have had significant global impact, and continue to do so.
Sources include Wikipedia, Gizmodo, Monash, Power House Museum and Questacon.