Australian inventions and innovations

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Australians have been instrumental in developing various inventions and innovations.

Whether they are inventions which have saved thousands of lives (like the Black Box for civil aircraft) or simply saved thousands, or millions, of hours (such as the combine harvester or the humble Hills Hoist), there are many worthwhile products that have been developed with Australian brain power.

Here is a list of a few Australian inventions:



Bionic ear

Professor Graeme Clark, Foundation Professor of Otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat surgery) at the University of Melbourne, along with his team of scientists, pioneered the bionic ear (a cochlear implant).

The first patient to have the bionic ear implanted was Rod Saunders, who received it in an implant operation 1978.

Subsequently the bionic ear was further developed and refined. Bionic ears are now produced on a large scale, being used all over the world.



Black Box

David Warren, who worked at what is now the Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, invented the Black Box, which records flight data and cockpit audio in a box which can survive a plane crash, thus enabling investigators to determine the cause of plane disasters.

Prior to the invention of the Black Box, investigations included a large amount of guess work; now that investigators can more accurately determine the cause of plane accidents, the invention has saved countless lives.



Combine harvester

Whilst wheat stripping machines were a great boon to farmers, wheat cultivation still necessitated more work, in that the wheat grains had to be separated from the chaff (a process called winnowing), which was a time-consuming operation.

In 1884 Hugh Victor McKay, a farmer, invented a machine from spare parts from a stripper, a reaper, a binder and a winnower, completing it with assistance from George McKay and Nathaniel McKay.

McKay’s machine, a combination of other machines with new ideas, worked by separating the grain stalks with a comb, stripping the heads from the stalks with a five-bladed beater (also threshing the grain from the heads by abrasion), dropping it onto riddles whereupon a rotary fan blew the straw under the machine; the grain then being conveyed to a hopper which would sieve out the chaff and dirt.

McKay went into manufacturing of his machine and became a major figure in the development of Australian agricultural machinery. He went on to develop the popular Sunshine Harvester, which was manufactured at a plant in Braybrooke Junction (north of Melbourne), which was later re-named Sunshine in honour of his machine.



Discovery of the link between Rubella and blindness in babies

Norman McAlister Gregg, a Sydney doctor, uncovered the then-unknown link between congenital cataract problems in adults with their mothers contracting Rubella (German measles) during pregnancy. He confirmed his discovery in 1939 and published his findings in 1941, but his work was disbelieved; it took almost a decade for his work to be recognized.

It is important to note that up until Gregg’s discovery, such problems were regarded as genetic defects in germ plasma; his work opened the eyes of the medical profession to the effects of infections and medically bad influences upon pregnant women to the heath of babies, thus changing medical science around the world.



Discovery of the link between the provision of oxygen and blindness in premature babies

In 1942 a condition was discovered, retrolental fibroplasias, which was causing blindness in newborn babies.

However, in 1951, Kate Campbell, a paediatric specialist in Melbourne, found that the then practice of putting premature babies in humidicribs with pure oxygen was linked to the condition, a link which she was able to confirm after research. The publication of her findings saved thousands of babies from becoming blind.



Full length feature film

In 1906 Australia produced what is arguably the world’s first full-length feature film.

The movie was filmed around the area of Heidelberg (Victoria) and was a dramatized story about the exploits of the Kelly Gang.

There are pedantic arguments over what constitutes a “full-length feature film”, but it is certain that “The Ned Kelly Story” was either the first or one of the first. At the time, most films were of no more than ten minutes duration, whereas the Kelly movie was over an hour long.



The Flying Doctor Service and the pedal radio

Isolated communities and farms in Australia had a huge problem of not being able to readily access medical care.

The creation of a flying medical service was the innovation of John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister from Victoria. As a minister who serviced outlying communities, Flynn became very much aware of the problem of their lack of access to health care and other facilities.

Flynnn recognised usefulness of the suggestions of John Clifford Peel for aeroplane services for isolated areas, but realized that the lack of communication was a major problem, as in there was a lack of a radio that was low-cost, light weight, able to transmit and receive over long distances, as well as easy to install, service and operate.

Flynn sought assistance from Alf Traeger, a radio engineer, who then went on to invent a combined transmitter and receiver, a transceiver, as well as enabling it to be operated by a small generator which was pedal-driven (thus freeing up the hands to operate a radio), thus inventing the first pedal radio

In 1928 the first flying doctor service went into operation, funded in large part by a bequest by the inventor of the combine harvester, Hugh Victor McKay.



Header harvester

Further improvements to wheat harvesting machines were made by Headlie Shipard Taylor.

In 1913 Taylor created an invention which enabled farmers to retrieve grain from tangled and fallen down crops, which could not previously be harvested.

Taylor ended up working with Hugh Victor McKay and developed the Sunshine Header machine.

Taylor later developed a self-propelled header machine, which has been recognized as the basis for modern harvesting techniques.



In vitro fertilisation (IVF)

Australia has been a world leader in IVF procedures.

Australia achieved its first successful pregnancy and birth by use of IVF when Zoe Leyland was born on 10 April 1984 at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne; although the world’s first IVF baby was born in the United Kingdom in 1978.

The world’s first IVF twins were born at the Queen Victoria Medical Centre in Melbourne on 6 June 1981 (Stephen and Amanda Mays). The world’s first IVF triplets were born in Adelaide just two years later, almost to the day, on 8 June 1983. The world’s first IVF quadruplets were born at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne on 6 January 1984.

Medical scientists from Monash University in Melbourne pioneered combing IVF techniques with artificial insemination by donor (AID) procedures, thus enabling couples to have children when both of them are infertile.



Milk Bar

In 1933 two brothers, Clarence Burt and Norman Burt, opened a shop in Martine Place (Sydney) selling ice cream sodas, ice cream sundaes, and milkshakes, including a “fancy” one consisting of chocolate syrup with cherries or nuts.

The idea caught on and more milk bars were opened in Australia. In 1935 a milk bar was opened in London by Hugh D. McIntosh, a newspaper owner and theatrical entrepreneur. The concept of milk bars spread, and many more were opened up all over the world.

In modern times, milk bars in Australia have developed into a type of minor general store, selling not only ice creams and milk drinks, but also confectionary, newspapers, soft drinks, and often a wide (albeit limited) range of other products.



Penicillin as a cure for bacterial infections

In 1928 the British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered a mould, penicillin notatum, which would destroy staphyloccus bacteria; however, Fleming used his penicillin to try to treat surface wounds, but was not successful, although he did discover that it was an inhibiting influence upon certain bacteria.

Howard Florey went to London from Adelaide on a Rhodes scholarship and later worked in bacteriology at Cambridge. In 1938 Florey resurrected Fleming’s work and began an intensive study of penicillin, research that then became even more important due to the advent of the Second World War, with the ensuing hundreds of thousands of infections which presented themselves in war wounds. The work of Florey and his team in Britain (including German-born biochemist Ernst Boris Chain) was successful and they gained American funding and backing for the large-scale production of penicillin.

On top of Florey’s work, Australia achieved the production of an independent supply of penicillin, becoming the first country in the world to make the drug available to both civilians and the military, largely due to the work of veterinarian Percival Bazeley, who had been recalled from active duty (he had been serving as a tank squadron commander) in order to achieve large-scale production of penicillin at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne.

In 1945 Florey, Chain, and Fleming were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work with penicillin.



Pop-top can

The pop-top can was invented in the early 1970s by Mike Debenham.

This invention enabled the elimination of ring-pull cans; which, whilst they had been an improvement on the earlier cans, which required can-openers, had presented their own problems, including the creation of a widespread littering problem, as people would often throw the ring-pulls away after opening cans, as well as creating potential health problems when the ring-pulls unobtrusively fell into cans and were swallowed (also, animals were known to have died by ingesting discarded ring-pulls).

Consumer trials were carried out in 1972; following which, in 1973, the Presto can end was developed, with two press buttons, whereby the small button could be pushed in to release the internal pressure and the larger button could then be pushed in so as to enable pouring of the drink.

Pop-top cans went on to be manufactured all over the world.



Rotary clothes hoist (Hill’s Hoist)

The first rotary hoist clothesline was invented by Gilbert Toyne, of Victoria, who established the Aeroplane Clothes Hoist Company; his clothes hoist was able to be lifted and manually turned.

After the Second World War, Lance Hill developed a rotary hoist with a crown wheel and pinion, enabling the clothesline to be turned by the wind, so that clothes would be more effectively dried. Starting out as a backyard operation, Hill was able to expand his business due to the enormous popularity of his product; his small home business went on to become an international success, exporting Hill’s Hoists all over the world.



Rotary hoe

In 1912 Cliff Howard developed the idea of using a rotary hoe for farm cultivation.

As an apprentice at Moss Vale (New South Wales) Howard, with fellow apprentice Everard McCleary, built a hand-operated machine to test the idea, and then went on to form the Howard Rotovator Company to build rotary hoe cultivating machines. However, they had problems selling the idea, then the advent of World War One interrupted their operations and Howard joined the air force (he was shot down over German lines in 1918).

Upon his return from the war, Howard further developed his ideas and set up a new company in 1922, which went on to become successful in selling rotary hoes across Australia and all over the world.



Sheep shearing machine

During the 1800s sheep farming had become a huge part of the Australian economy, however its output was limited by sheep shearing being carried out by manual sheep-shearing scissors.

In 1868 J.A.B. Higham invented a two-bladed cutter and comb that was powered by steam or compressed air. Whilst Higham’s invention was not put into production, his idea was picked up by several other inventors who began experimentation with similar devices.

In 1884 Frederick York Wolseley and Robert Pickup Park patented their own version of powered shears, which they further improved with ideas from John Howard, an English engineer, with the assistance of George Gray, a blacksmith. Further improvements with the addition of better hand-pieces invented by William Ryley.

Despite strike action by shearers, who feared that the machines would cost jobs, forty of Wolseley’s shearing machines were put into use at Samuel McCaughey’s sheep station at Louth (New South Wales) in 1888. From then on, the usage of powered sheep shearing machines spread throughout Australia, and went on to be used all over the world.



Solar telephone

The world’s first solar telephone was set up in 1974 on a farm at Wilkatana (near Port Augusta) in South Australia. It was created so that people in isolated areas could have telephone access, which they had previously missed out on.

The system was based upon a digital radio concentrator system (DRCS) which consisted of a number of radio repeater towers placed about 50 kilometers apart (depending on terrain). The DRCS had the advantage of requiring very little power, thus allowing it to be run by solar-powered equipment.



Stump jump plough

One of the biggest problems in farming cleared land was that ploughs would often get caught upon tree roots or small tree stumps. As it was too costly to remove these obstacles, this was a major problem.

In 1876 Robert Bowyer Smith invented a plough with three plough heads (shares) which were fixed independently of each other, suspended from a frame by a single bolt, so that when one of the shares hit a root or a stump it would jump up, enabling it to rise up over the obstacle, then just drop back down into position again by means of a weight on a lever.

Smith had served an apprenticeship with a company that manufactured farm implements in Mount Barker (South Australia) which gave him the skills to improve the existing plough equipment, as well as which he was assisted by his brother, who was a blacksmith, in putting together a prototype.

Smith’s invention enabled land that was virtually useless for farming in the past to become profitable, therefore enabling a massive increase in the area of land put to cultivation. As such, it was an enormously important invention in the opening up of Australian land and the ensuing building of the Australian nation.



Wheat stripper

In 1843 a Corn Exchange Committee advertised for a mechanical solution to the labour shortage problems faced by wheat farmers in South Australia (SA was a free colony which did not have convict labour to work on its farms, as other Australian colonies did).

John Wrathall Bull invented a machine which would beat the grain from the wheat (instead of cutting the wheat which would then have to be afterwards manually gathered and then threshed).

At the same time John Ridley invented a similar machine, which had a comb which gathered the wheat heads and then used revolving wooden beaters to beat the wheat heads into a gathering box. The stripper was pushed through the crop by horses harnessed to a pole at the rear of the device, although later strippers were pulled along by horses.

Wheat strippers were used for many years, until they were superseded by combine harvesters.



Wine cask

The wine cask was invented in the late 1960s by a company named Diemoulders, in conjunction with Penfold Wines.

Wine casks store wine in a plastic sack (inside a cardboard box with a pourer) which collapses as the wine is poured out, thus stopping air getting in and spoiling the wine. In this way wine can be stored for a longer period of time than it can be in bottles. This has also enabled the practice of wine casks being manufactured to hold a greater quantity of wine than bottles do.

The usage of wine casks has spread all over the world; they are used not only for wines, but also for fruit juices as well.



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