Australia is an ideas nation. Despite having a population of only 26 million, we are responsible for some of the world’s best inventions. Without Aussie ingenuity, there would be no black box recorder, no wifi, no baby car seats, no pacemakers.
Aussie innovation has not only changed our lives but the lives of billions of people around the globe. Whether you’re navigating unknown territory with Google Maps, surfing the net at a local café or getting your annual flu jab, an Aussie inventor has allowed you to do so.
Survival of the fittest
Australia’s spirit of innovation began long before the nation was colonised. Indigenous Australians have a rich history of innovation, their inventiveness allowing them to survive for over 40,000 years. From the world’s first weapons to wind instruments to aquaculture, indigenous Aussies were a creative bunch, and you can see elements of this inventiveness in products that remain in use to this day.
Case in point, fish farms owe their heritage to the nation’s indigenous culture, with the world’s earliest recorded stone traps and canal systems found in Lake Condah in Victoria. It’;s here that the Aboriginal community harvested and smoked eels to trade. Similarly, in NSW, there is extensive evidence of terraced farming and reticulated water systems.
Now let’s talk science… Australia’s indigenous people’s understanding of physics is second to none. Lending itself to the creation of the world’s earliest weapons – the boomerang, whose angled shape and thermodynamic lift are renowned the world over. Then there is the woomera – a spear that is said to travel three times farther than a traditional throwing stick.
And while Westerners were dying of infections, their Indigenous counterparts were using bush medicine to cure. Tea Tree disinfected, resins were harvested to treat wounds, and tinctures were made from plants to create pain relief.
Necessity is the mother of invention
When the first English settlers came to Australia, they found themselves ill-equipped for the nation’s harsh conditions. This led to creativity and inventiveness as colonists strived to make the best of it with what little resources they had at hand. Inventor George Lewin told the Australian Geographic that convict settlers made do with whatever they had, given the vast separation from the rest of the world.
“The early settlers were often stuck on a farm in the middle of Woop Woop, and they had to make do because they went to town perhaps one day every three months. So there’s a tradition of improvising.”
This improvisation led to some early wins for Aussie inventors, from combine harvesters to sophisticated ploughing equipment to the world’s first refrigerator.
Innovation and the tyranny of distance
Given the vast expanse of the Australian nation and its distance from the rest of the Western world, it should come as no surprise that Australians are aviation pioneers. From Charles Kingsford Smith’s record-breaking flight around the world to creating the black box recorder, Aussies have landed several world firsts.
The design of the evacuation slide that transforms into an inflatable raft, which is now mandatory in all major aircraft, was made by Qantas staff member Jack Grant in 1965. Similarly, today’s black box flight recorder technology that we take for granted, was invented by Aussie scientist David Warren. Warren’s father had perished in a plane crash in 1934, and his death led to a lifelong passion for the inventor.
Warren came up with the idea of the black box recorder whilst investigating a series of deadly air crashes. as part of a team at Melbourne University. Warren thought having a recording of the final moments before a collision might assist when it came time to try to discover its cause. The black box recorder was born. It’s now installed on every commercial plane in the world. (Fun fact: although it is called a black box, it is, in fact, orange)
Aussie innovation saving lives
Perhaps Australia’s most significant innovation breakthroughs have come in the medical arena. As early as 1926, Aussie innovation was saving lives. At this time, Australian doctor Mark Lidwill and physicist Edgar Booth developed the first artificial pacemaker. Although Lidwill failed to patent his invention, US cardiologist Albert Hymna referenced the Aussie innovator for his electronic device when submitting his patent in the 1930s.
Not long after this, Aussie Howard Florey discovered the antibacterial qualities of penicillin to create antibiotics, thus putting an end to many life-threatening illnesses. Jump forward to the 1970s, and Professor Graeme Clark invented the bionic ear, better known as the cochlear implant. Meanwhile, a chance conversation between plastic surgeon Professor Fiona Wood with a colleague Marie Stoner spawned the birth of a world-first – spray-on plastic skin – which today assists millions of burns patients around the globe.
Another incredible Aussie invention that has taken the world by storm, which all of us use every day, is Wi-Fi.
The technology found in many of the gadgets we use to connect with every day was a spinoff of tech developed by CSIRO systems engineer John O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan was trying to map pulses from exploding black holes, but he soon recognised there could be broader applications for the tech. The discovery saw him gain the Prime Minister’s Prize for science in 2009. So next time you’re out and about catching up on work on your laptop – spare O’Sullivan a thought.
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