The telegraph, refrigeration, even the humble ute – all prove that at least a page in the history of invention has to be reserved for some ingenious Australian creations.
Some inventors of devices as varied as the winged keel (Ben Lexcen) to Gardisil (Dr.Ian Fraser’s cervical cancer vaccine) received acclaim for their work. Others — such as David Warren, who invented a prototype black box flight recorder in 1954 — were little known, received little-to-no financial reward and faded to obscurity. Lawrence Hargrave, whose experiments with box kites in the 1890s pioneered the Wright Brother’s success, is considered insignificant. Herbert Lysaught, who conceived the idea of galvanised iron, is a blip in the history books. However, the “Eureka” moments of some wacky inventors have been immortalised in quintessentially Australian products, such as Lewis Bandt’s 1932 “utility” truck, designed to “carry the family to church on Sunday and pigs to market on Monday”.
Who Invented Refrigeration?
Editor of the Geelong Advertiser James Harrison discovered the concept of refrigeration when he found the ether used to clean printing presses turned metal cold when it evaporated. Together with Frenchman Eugene Nicolle he set about investigating whether the phenomenon could be used to produce ice. In 1856, he patented the design for the world’s first refrigerator and a year later opened the first refrigeration plant on the Barwon River and began creating three tonnes of ice daily. He later went broke as people were content to keep using ice boxes stocked with ice imported from the US in the cargo hold of ships.
Edward Davy, the local doctor in Malmsbury, Victoria, was thought to be telling tales when he swore he had invented the telegraph in the 1850s. The honour for its invention was already universally thought to go to two British scientists, Cooke and Wheatstone. However, in 1883, it came to light that Edward Davy had indeed patented the electrical relay system in 1838. A series of unfortunate events had seen him move to Australia just as two English railway companies were set to adopt his invention. Davy left the patent in charge of his father, who sold it to Cooke and Wheatstone in 1847 for just £600. The Society of Telegraph Engineers later added Davy’s name to Cooke and Wheatstone’s, giving him some credit.
A Top-secret Torpedo
Twenty-two-year-old Melburnian Louis Brennan invented the self-propelled Brennan Torpedo in his parent’s backyard in 1874. The Victorian Ministry of Defence, recognising the power of the weapon, part funded the cost of a production model and the torpedo design was later accepted by the British Government, which paid the young man a whopping £110,000. Curiously, the Victorian Government was later denied a request to purchase one of the Brennan Torpedoes by the British Government, who claimed it was too top secret! Brennan went on to lay the foundations for the invention of the monorail and to create a prototype helicopter for the British Royal Air Force.
Great Science Breakthroughs
In 1915, father and son team Sir William Henry Bragg and Sir William Lawrence Bragg won the Nobel Prize for physics for developing X-ray crystallography, which changed how scientists studied molecular structures. William Lawrence, at 25, was the world’s youngest laureate. Everyone knows that Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillium notatum in 1928, but few realise that the true genius behind turning it into the antibiotics we take for granted belongs to 1945 Nobel Prize-winner Sir? Howard Florey.
These are just some of the world-changing inventions Australians have come up with in the past 200 years. Imagine what the next 200 years could bring!