The mother of invention: Australia’s illustrious — and surprising — history of innovation (2022)

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Here’s a little challenge for you: without consulting Google, name three things invented by Australians.

Any luck?

If the answer’s ‘yes’, there’s a good chance the Hills Hoist clothesline was first on your list. Next, you might have managed the plastic banknote. And if you were really paying attention in school, the Bionic Ear might have had a look-in, too. But can you think of any other significant Australian inventions after those?

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Ask anyone what Australia is famous for, and they’ll most likely reference surf and spiders over invention and innovation. Australia is a nation of easy going brawny types who might lag a little academically, but who shine bright in realms where physicality rules, like sport, farming, and mining — or at least, that’s how the story goes.

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Of course, the truth is much more complicated, and interesting. Like all clichés, Australia’s reputation as a place of sun, sport and intellectual stagnation does a huge disservice to the actual state of things. In reality, Australia punches well above its weight in research and development. (For those in need of a slightly more detailed outline, in Australia the gross domestic product spending on R&D is comprised of all the research carried out by resident companies, research institutes, universities, government bodies, and other official research facilities. It includes R&D funded from abroad, too, but not domestic funds invested outside of the domestic economy.) According to Innovation and Science Australia chair Bill Ferris, Australia spends just *over 2% of its GDP on R&D — a percentage that has barely increased over the last twenty years, where countries like South Korea have more than doubled that figure in the same amount of time. And yet, year after year, we still manage to make major contributions to fields like medicine, industry, and technology.

So why do our companies and products still struggle to ‘make it’ in the global market?

Perhaps those stories about our cultural strengths and weaknesses don’t just affect the way we are perceived, but the way we actually perform. Monash University researcher Conor Wynn, whose recent work on behavioural change indicates that the old cliché of Australians being more inclined towards physical pursuits with immediate results, and being more modest in our ambitions generally, could actually be playing a role in the way we do business at home and overseas. Jeremy Barker, the Australian head of Ey Parthenon, weighs in by suggesting that Australian naivety about foreign markets could also be a factor.

It seems our reputation as laid-back business people — or “victims of our own success” — means we’re taken less seriously by ferocious international players. Could it all be traced back to the scepticism — even wariness — towards intellectual endeavours that this country so frequently exhibits? It’s a question Alecia Simmonds explored in her 2014 article for Womankind Magazine, and one that seems to have lost none of its heat in the years since. “One of my goals is being a proponent for and supporting others and trying to lead by example to eradicate tall-poppy syndrome,” says Laura Anderson, chair of LaunchVic, in a recent interview with Smart Company. As a businesswoman deeply immersed in Australian cultural life, the US native has seen the effects of our tall-poppy phenomenon first hand, and is keen to see entrepreneurs lead the charge in overcoming it.

Because while Australians have developed this reputation — and market performance — which appears to reinforce that we are ‘more in the body than the mind’, a simple search online reveals the significant records of achievement Australian entrepreneurs have made across all kinds of sectors. This is a country that has a rich history of innovation in fields outside of ones usually associated with us — in the words of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Australia is strongest when “the appreciation of intellectual values can flourish”.

To celebrate Australia’s undeservedly lesser-known creations, we’ve highlighted the five that surprised us most, followed by a longer list that proves this island nation is a true mother of invention — infinitely worthy of greater financial investment, bolder business strategies, and a deeper, more active self-belief.

1. Wi-Fi

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That’s right. You’re reading this now because a group of Aussies developed fast Fourier transforms (FFT), the core channelisation technology for Wi-Fi, or Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN), at the CSIRO in 1996. Put slightly more simply, FFT is an algorithm that samples a signal over a period of time, and then divides that signal into smaller frequency components. Still confused? There’s an even simpler explanation of the FFT on Better Explained that uses this nice smoothie recipe analogy to break the concept down. The team of Australians who first developed FFT included John O’Sullivan, Graham Daniels, Diethelm Ostry, Terence Percival and John Deane, and while there are still ongoing legal battles around unpaid royalties, the CSIRO has earned more than $420 million for holding the WLAN patent.

2. Spray-on skin

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Developed in Perth by Professor Fiona Wood in collaboration with scientist Marie Stoner in 1993, so-called ‘Spray-on skin’ is a ground breaking treatment that applies cell clusters to the body via aerosol, coating an exposed area in skin stem cells and melanocytes (melanin producing cells) that then divide and expand. It’s a process that’s not only quicker than other methods of skin grafting, but more efficient and much less invasive. Since its inception, the product has been used in thousands of burns victim cases, including its instrumental role in rehabilitating survivors of the 2002 Bali bombing.

3. The ‘Black Box’ flight recorder

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After the 1954 crash of the Comet, the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft, Australian Aeronautical Research Laboratory (ARL) scientist Dave Warren had a brainwave — crash investigations would be immeasurably easier if there was a recording device on board every plane.

With a great deal of research and even more perseverance, Warren overcame myriad funding, institutional and attitudinal obstacles to create, test and launch the world’s first Flight Recorder — a device comprised of a flight data recorder (FDR), which records things like airspeed, altitude, vertical acceleration and fuel flow, and a cockpit voice recorder (CVR). Today, it is impossible to calculate just how many lives this Australian invention has saved worldwide.

4. The Ultrasound

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Built and trialled in 1961, the first ultrasound scanner (originally called the CAL echoscope) was invented by Sydney-based scientists David Robinson and George Kossoff. The ultrasound works by sending soundwaves into the body and receiving its own echoes back again, thus generating an image of everything that is concealed. Other similar technologies existed at the time, but the images captured by Robinson and Kossoff’s iteration were superior by far.

5. Fabric softener

Saving lives and changing the face of global communication forever are pretty big achievements on the Australian invention list. But where would we be without plush blankets and comfy clothes? The brainchild of Tom Pressly, another CSIRO scientist, fabric softener was invented in the 1950s when a paper published by a medical journal claimed that the wool blankets in hospitals were a breeding ground for bacteria. The paper sent the board of the Royal Melbourne Hospital into a spin, and pressure mounted for them to switch their woollen bedding for cotton — a move that would not only have cost the hospital dearly (cotton deteriorates much faster than wool), but that would also have been devastating for the Australian wool industry. Tests were done and, unsurprisingly, the bacteria at the centre of the tumult couldn’t withstand being washed in higher temperatures. The only remaining issue was that boiling the wool made it very scratchy and uncomfortable. So the Royal Melbourne Hospital turned to the CSIRO for help and Tom Pressly set to work. 60-odd years and countless fluffy towels later, humanity is still thanking Mr. Pressly for making the world a comfier place.

A (longer) short-list of other Australian inventions

Stainless steel tooth braces

Bifocal contact lenses

The Brennan torpedo

Electronic pacemaker

Electric drill

Mechanical clippers

Google Maps (two Australians and two Danes)

Pre-paid post

Plastic spectacle lenses

Permanent-crease clothing

Gardasil and Cervarix

The Triton workcentre

The Racecam

The world’s earliest television

The Fairlight CMI

‘Eddie’ digital effects software

Flame ionization detector

Atomic absorption spectroscopy

The Harrington Seed Destructor

Solar shrink mulch film

And that really is just a taster of the hundreds, if not thousands, of hugely important Australian inventions. The evidence that we are just as capable of world-shaking brilliance as anyone from anywhere is overwhelming — but so are the internal and external attitudes stacked against us.

So how do we break the cycle of self sabotage?

If we’re ever going to get on track for turning successes like those in our list into serious economic and cultural boons, we must illuminate the paths that gifted, persistent Australians have forged before us. In honouring our past achievements — through raising awareness about our rich knowledge economy, investing more money into R&D, developing greater tax incentives for investors and engaging in more sophisticated relationships with foreign markets — we can shift the negative attitudes that so often impede Australian engineers, designers and makers, forcing them to struggle unaided, seek better support offshore, or give up their work completely. It’ll take foresight, fortitude and a great deal of political will to shake off so much cultural conditioning and make the first moves forward. But if we can access that boldness inside ourselves — the spark that has already fuelled so many great Australians — we can usher in a new age of intellectual, artistic and technological productivity, to the benefit of all.

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Article authored by Genevieve Callaghan from research conducted by Ying Zhang, for FAB9.

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