On this day: 100 years of federal science

By AG Staff with the CSIRO 15 March 2016
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Without our federal science body the world wouldn’t have WiFi. Looking back at 100 years of the CSIRO, and into its future.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago today, Prime Minister Billy Hughes changed the future of Australia when he established the Advisory Council of Science and Industry, a body we recognise today as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

On 16 March 1916 Hughes issued an official gazette that announced the formation of the Council. It followed several attempts to gain moment on the issue, including an impassioned speech at a Melbourne conference in January 1916 where Hughes spoke of the need for a government-funded, national scientific organisation that would “solve problems that seemed insoluble” and lead to “healthier and better lives” for all Australians.

Despite some heated debate about the federal government overstepping its bounds, the Council was formed.

It proved to be the first step in much of Australia’s continuous and ‘big picture’ science and research. In the coming years, the CSIRO would develop technologies that would change the way people live the world over, including developing WiFi and radar technologies, and even the software that handles most airports’ plane traffic around the world, and plastic money. 

CSIRO technologies today

Today, six key CSIRO technologies contribute $5 billion to the economy each year. These techonologies are:

  • Longwall automated mining;
  • Opticool/BuildingIQ (technology that reduces building heating and cooling expenses by 10–30%)
  • Aquaculture feed and breeding techniques;
  • Cotton production (breeding, and pest and harvest management that have led to the highest cotton yields in the world);
  • Absorbant materials (used prolifically for nappies);
  • and water resource assessment. 

Dr Anita Hill, executive director of the CSIRO’s Future Industries division, says the CSIRO’s role is often to fill the gaps that the commercial world cannot or will not. “We do a lot of substantiation,” she says. Often they check and prove or disprove the validity of products on the market. Anita says this may soon be important for buzzword-happy developments such as ‘DNA diets’, which may be an exciting development that will look at how you respond to food via your DNA. 

One of the other things the CSIRO does particularly well is bringing multidisciplinary teams together, says Anita. The prime example of this is when electrical engineer John O’Sullivan discovered some of the fundamental properties of WiFi while working on a radio astronomy project looking for black holes in space. 


Fast Wireless LAN (WiFi Hotspots)

  • Now used in more than 5 billion devices around the world
  • Five CSIRO scientists – Dr John O’Sullivan, Dr Terry Percival, Mr Diet Ostry, Mr Graham Daniels and Mr John Deane – invented wireless LAN technology, these days known as WiFi.
  • It earned the CSIRO more than $220 million after they launched a series of lawsuits to recoup money made on the technology without a licensing agreement.

Airspace and airport traffic software

  • Total Airspace and Airport Modelling (TAAM) simulation software was first developed within CSIRO and spun-off into The Preston Group; later acquired by Boeing.

  • TAAM is in operation across the globe, including AirServices Australia, and at Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane airports; reducing airspace congestion, airport disruption and conflict avoidance and ensuring safer skies in Australia and worldwide. Every airport operator has multiple licences for TAMM.

    air traffic control

Polymer (plastic) banknotes

  • CSIRO invented plastic (polymer) banknotes, a world-first at the time, which are now exported to 25 countries with more than 3 billion notes currently in circulation.
  • In addition to securing currency against forgery, this solution is also more durable, more environmentally friendly and less likely to carry dirt and disease than previous types of notes.

Relenza Flu Vaccine

  • The world’s first effective influenza treatment, called Relenza, was invented by CSIRO in 1987.
  • Relenza has been approved in over 50 countries for the treatment of influenza.

Extended-wear contact lenses

  • In the 90s there was significant consumer demand for contact lenses they could be left in for much longer periods of time, however attempts by manufacturing companies to find a solution had been unsuccessful.
  • As part of an international collaboration CSIRO developed extended-wear soft contact lenses which could be worn up to 30 continuous nights – called CIBA Vision’s Focus Night Day.
  • The same oxygen permeability in these lenses has since been used by CIBA Vision in other short-term wear lenses to provide greater safety to consumers.

self-twisting yarn

Softly washing liquid

  • In 1957 a damaging claim was made against woollen blankets that were used in hospitals throughout the world. It was claimed that because woollen blankets could not be laundered at the high temperatures (80C) used for other hospital textiles, they would harbour infectious agents which could be carried through the wards on fibres shed by the blankets.
  • This report led hospitals to question using woollen blankets, and change to cotton instead.
  • This change would have had serious implications for the Australian wool industry.
  • In the period 1958-68, CSIRO Scientists Tom Pressley showed that the claim was without foundation, then went on to develop a shrink-proofing process that enabled woollen blankets to be washed at elevated temperatures. After repeated washing, however, the blankets became stiff and rough, so a special neutral detergent for washing woollen fabrics was developed – now known as Unliver’s Softly®.
  • Softly is still available on supermarket shelves today and is widely recommended to gently clean and soften wool, washable silks, fine cotton, linen and fine synthetics.


  • Concerned by the threat of attack from the sea and air in World War II, CSIRO sent Australia’s most qualified scientist, David Martyn, to Britain on a secret mission to be given the entire details of a radar project.
  • He returned in 1940 with the materials to develop the technology in Australia and efforts were focused on building the first shore defence system. By 1941 it was further developed to scan the skies for planes.
  • Equipment was sent to Darwin in early 1942 and was still being installed, only days from completion, when Darwin was bombed by Japanese planes. The radar system was operating three days later and detected subsequent raids on the city early enough for them to be intercepted before they reached the coast.

Self-twisting yarn

  • A major breakthrough for the textiles industry, the CSIRO invention of self-twisting yarn led to new machines that could spin at speeds 10-16 percent faster than previous processes to rapidly increase productivity, keeping the production of wool in strong competition with synthetics.
  • The process of wool spinning was unchanged for nearly 200 years. It produced about 15m of yarn a minute – and it takes 20,000m to make an average two-piece suit. If a spindle went faster than this, centrifugal forces became too high and the yarn broke.
  • CSIRO scientist David Henshaw invented a new twisting process that matched the strength of the existing wool however could be spun at virtually limitless speeds.
  • In partnership with Repco Ltd, spinning machines were commercially manufactured in Melbourne that could spin worsted yarn 10 times faster than conventional spinning machines

self-twisting yarn

Permanent crease wool clothing

  • The requirement for a process for permanent pleating of wool fabrics arose in the 1950s when the wool industry was under considerable pressure from synthetics, particularly polyester, that could be heat-set to give permanent creases and pleats.
  • Durable pleating and creasing of wool, called the SiroSet process, was invented in 1957 and was rapidly adopted worldwide, with some 10 million units of production treated in the first six years. It is a process still being used some 50 years later – in 2000 Japan alone exceeded 4 million SiroSet-treated garments.

Aerogard insect repellent

  • Initially invented as part of research for protecting troops from malaria in the 1940s, CSIRO’s insect repellent shot to fame when it was used to help keep flies off Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to Australia in 1963.
  • Mortein called and got the formula off CSIRO following that famous event.

Hendra virus identification, and vaccine

  • In 1994 there was a deadly outbreak of acute respitory disease in a Brisbane horse stable. Twenty-one horses were infected, 13 of them fatally. Alarmingly, the disease also spread to humans and killed one person.
  • CSIRO isolated and identified the virus within two weeks of it being reported.
  • Similar outbreaks have occurred subsequently elsewhere in Australia, as well as in Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, transmitted by bats, infecting animals and humans. The tests developed for Hendra virus were instrumental in the rapid identification of the closely related virus in those countries.
  • In May 2011, CSIRO announced a prototype vaccine and, along with collaborators, launched the Equivac HeV vaccine in November 2012. By March 2013 it was confirmed that horses were immune to a lethal exposure of the Hendra virus six months post vaccination.
  • By protecting horses from the disease, the vaccine is saving human lives by breaking the only known Hendra virus transmission pathway from bats to humans.


  • Chronic diseases are a heavy burden on Australia’s economy and wellbeing. Obesity, heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and cancer are the leading causes of preventable death. Obesity alone cost Australian society and governments over $58 billion in 2008.
  • Developed by CSIRO scientists, BarleyMax wholegrains represent the next evolution of superfoods, an enhanced wholegrain that has the potential for lowering rates of chronic diseases.
  • It has four times the resistant starch and twice the dietary fibre of regular grains
  • It’s an ingredient that’s now found in many Australian supermarket products such as bread, cereals and smoothie supplements.