Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations include the very old, such as woomera, and the very new, such as the scramjet. Australians have been leaders in inventions relating to both maritime and aeronautical matters, including powered flight, the black box flight recorder, the inflatable escape slide, the surf ski and the winged keel. Since the earliest days of European settlement, Australia’s main industries have been agriculture and mining and inventions in these areas have been wide and varied.
Many of Australia’s inventions were realised by individuals who get little credit or who are often overlooked for more famous Americans or Europeans.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is a government funded institution from where a number of the inventions listed here stem from.
- Boomerang a throwing stick used for many purposes whose design allows it to return to the (skilled) thrower.
- Woomera a spear throwing holder that acts as an extension of the arm thus allowing greater power and range for the spear. “Woomera” was adopted as an appropriate name for the rocket launching range and associated settlement in outback South Australia.
- Didgeridoo a musical instrument whose sound is immediately recognisable. It first appeared 2,000 or more years ago and at the time of European arrival was used in the north western corner of Australia.
- The stump-jump plough developed by Robert and Clarence Bowyer Smith in 1876. Its design allowed it to jump over stumps and other obstructions without breaking the ploughshare.
- The Box Kite (or cellular kite) invented by William Hargrave in the early 1890s during his investigation into the lifting properties of curved surfaces. Hargrave’s work was to form the basis of much manned flight that followed. Hargraves himself flew 16 feet on 12 November 1894 by linking a group of such kites together and adding a seat.
- The Sarich Engine an orbital combustion engine invented by Perth engineer Ralph Sarich in 1972.
- Hills Hoist the rotary washing line with hoist quickly became and remains a fixture in Australian back yards. The original rotary clothes hoist had been designed by Gilbert Toyne in Geelong in 1912, but Lance Hill of Adelaide further developed the design from 1945 onwards and marketed it under the name of the Hills Hoist. He later added and patented the winding mechanism in 1956. (Further reading https://www.tasstudent.com/thehillshoist)
- Polymer Bank Notes the Australian-invented technology used in producing polymer bank notes is now licensed in many countries.
- Blast Glass (also known as Stop Shot) A ballistic and blast resistant glass system. Unlike conventional bullet proof glass it incorporates an air cavity to help absorb the shock wave of explosions. It almost certainly saved many lives in the terrorist bombing of the Australian Embassy in Djakarta in 2004. Invented by Peter Stephinson.
- The Australian Ballot (Secret Ballot) the system of casting one’s political (or other) vote in a manner that is private and confidential. Until the mid 19th century, voting for public office was publicly displayed which left the voter open to intimidation. Within a short time of each other in 1856, both the colonies of South Australia and Victoria created a secret ballot system which became known around the world as the Australian Ballot. These Australian colonies were followed at considerable distance by New Zealand in 1870, the UK in 1872, Canada in 1874 and eventually the first presidential election in USA to use Australian Ballot was in 1892. Today the right to a secret ballot as a protection against coercion and intimidation is accepted by all but a few organisations. Also closely related to secret ballot is compulsory voting so that individuals cannot be intimidated into not voting – for instance cultural groups who may wish to deny women the vote by intimidating them to stay away from the voting booths. Australia has been a pioneer in both these areas of secret ballot and compulsory attendance for voting.)
- The Combine Harvester which both stripped and collected the grain was developed by Hugh Victor McKay of Drummartin, Victoria in 1882. It advanced the earlier stripper which had been developed by John Ridley and John Bull of South Australia.
- Granny Smith Apple and many other superior varieties of produce.
- Permaculture an integrated system of sustainable environmental use adaptable to a large number of environments to provide shelter, food and human habitat developed by Dr Bill Mollison from the 1970s onwards.
Automotive and transportation
- Wave Piercing Catamaran designed by Sydney naval architect Phillip Hercus. His design went on to form the basis for the ocean going catamarans produced by Incat in Tasmania.
- The ‘Diff’ (differential gears) David Shearer designed a differential gear which he incorporated into the steam car he built in South Australia in 1897.
- The ‘Ute’ A vehicle with the cabin of a car and the rear of a small truck was designed by Lewis Brandt at the Ford Motor Company in Geelong, Victoria.1934 and called a ‘Utility Vehicle’. The ‘ute’ has long been a favourite vehicle for farmers and tradesmen and is part of the Australian landscape.
- Black Box Flight Recorder this famous device was invented in 1958 by Dr David Warren at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne.
- Variable Ratio Rack & Pinion Steering
invented by the engineer Arthur Bishop in 1970. This was quickly adopted by vehicle manufacturers throughout the world.
Domestic and consumer products
- The Electric Drill was patented by Melbourne inventor Arthur James in 1889.
- Kiwi Shoe Polish developed by Melbourne businessman William Ramsay, this soon became the most successful shoe polish in the world. He chose the word ‘Kiwi’ because of his New Zealand wife.
- The Two Stroke Lawn Mower developed in Australia in 1930. Both the two stroke mower and the Hills Hoist featured in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.
- Latex Gloves developed in Australia in 1945.
- The notepad was created In 1902 by J.A.Birchall of Launceston when he had the idea of gluing individual sheets of paper together into a conveniently usable form
- Telephane This invention which used telegraph lines to transmit visual information was an important precursor to television. It was invented by Henry Sutton in 1885.
- The Record Changer The centre spindle designed by Tasmanian Eric Waterworth in 1925 for the ‘Salonola’ record player was soon adopted for use in record changers throughout the world.
- Shepherd’s Castors the dome shaped castors invented by George Shepherd in 1946 soon became the world standard.
Finance, commerce & business
- Pre-paid Postage the first system of pre-paid postage was instituted in New South Wales in 1838
- Xerox Photocopying the technology behind xerography was developed at The University of Sydney by Professor Vonwiller in 1907.
Food and drink
- Refrigeration The first mechanical refrigeration plant was built in Melbourne by James Harrison in the 1850s.
- Vegemite this peculiarly Australian foodstuff created for waste brewers yeast was invented by Dr Cyril Callister and launched by the food entrepreneur, Fred Walker in 1923. See also Who Invented Vegemite?
- Wine Cask The flexible bag inside a box was first developed by Thomas Angove of South Australia in 1965 and later given the now familiar tap and brought to market by Sam Wynn of Wynnvale Wines. This design has now become almost universal.
Social Innovations and ‘firsts’
- Electronic Pacemaker
- Penicillin The life saving application of penicillin was developed by Howard Florey Penicillin has saved millions of lives world wide. Many firsts associated with in vitro fertilisation, including the birth of the first frozen embryo baby at the Queen Victoria Medical Centre in Melbourne1984.
- The Bionic Ear the cochlear implant was invented by a team led by Professor Graeme Clark at The University of Melbourne in 1978. (see more information at Who Was the Inventor?)
- Aspro Aspro was invented by the chemist George Nicholas as a form of Asprin in a tablet. The product was developed in Melbourne between 1915 and 1917, and George’s brother Alfred Nicholas together with Henry Woolf Shmith were key to its manufacturing and marketing success By 1940 it had become the world’s most widely used headache treatment. (see more information at Who Was the Inventor?)
- Spray-on-skin for burns victims developed by Dr Fiona Wood and used to great effect after the 2002 Bali terrorist bombings.
- Calyx Drill developed by by Francis Davis around 1893, this drill was used for drilling large holes in rock and was adopted in many countries around the world because it reduced waste and was highly economical.
- Flotation Process the froth flotation process used in the separation of minerals from rocks was developed during 1901-1903 by Charles Potter and Guillaume Delprat of New South Wales.
- Thrust Bearing the tilt-pad thrust bearing was invented by Anthony Mitchell in 1905. It is regarded as probably the single most important invention in the world of thrust technology. Thrust bearings are designed to manage thrust (axial) loads and provide high-shock-load resistance in a variety of applications.
Arts and entertainment
- The multi-media entertainment Soldiers of the Cross produced by the Limelight Studio of the Salvation Army Melbourne is regarded as the forerunner of the feature film, and The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in 1906 is regarded as the first feature length film ever made. It ran for more than an hour.
- The Free Music Machine – an electronic music machine invented by Percy Grainger that was the forerunner of modern synthesizers.
- The Fairlight CMI (computer music instrument) revolutionised electronic music by the way it manipulated sampled sounds. It remains the basis of most electronically produced music today. It was designed by Peter Vogel & Kim Ryrie in 1979.
- Australian Rules Football
Invented in the 1850s (with roots in other games including local Aboriginal ones). In White Hat’s opinion the greatest team game in the world. In 1858-9 Tom Wills and others codified the rules By the time other football styles such as soccer and rugby were codified in their modern form, Australian Rules Football was well established and attracting large crowds to the weekly competition.
- The ‘Australian Crawl’
The style of ‘overarm’ or ‘freestyle’ swimming stroke now familiar in competition swimming. It evolved out of the ‘trudgen’ stroke adopted by certain swimmers in Sydney in the early 1900s. The new stroke was soon known worldwide as ‘the Australian Crawl’ and its most famous exponent (and quite possibly the inventor of its characteristic version) was Fanny Durack. The year 1912 saw one of the greatest ever sporting achievements by an Australian. Fanny, using an Australian Crawl was not only the first woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, in the process she cut four seconds of the men’s world record.
- The ‘Tote’
(Automatic totalisator) – was invented in 1913 by George Julius.
- Race Cam
Race Cam was created in 1979 in Australia by two engineers working for ATN7. Geoff Healey and John Porter fixed a forward facing camera inside Peter Williamson’s car during the 1979 James Hardie 1000. Further reading
- The winged keel
Ben Lexen designed the winged keel for Allen Bonds “Australia 2” yacht challenge for the 1983 Americas cup. Australia 2 was the first challenger to take the Americas cup from the Americans since it’s inception in 1870. Ben had been working on wing adaptions to the under surface of boats for many years. It took Ben Lexen’s experience and Allen Bond financial invested to make this enterprise possible.
A winged keel is a sailboat keel, that uses a nearly horizontal foil, the “wing”, to provide additional performance.
Winged keels are generally found on high performance sailboats, if they are not prohibited by class rules. They are only of benefit for yachts sailing upwind where stability and the ability to produce side force are important. Downwind the extra skin friction drag is a hindrance. Besides the performance benefits, winged keels can also be applied to pleasure boats as a way to reduce draft, allowing for greater versatility when gunkholing.
The winged keel made its first appearance on a 12 metre class yacht in the 1983 America’s Cup Australian challenger Australia II. Along with Australia II’s radical sail design, this keel designed by Ben Lexcen was one of the factors contributing to Australia II’s success. The increased stability afforded by the winged keel, due mainly to the extra lead in the wings producing a very low centre of gravity, allowed Australia II to be as short and light as possible under the 12 meter rules, and still carry enough sail to beat the American entry, helmed by Dennis Conner. The wings were angled downwards at about 20 degrees, which, since they were lifting downwards, acted as adihedral.
Most winged keels also incorporate a significant amount of ballast where the wings join the keel. This feature makes these winged keels also a type of bulb keel.
- The Teleprinter – This famous machine for recording telegraph messages onto a paper tape was invented by Donald Murray of Sydney
- The Pedal Wireless – The two way radio powered by a pedal-operated generator was invented by Alfred Traeger in 1927 and quickly became the central tool of Royal Flying Doctor Service and distance education in the Australian outback.
- Pioneering work in the use of X-ray crystallography by William and Lawrence Bragg in examining crystal structures leading to their winning the Nobel Prize in 1916 for their discoveries
- The Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer – this important scientific analytical instrument was invented by Sir Alan Walsh of the CSIRO in 1952.
- The Mills Cross – a radiotelescope design consisting of two long ground antennas either in the form of a cross or a T shape was adopted world wide. It was invented by B. Y. Mills at the CSIRO in 1953
- Synroc – a synthetic rock designed to ‘safely’ store high level nuclear waste was invented by Ted Ringwood in 1975. As this process is regarded as working best after the nuclear waste has had a ‘cooling down’ period of 25-30 years, this invention is likely to more highly recognised in coming decades.
- Gene Shears – this discovery, central to much biotechnology was made by Wayne Gerlach and Jim Haseloff at the CSIRO in 1986.