It's known for its ability to return to the thrower along a parabolic flight path, but the boomerang was in use by Indigenous Australians for at least 10,000 years as a hunting tool. The curved wooden object is not unique to Australia, but has come to be known as a local icon. The shape and throwing technique combine to give the returning boomerang its unique flight properties. Most boomerangs used by the tribes for hunting, however, were of the non-returning variety, and were used to take down prey from small birds to large kangaroos.
The didjeridu has many names, and has potentially been in use by the Indigenous Australians of the northern part of the continent for tens of thousands of years, but it can only be reliably dated back to around 1,500 years ago. The wind instrument is made of a piece of wood, hollowed out by termites. The wood is carefully shaped. The tongue, cheeks, vocal cords and lungs are all skilfully used to produce a hypnotic and quite beautiful sound. You can listen to Kuku-Yalanji artist Jeremy Donovan playing the didjeridu here.
The postal system used to be a lot more disorganised. Payment had to be rendered by the receiver, rather than the sender, which meant that if you didn't have the money to hand, you didn't get your mail. In 1837, British social reformer Sir Rowland Hill proposed a complete overhaul of the postage system. His ideas were denounced by the Postmaster in the House of Lords, but in November 1838, Australian postmaster James Raymond implemented Rowland's idea, introducing the first pre-paid postage, denoted by embossed with the seal of the New South Wales colony. England introduced the pre-paid, self-adhesive postage stamp 18 months later, in May of 1840.
There's one in nearly every kitchen, at least in the western world, but the ubiquitous fridge was originally conceived in Geelong, Victoria, in the 1850s by James Harrison. His patented ether liquid-vapour compression system, whereby gas was passed through a compressor to be cooled and liquefied, and then circulated through refrigeration coils, is still the most widely used refrigeration system today -- not just in fridges, but air conditioners in homes and offices around the world.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:si elvis hubiera sido refri image by Rodrigo Huerta, CC 2.0
1874: underwater torpedo
Melbourne watchmaker and mechanical engineer Louis Brennan invented the underwater torpedo at just 22 years of age. The torpedo had two propellers, driven by two counter-rotating screws that were, in turn, driven by the unwinding motion of two fine wires. The torpedo was also steered by these wires, which connected back to a steam engine for onshore or shipboard operation.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:FoxTrot image by Agrillo Mario, CC 2.0
1889: electric drill
Melbourne City Council's first electrical engineer, Arthur James Arnot, patented the world's first electric drill in 1889. It wasn't the nifty handyman-sized version shown above, though; Arnot's drill was designed primarily for excavating oil and coal.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Schroefboormachine image by M Minderhoud, CC 3.0
1894: powered flight
After discovering that curved surfaces are more aerodynamic than flat ones, Lawrence Hargrave invented the box kite, the cellular construction of which was more stable than the previous monoplanes. On 12 November 1894, he strapped four box kites together with a compressed air engine, which was also his own invention, tethered it to the ground with piano wire and managed to fly the short five metres that changed aviation history.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Hargrave and Swain demonstrate how the man-lift was achieved image by Charles Bayliss, public domain
You know those ideas that seem small but, when you think about it, had enormous repercussions? JA Birchall of Tasmanian stationery company Birchall, was the first person to take loose sheets of paper, cut them in half, back them with cardboard and glue the top edge. He sold them as the Silvercity Writing Tablets, and the idea went on to give rise to none other than the humble paperback book binding, thus enabling the booming new genre of pulp novels.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Binding a notepad image by Lisa Clarke, CC 2.0
1906: feature film
The first ever full feature-length film was made by Australians, and shot and shown in Australia. The Story of the Kelly Gang was written and directed by Charles Tait, and co-starred his wife, children and brothers. It ran to just over 60 minutes and cost only £1000 to make. It was deemed a commercial success, bringing in around £25,000 to its four producers.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:National Film and Sound Archive, public domain
1906: surf life-saving reel; 1912: surf ski; and 1927: Speedos
Australia has a beach culture like no other country, so it's unsurprising that many of our innovations revolve around it. On 23 December 1906, surfer Lester Ormsby demonstrated the reel to which a rescuer could be harnessed in order to battle dangerous surf more safely.
In 1912, Jack and Harry McLaren invented the surf ski, a kind of lightweight, one-man kayak for quick and efficient surf navigation.
In 1927, Australian underwear manufacturer Speedo introduced its first line of racing swimwear — declared somewhat racy at the time, but positively tame compared to the budgie smugglers that would come later.
One of the first people rescued using the surf life-saving reel was a nine-year-old boy on 2 January 1907. Later on, he himself would become one of the leading pioneers in the field of aviation. His name was Charles Kingsford-Smith.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:George Caddy Surf Lifesavers image by George Caddy, public domain
In 1911, Adelaide-born Lancelot Eldin de Mole was struck with the idea for an armoured vehicle that ran on treads. He sent sketches and descriptions of his design to the British War Office, only to be informed in June 1913 that his idea had been rejected. When in 1916 an inferior (in de Mole's opinion) tank was introduced, the engineer realised that he had been passed over. A British royal commission later said that de Mole's design "had made and reduced to practical shape, as far back as the year 1912, a brilliant invention which anticipated, and in some respects surpassed, that actually put into use in the year 1916", but he was never formally acknowledged as the tank's inventor.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Westfront, zerstörter britischer Tank image by Deutsches Bundesarchiv, CC 3.0
1911: rotary clothes hoist; and 1948: Hills Hoist
Everyone thinks of the Hills Hoist when they think of the Australian rotary clothes hoist, but the first rotary hoist was actually patented by Melbourne resident Gilbert Toyne in 1911; he was to patent three more designs by 1926. It was his all-metal clothes hoist with an enclosed wheel-and-pinion winding mechanism that formed the basis for other designs — including that of Lance Hill, who patented the exact same design in 1948, after Toyne's patent had expired.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Backyard view on the Thompson Estate, Greenslopes, ca. 1952 image by John Oxley Library, public domain
Aberdeen doctor JA McWilliam was the first to note that electricity could be used to stimulate the human heart in the 1880s; but the first doctors to create an apparatus for doing so were Dr Mark C Lidwell of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital of Sydney, and physicist Edgar H Booth of the University of Sydney. In 1926, they devised a portable apparatus that plugged into an electrical outlet. On one pole was a pad soaked in saltwater to be applied to the patient's skin; the other was a long needle that was to be plunged into the patient's heart. Its first recorded success was at the Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney, where it was used to revive a stillborn infant in 1928.
An American doctor by the name of Albert Hyman was formally credited as the device's first inventor; however, his device didn't arrive on the scene until 1932. The oversight is usually accredited to the fact that Hyman named the pacemaker — and that he referred to the Australian inventor as Gould rather than his actual name, Lidwell.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:First pacemaker image by Professor Marko Turina, CC BY 3.0
1934: Ford Coupe Utility (ute)
Hitting the market in 1934, the Ford Coupe Utility was born of a letter, so the legend goes, written in 1932 to the company by a farmer's wife who had had enough of travelling to church in a farm truck. "Why don't you build people like us a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday, and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays?" she enquired. The project was handed to Ford Australia's design department: 22-year old Ford Geelong engineer Lewis Bandt who, following an idea by plant superintendant Slim Westman, started sketching a vehicle consisting of half a car up front and a flatbed tray in the back. Bandt went on to remain with Ford until his retirement in 1976.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:1934 Ford Coupe Utility image by GTHO, public domain
1939: the medical application of penicillin
We debated whether or not to include this one since many scientists have worked on developing the medical application of penicillin. But a team of scientists at the University of Oxford in the UK were absolutely instrumental; and they were led by one Howard Florey, an Australian scientist living and working in the UK — and whose face appeared on our old paper $50 note.
Penicillin, as you may already know, was discovered by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928. It wasn't applied medically until 1930, when Cecil George Paine attempted to use it to cure Sycosis vulgaris; he failed, but later that year went on to successfully cure four patients of conjunctivitis. It was Florey and his team, though, who effectively demonstrated that the antibiotic was effective at killing bacteria within a living creature. Their human tests failed because they hadn't used enough, but it worked quite nicely on mice. Three years later, penicillin was used to cure a dying patient in the US.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Penicillium notatum image by Crulina 98, CC BY-SA 3.0
At first glance, there appears to be little difference between a Splayd and a spork. Look a little closer, and you'll see that the Splayd's sides have been straightened, making a better edge for cutting soft foods. Legend has it that inventor William McArthur was inspired to create a single, easy-to-use eating utensil after seeing a photograph of ladies at a party awkwardly trying to juggle their meals and cutlery. All right, so it's no atomic absorption spectrophotometer, but it does cut down on dishes.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Weezie's Pie image by Richard Giles, CC 2.0
1946: Shepherd castors
Sometimes a really small change can make a huge difference. Melbourne oil executive George Shepherd was the genius behind a small change in the wheels used to move furniture, a change that has in the intervening decades spread around the globe. And like a pearl, it was born of an irritant: According to the story, the wheels on heavy chairs were too small to move them with ease, so he spent five years researching the mechanics of chair wheels and came up with a solution. The angled axle of the Shepherd castor offsets the chair's weight, making them easier to steer about, while a bearing and oil trap kept movement smooth and an enclosed case kept the mechanism dust-free .
Sir Alan Walsh and his team at the CSIRO Division of Chemical Physics were responsible for the creation of the atomic absorption spectrophotometer in the 1950s. It analyses samples by examining how they absorb light when in gas form to determine how much metal is present in said sample. It is generally used to test the metal levels in water and soil samples.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Continuous radiation source image by Analytik Jena AG, public domain
1952: Victa rotary mower
Like many inventions over the years, a few different people almost simultaneously came up with the idea of the rotary mower (as opposed to the cylinder mower), but it's the Aussie-invented Victa-style rotary mower that is the most common household mower today. It was a team effort, sort of. A boat engine builder by the name of Lawrence Hall put together a rotary mower in 1948 to mow his parents' lawn, with the blades mounted onto a plough disc, but it was so heavy it required two-man operation. However, a chap by the name of Mervyn Victor Richardson saw a demonstration of the so-called Mowhall, and in 1951 while trying to design a mower for his son's lawn-mowing business hit upon the idea of using a lightweight Villiers Mark2 Midget engine. His prototype was cheap to build, lightweight, easy for single-person operation, and cut grass beautifully. Within two years, he had sold 20,000 units.
Everyone knows about black box flight recorders, an audio recorder in a super-strong casing that records the conversation of the pilots in a plane's cockpit. If the plane comes down, salvage teams can listen to the recording to find out what went awry, and apply prevention measures if possible. It was invented by chemist Dave Warren, who one day thought to himself, "What if the pilots could tell us themselves?" His device is now installed in every commercial plane in the world. Oh, and is actually orange. Not black.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Black box flight recorder image by edvvc, CC 2.0
1960: plastic spectacle lenses
In the 1950s, an Adelaide company began experimenting with thermosetting plastic resin, which could set into an accurate shape, and also how to cure it to make it scratch proof. The resulting lenses were safer, 60 per cent lighter and less expensive to produce than glass lenses.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Refraction through glasses image by Hackfish, CC 2.5
The first ultrasound scanner was built in 1961 at the ultrasonics institute of the Department of Health by George Kossof and David Robinson. The ultrasound scanner uses sounds beyond the range of human hearing to take an image using echolocation; that is, the way in which the sound bounces off an object to reveal that object's shape and location. It has become an indispensible medical tool.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:echo image by Tom & Katrien, CC 2.0
1965: boxed wine
Boxed wine, although it is seen as pretty cheap and nasty, was pretty innovative back in the 1960s. It was invented by a South Australian winemaker by the name of Thomas Angove, who ran a family winery; the design was patented in 1965. It consisted of a polyethylene bag that was packaged in a corrugated box; carousers had to snip of a corner of the bag, sealing it back up with a special peg when they were done drinking. Two years later, Penfold Wines came up with the tap, and decades of really bad wine-headache history were made.
Next time you tap a cask of goon, raise a glass for ol' Angove.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Sawmill Creek: Dry Red White Wine image by Michelle Tribe, CC BY 2.0
1984: Audio-Tactile Pedestrian Detector
If you live in Australia, the US or Singapore, you may have seen a particular type of pedestrian button at crosswalks. It's an oval unit with a large, concave, magnet based button on the bottom, and a large, tactile arrow at the top that can be felt with the fingers so blind people can tell the direction of the pedestrian crossing. Australia introduced buttons with sound after a blind man named Cecil McIlwraith requested pedestrian signals he could hear in 1967, and the ATPD button was specifically designed in the 1980s. It has audio signals for "walk" and "don't walk" that are very easily distinguished from each other, can detect ambient city noise to make its audio signals louder if required, and it's easy to operate based on touch alone. It sounds simple, but it's about as perfect as a switch can get.
In 1964, after seeing a survey that found 80 percent of Americans didn't know how to sharpen a knife, Melbourne, Australia-based Wiltshire Cutlery design engineer Dennis Jackson decided he needed to design a self-sharpening knife. His solution involved a sheath that has a spring-loaded tungsten carbide sharpening mechanism. After a few years of research, development and testing, the knife was launched in Australia in August 1970, and has since been patented in 37 countries around the globe.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, later to become known as the fathers of permaculture, rigorously worked to develop a sustainable method of farming. Modelled on the relationships and patterns found in natural ecologies, the purpose of permaculture is a sustainable and harmonious use of land and resources, putting back what you take out. The end result is a higher level of self sustainability within communities, lessening the reliance on industrialisation.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Kooperative kleinräumige Nischenvielfalt image by EwigLernender, CC 3.0
1972: power board
With the rise of home electronics — refrigerators, television sets, kitchen appliances, power tools — the need for power ports increased exponentially. In today's homes, they've become indispensible. They were invented back in 1972 by Frank Bannigan, who was then the managing director of Kambrook (some give the credit to electrical engineer Peter Talbot, who worked under Bannigan). Unfortunately for Bannigan (and/or Talbot), Kambrook was less interested in securing a patent for the design than rushing the product to market.
Otherwise known as the hearing aid, the bionic ear or cochlear implant is a small device fitted into the ear to amplify sound for the hard of hearing. Development began under Professor Graeme Clark at the University of Melbourne in 1970, and the first patient was fitted in 1978. The hearing aid uses an external microphone, speech processor and transmitter, which transmits the sound to a receiver inside the ear. This receiver then converts the signals into electricity, and sends them to electrodes attached to the cochlea to be sent to the brain through the auditory nerve system.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Cochlear implant image by National Institutes of Health, public domain
1979: digital sampler
Yes, folks. If you are one of those people who hate electronic music, you have only Australia to blame. Actually, technically, you have Fairlight's Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, who created the first-ever synthesiser, the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument digital sampler. These babies retailed for £18,000 a pop, which practically guaranteed that it was going to show up on musical stages all around the world. Among the first buyers were Peter Gabriel, Iva Davies and Kate Bush.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Fairlight green screen image by starpause kid, CC 2.0
These days, a live inside-car view (and driver's-eye view) of motor races is seen as standard, but it wasn't always so. It was pioneered in the late 1970s by Australian's Channel Seven, debuting at the Bathurst 1000 race in 1979. Back in those days, it was a huge rig, and it could be used to communicate with both pit crews and TV watchers at home. In Australia, it was often also used by drivers providing their own commentary of the races. Now cameras are much more compact, they can be mounted pretty much anywhere, such as the Bumpercam that can be mounted to the car's front bumper, and the Roofcam that can be mounted to the roof.
A lot of water gets used in an average household; and it turned out that a lot of water was being wasted by that most basic piece of plumbing — the humble loo. In 1980, Bruce Thompson of Caroma came up with a system that did away with that one-water-volume-fits-all-flushing-needs approach. It is claimed that the dual flush toilet can save up to 67 per cent of a household's toilet water usage, or 32,000 litres per year.
Hundreds of thousands of babies have been born thanks to the wonder of embryo cryopreservation, a technique perfected by a team of researchers at Monash University and the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. The first IVF baby was born in 1978, but Carl Wood, Alan Trounson and team realised success rates could be better if the eight-cell embryo could be frozen using liquid nitrogen, then thawed out and implanted at the point in the woman's cycle when it would have the best chance of surviving. The first successful pregnancy from a frozen embryo was described in 1983, although sadly the mother didn't carry to term. The first frozen embryo baby was born in 1984.
If you live in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Papua New Guinea, Romania or Vietnam (to name a few), you're probably well used to the smooth shimmy of plastic in your wallet rather than the soft crumple of paper. These were introduced in Australia, invented by the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and the University of Melbourne to reduce forged banknotes. They are also more durable than paper, and can be run through the washing machine without suffering damage.
New laws in the 1970s made seatbelts compulsory in Australia, but while this protected adults to an extent, infants were still at a high risk. The makers of the Safe-n-Sound Child restraint, Rainsfords, came up with the Baby Safety Capsule, in which a baby can be safely cradled in a secure bassinette. A bubble of air between the bassinette and its base creates a cushion of air, and a release mechanism allows the bassinette to rotate in the event of a crash.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:LucasSleeping image by Maria A Rodriguez, CC 3.0
1990s: spray-on skin
Plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood was frustrated at treating burns victims; the faster they can be treated, the less chance of scarring — but sheets of skin tissue take 14-21 days to grow. Wood also noticed that skin sheets with holes healed faster than the sheets that had more fully meshed, and so she conceived the idea of a skin spray. Made from the patient's own skin cells, the spray was used to impressive effect after the Bali bombings, but clinical trials are ongoing.
It's hotly contested where Wi-Fi got its beginnings, but one thing is certain: Australia's CSIRO holds the patent, and in the last couple of years has won court cases over the dispute. Researcher John O'Sullivan, recipient of the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2009, actually claims to have come up with the basis for Wi-Fi in 1977 — while searching for exploding black holes. O'Sullivan's technology cleans up radio waves, and is included in the patents for 802.11a, 802.11g and 802.11n.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Zone Wi-Fi dans le parc de Bercy à Paris image by Roman Bonnefoy, CC 3.0
1995: passport security measures
One of the most important documents you'll ever own in your life is your passport, and passport fraud is linked to all sorts of other fraud and security concerns. Australia has been among the front of the pack for passport security. In 1994, 3M Australia's Graeme Mann devised a security laminate, a plastic layer on the front page of the passport with all its information embedded within. Any attempt to tamper with the laminate can be easily detected. In 2014, Australian passports were the first in the world to be updated with colour holographic images in the security laminate and features that only show up under UV light (pictured).
If you lose your passport, though, not even Australia can help you, sorry mate.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
1996: anti-flu medication
Relenza, an inhalant flu medication, is made using Zanamivir, a drug discovered and developed by a team of scientists led by Mark von Itzstein at the Victorian College of Pharmacy, Monash University. Zanamivir works by blocking the flu virus inside its host cell, so that it is unable to escape and infect other cells.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Swine flu image by C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC, public domain
2004: Stop Shot blast glass
Stop Shot, by Sydney inventor Peter Stephinson, is different from the ballistic-resistant glass that came before; it's not just one sheet of very thick glass. Stephinson, who worked in window tinting, noticed that tinted glass was harder to break, and devised a strengthening polymer to lay over glass. This polymer, according to Stephinson, significantly raises the tensile strength of glass. Additionally, two sheets of the polymer-treated glass are placed in a frame, leaving a pocket of air between the layers for shockwave absorption. The result is a window that can withstand bullets and the blast of a five-tonne bomb without falling out of the frame. Stephinson's customers include most of Australia's banks, the NSW police, the Australian Defence Force, Qantas and various government departments.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Broken glass image by Jef Poskanzer, CC 2.0
2003: Google Maps
Google Maps actually began as a C++ program designed at Sydney-based Where 2 Technologies. The project was the brainchild of two brothers, Lars and Jens Rasmussen, who originally intended the product as a downloadable app. However, when the company needed venture capital, they pitched the program to Google as a web-based application. Google bought Where 2 Technologies in 2004, and Google Maps was announced in 2005.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Google Maps localisation image by 16@r, CC 3.0; Google