Australians are an inventive lot, and have contributed amazing innovations and ideas that impact lives around the world every day. Here are some of the top inventions that you may or may not know came from our very own sunburnt country.
(si elvis hubiera sido refri image by Rodrigo Huerta, CC 2.0) 1854: the fridge
There's one in nearly every kitchen, at least in the western world, but the ubiquitous fridge was originally conceived in Geelong, Victoria, in the 1850s by James Harrison. His patented ether liquid-vapour compression system, whereby gas was passed through a compressor to be cooled and liquefied, and then circulated through refrigeration coils, is still the most widely used refrigeration system today — not just in fridges, but air conditioners in homes and offices around the world.
(FoxTrot image by Agrillo Mario, CC 2.0) 1874: underwater torpedo
Melbourne watchmaker and mechanical engineer Louis Brennan invented the underwater torpedo at just 22 years of age. The torpedo had two propellers, driven by two counter-rotating screws that were, in turn, driven by the unwinding motion of two fine wires. The torpedo was also steered by these wires, which connected back to a steam engine for onshore or shipboard operation.
(Schroefboormachine image by M Minderhoud, CC 3.0) 1889: electric drill
Melbourne City Council's first electrical engineer, Arthur James Arnot, patented the world's first electric drill in 1889. It wasn't the nifty handyman-sized version shown above, though; Arnot's drill was designed primarily for excavating oil and coal.
(Hargrave and Swain demonstrate how the man-lift was achieved image by Charles Bayliss, public domain) 1894: powered flight
After discovering that curved surfaces are more aerodynamic than flat ones, Lawrence Hargrave invented the box kite, the cellular construction of which was more stable than the previous monoplanes. On 12 November 1894, he strapped four box kites together with a compressed air engine, which was also his own invention, tethered it to the ground with piano wire and managed to fly the short five metres that changed aviation history.
(Binding a notepad image by Lisa Clarke, CC 2.0) 1902: notepad
You know those ideas that seem small but, when you think about it, had enormous repercussions? JA Birchall of Tasmanian stationery company Birchall, was the first person to take loose sheets of paper, cut them in half, back them with cardboard and glue the top edge. He sold them as the Silvercity Writing Tablets, and the idea went on to give rise to none other than the humble paperback book binding, thus enabling the booming new genre of pulp novels.
(Credit: National Film and Sound Archive, public domain) 1906: feature film
The first ever full feature-length film was made by Australians, and shot and shown in Australia.
The Story of the Kelly Gang was written and directed by Charles Tait, and co-starred his wife, children and brothers. It ran to just over 60 minutes and cost only £1000 to make. It was deemed a commercial success, bringing in around £25,000 to its four producers.
(George Caddy Surf Lifesavers image by George Caddy, public domain) 1906: surf life-saving reel; 1912: surf ski; and 1927: Speedos
Australia has a beach culture like no other country, so it's unsurprising that many of our innovations revolve around it. On 23 December 1906, surfer Lester Ormsby demonstrated the reel to which a rescuer could be harnessed in order to battle dangerous surf more safely.
In 1912, Jack and Harry McLaren invented the surf ski, a kind of lightweight, one-man kayak for quick and efficient surf navigation.
In 1927, Australian underwear manufacturer Speedo introduced its first line of racing swimwear — declared somewhat racy at the time, but positively tame compared to the budgie smugglers that would come later.
One of the first people rescued using the surf life-saving reel was a nine-year-old boy on 2 January 1907. Later on, he himself would become one of the leading pioneers in the field of aviation. His name was Charles Kingsford-Smith.
(Westfront, zerstörter britischer Tank image by Deutsches Bundesarchiv, CC 3.0) 1911: tank
In 1911, Adelaide-born Lancelot Eldin de Mole was struck with the idea for an armoured vehicle that ran on treads. He sent sketches and descriptions of his design to the British War Office, only to be informed in June 1913 that his idea had been rejected. When in 1916 an inferior (in de Mole's opinion) tank was introduced, the engineer realised that he had been passed over. A British royal commission later said that de Mole's design "had made and reduced to practical shape, as far back as the year 1912, a brilliant invention which anticipated, and in some respects surpassed, that actually put into use in the year 1916", but he was never formally acknowledged as the tank's inventor.
(Backyard view on the Thompson Estate, Greenslopes, ca. 1952 image by John Oxley Library, public domain) 1911: rotary clothes hoist; and 1948: Hills Hoist
Everyone thinks of the Hills Hoist when they think of the Australian rotary clothes hoist, but the first rotary hoist was actually patented by Melbourne resident Gilbert Toyne in 1911; he was to patent three more designs by 1926. It was his all-metal clothes hoist with an enclosed wheel-and-pinion winding mechanism that formed the basis for other designs — including that of Lance Hill, who patented the exact same design in 1948, after Toyne's patent had expired.
(First pacemaker image by Professor Marko Turina, CC BY 3.0) 1928: pacemaker
Aberdeen doctor JA McWilliam was the first to note that electricity could be used to stimulate the human heart in the 1880s; but the first doctors to create an apparatus for doing so were Dr Mark C Lidwell of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital of Sydney, and physicist Edgar H Booth of the University of Sydney. In 1926, they devised a portable apparatus that plugged into an electrical outlet. On one pole was a pad soaked in saltwater to be applied to the patient's skin; the other was a long needle that was to be plunged into the patient's heart. Its first recorded success was at the Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney, where it was used to revive a stillborn infant in 1928.
An American doctor by the name of Albert Hyman was formally credited as the device's first inventor; however, his device didn't arrive on the scene until 1932. The oversight is usually accredited to the fact that Hyman named the pacemaker — and that he referred to the Australian inventor as Gould rather than his actual name, Lidwell.
(1934 Ford Coupe Utility image by GTHO, public domain) 1934: Ford Coupe Utility (ute)
Hitting the market in 1934, the Ford Coupe Utility was born of a letter, so the legend goes, written in 1932 to the company by a farmer's wife who had had enough of travelling to church in a farm truck. "Why don't you build people like us a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday, and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays?" she enquired. The project was handed to Ford Australia's design department: 22-year old Ford Geelong engineer Lewis Bandt who, following an idea by plant superintendant Slim Westman, started sketching a vehicle consisting of half a car up front and a flatbed tray in the back. Bandt went on to remain with Ford until his retirement in 1976.
(Penicillium notatum image by Crulina 98, CC BY-SA 3.0) 1939: the medical application of penicillin
We debated whether or not to include this one since many scientists have worked on developing the medical application of penicillin. But a team of scientists at the University of Oxford in the UK were absolutely instrumental; and they were led by one Howard Florey, an Australian scientist living and working in the UK — and whose face appeared on our old paper $50 note.
Penicillin, as you may already know, was discovered by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928. It wasn't applied medically until 1930, when Cecil George Paine attempted to use it to cure Sycosis vulgaris; he failed, but later that year went on to successfully cure four patients of conjunctivitis. It was Florey and his team, though, who effectively demonstrated that the antibiotic was effective at killing bacteria within a living creature. Their human tests failed because they hadn't used enough, but it worked quite nicely on mice. Three years later, penicillin was used to cure a dying patient in the US.
(Weezie's Pie image by Richard Giles, CC 2.0) 1943: Splayd
At first glance, there appears to be little difference between a Splayd and a spork. Look a little closer, and you'll see that the Splayd's sides have been straightened, making a better edge for cutting soft foods. Legend has it that inventor William McArthur was inspired to create a single, easy-to-use eating utensil after seeing a photograph of ladies at a party awkwardly trying to juggle their meals and cutlery. All right, so it's no atomic absorption spectrophotometer, but it does cut down on dishes.
(Continuous radiation source image by Analytik Jena AG, public domain) 1952: atomic absorption spectrophotometer
Sir Alan Walsh and his team at the CSIRO Division of Chemical Physics were responsible for the creation of the atomic absorption spectrophotometer in the 1950s. It analyses samples by examining how they absorb light when in gas form to determine how much metal is present in said sample. It is generally used to test the metal levels in water and soil samples.
(Black box flight recorder image by edvvc, CC 2.0) 1958: black box flight recorder
Everyone knows about black box flight recorders, an audio recorder in a super-strong casing that records the conversation of the pilots in a plane's cockpit. If the plane comes down, salvage teams can listen to the recording to find out what went awry, and apply prevention measures if possible. It was invented by chemist Dave Warren, who one day thought to himself, "What if the pilots could tell us themselves?" His device is now installed in every commercial plane in the world. Oh, and is actually orange. Not black.
(Refraction through glasses image by Hackfish, CC 2.5) 1960: plastic spectacle lenses
In the 1950s, an Adelaide company began experimenting with thermosetting plastic resin, which could set into an accurate shape, and also how to cure it to make it scratch proof. The resulting lenses were safer, 60 per cent lighter and less expensive to produce than glass lenses.
(echo image by Tom & Katrien, CC 2.0) 1961: ultrasound
The first ultrasound scanner was built in 1961 at the ultrasonics institute of the Department of Health by George Kossof and David Robinson. The ultrasound scanner uses sounds beyond the range of human hearing to take an image using echolocation; that is, the way in which the sound bounces off an object to reveal that object's shape and location. It has become an indispensible medical tool.
(Sawmill Creek: Dry Red White Wine image by Michelle Tribe, CC BY 2.0) 1965: boxed wine
Boxed wine, although it is seen as pretty cheap and nasty, was pretty innovative back in the 1960s. It was invented by a South Australian winemaker by the name of Thomas Angove, who ran a family winery; the design was patented in 1965. It consisted of a polyethylene bag that was packaged in a corrugated box; carousers had to snip of a corner of the bag, sealing it back up with a special peg when they were done drinking. Two years later, Penfold Wines came up with the tap, and decades of really bad wine-headache history were made.
Next time you tap a cask of goon, raise a glass for ol' Angove.
(Kooperative kleinräumige Nischenvielfalt image by EwigLernender, CC 3.0) 1970s: permaculture
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, later to become known as the fathers of permaculture, rigorously worked to develop a sustainable method of farming. Modelled on the relationships and patterns found in natural ecologies, the purpose of permaculture is a sustainable and harmonious use of land and resources, putting back what you take out. The end result is a higher level of self sustainability within communities, lessening the reliance on industrialisation.
(Credit: Selby) 1972: power board
With the rise of home electronics — refrigerators, television sets, kitchen appliances, power tools — the need for power ports increased exponentially. In today's homes, they've become indispensible. They were invented back in 1972 by Frank Bannigan, who was then the managing director of Kambrook (some give the credit to electrical engineer Peter Talbot, who worked under Bannigan). Unfortunately for Bannigan (and/or Talbot), Kambrook was less interested in securing a patent for the design than rushing the product to market.
(Fairlight green screen image by starpause kid, CC 2.0) 1979: digital sampler
Yes, folks. If you are one of those people who hate electronic music, you have only Australia to blame. Actually, technically, you have Fairlight's Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, who created the first-ever synthesiser, the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument digital sampler. These babies retailed for £18,000 a pop, which practically guaranteed that it was going to show up on musical stages all around the world. Among the first buyers were Peter Gabriel, Iva Davies and Kate Bush.
(Cochlear implant image by National Institutes of Health, public domain) 1978: bionic ear
Otherwise known as the hearing aid, the bionic ear or cochlear implant is a small device fitted into the ear to amplify sound for the hard of hearing. Development began under Professor Graeme Clark at the University of Melbourne in 1970, and the first patient was fitted in 1978. The hearing aid uses an external microphone, speech processor and transmitter, which transmits the sound to a receiver inside the ear. This receiver then converts the signals into electricity, and sends them to electrodes attached to the cochlea to be sent to the brain through the auditory nerve system.
(Credit: Caroma) 1980: dual flush toilet
A lot of water gets used in an average household; and it turned out that a lot of water was being wasted by that most basic piece of plumbing — the humble loo. In 1980, Bruce Thompson of Caroma came up with a system that did away with that one-water-volume-fits-all-flushing-needs approach. It is claimed that the dual flush toilet can save up to 67 per cent of a household's toilet water usage, or 32,000 litres per year.
(LucasSleeping image by Maria A Rodriguez, CC 3.0) 1984: baby safety capsule
New laws in the 1970s made seatbelts compulsory in Australia, but while this protected adults to an extent, infants were still at a high risk. The makers of the Safe-n-Sound Child restraint, Rainsfords, came up with the Baby Safety Capsule, in which a baby can be safely cradled in a secure bassinette. A bubble of air between the bassinette and its base creates a cushion of air, and a release mechanism allows the bassinette to rotate in the event of a crash.
(Credit: Avita Medical) 1990s: spray-on skin
Plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood was frustrated at treating burns victims; the faster they can be treated, the less chance of scarring — but sheets of skin tissue take 14-21 days to grow. Wood also noticed that skin sheets with holes healed faster than the sheets that had more fully meshed, and so she conceived the idea of a skin spray. Made from the patient's own skin cells, the spray was used to impressive effect after the Bali bombings, but clinical trials are ongoing.
(Zone Wi-Fi dans le parc de Bercy à Paris image by Roman Bonnefoy, CC 3.0) 1992: Wi-Fi
It's hotly contested where Wi-Fi got its beginnings, but one thing is certain: Australia's CSIRO holds the patent, and in the last couple of years has won court cases over the dispute. Researcher John O'Sullivan, recipient of the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2009, actually claims to have come up with the basis for Wi-Fi in 1977 — while searching for exploding black holes. O'Sullivan's technology cleans up radio waves, and is included in the patents for 802.11a, 802.11g and 802.11n.
(Swine flu image by C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC, public domain) 1996: anti-flu medication
Relenza, an inhalant flu medication, is made using Zanamivir, a drug discovered and developed by a team of scientists led by Mark von Itzstein at the Victorian College of Pharmacy, Monash University. Zanamivir works by blocking the flu virus inside its host cell, so that it is unable to escape and infect other cells.
(Broken glass image by Jef Poskanzer, CC 2.0) 2004: Stop Shot blast glass
Stop Shot, by Sydney inventor Peter Stephinson, is different from the ballistic-resistant glass that came before; it's not just one sheet of very thick glass. Stephinson, who worked in window tinting, noticed that tinted glass was harder to break, and devised a strengthening polymer to lay over glass. This polymer, according to Stephinson, significantly raises the tensile strength of glass. Additionally, two sheets of the polymer-treated glass are placed in a frame, leaving a pocket of air between the layers for shockwave absorption. The result is a window that can withstand bullets and the blast of a five-tonne bomb without falling out of the frame. Stephinson's customers include most of Australia's banks, the NSW police, the Australian Defence Force, Qantas and various government departments.
(Google Maps localisation image by 16@r, CC 3.0; Google) 2003: Google Maps
Google Maps actually began as a C++ program designed at Sydney-based Where 2 Technologies. The project was the brainchild of two brothers, Lars and Jens Rasmussen, who originally intended the product as a downloadable app. However, when the company needed venture capital, they pitched the program to Google as a web-based application. Google bought Where 2 Technologies in 2004, and Google Maps was announced in 2005.
(Gardasil vaccine and box image by Jan Christian, CC 2.0) 2006: cervical cancer vaccine
The development of the HPV16 vaccine, Gardasil, which aims to ultimately prevent cervical cancer in women by targeting the associated human papilloma virus, is hotly contested. One thing is for certain, though, and that is that several different groups were absolutely instrumental in Gardasil's creation. Professor Ian Frazer and his colleague, the late Dr Jian Zhou, started their work on the vaccine at the University of Queensland in 1991. While other research facilities also made contributions and contested the patent, Professor Frazer was awarded global rights to the fundamental science in 2007.
We do have a rich history of invention in Australia; undoubtedly there is something vital that we've missed. Lay it on us: which Aussie invention do you think has had the most impact on the wider world?