Top 10 Aussie firsts we’ve never heard of

By AG Staff 27 January 2015
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Australians have contributed some very significant firsts throughout history. Here are a few of the less well-known.

WE’VE ALL HEARD that an Australian was the first to invent the black box flight recorder. But, how about the firsts that have been forgotten by history? Here we highligh just a few. 

1. First female war artist

Nora Heysen AM, daughter of legendary landscape painter Hans Heysen, was the first modern official war artist. Commissioned in 1943 during World War II, she began by painting studio portraits of the commanding officers of the women’s auxiliary services. But in 1944 she was given the chance to worked closer to the action in New Guinea, although she was frustrated by a lack of facilities for women and wasn’t able to travel to the front there. She was paid the same amount as her male counterparts for this dangerous work, eventually marrying a doctor she met in New Guinea. Her completed portfolio included 170 paintings and drawings.

2. First crouch-start

In 1887 Bobby McDonald, a talented young indigenous runner from Cummeragunga Mission in northern Victoria, became the first person to officially begin a running race using a crouch-start. He later explained that he’d been using position for a while. He talked of discovering its advantage by accident when a starter began a race while he was crouched down to avoid the cold wind while waiting at the start line. This start position was adopted by many competitive runners and is still used today, although the competitive advantage of starting from this position is debated.

3. First refrigeration

In the 1850s, James Harrison, a Scottish born resident of Geelong, Vic., designed the first commercially-viable ice-making machine and refrigerator. A few scientists had previously experimented with refrigeration concepts, but none had practically applied it to something that could be used to store food. In 1873 he won a gold medal at the Melbourne Exhibition by proving that frozen meat remained edible for months. His designs were taken up wholeheartedly by the Australian beer and meat industries, but he hit a snag when he tried to export frozen meat to England. En route, the refrigeration system failed and the meat was spoiled. Harrison returned to his other profession as a journalist.

4. Inventor of the first military tank

Australian Lancelot de Mole was the first person to design a tank in 1911 and submitted his design to the British War Office in 1912. However, through a series of bureaucratic bungles his design submissions were rejected several times both before and during WWI. But very similar tanks emerged on the British battlefield in 1916. De Mole raised the issue and in 1920 he was awarded financial compensation and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of this botched process.

5. First to film combat

South Australian, Sir George Hubert Wilkins was the first person to capture footage of combat in action during the first Balkan War (1912-1913). Wilkins, however, became a veteran of firsts after this: he was also the first to complete a trans-Arctic crossing by air, and the first to fly over Antarctica, both in 1928. As a result of these, and his many other polar adventures, there are a number Antarctic landforms named after him, including Wilkins Sound, Wilkins Coast and the Wilkins Ice Shelf. He also became the first person to sail under polar ice floes in 1931. During the Wilkins-Ellsworth trans-Artic expedition, he set out to prove sailing under polar ice was possible by taking a submarine below arctic icefloes, which they did briefly.

6. Advances in tennis racket design

Unable to afford his own tennis racquet, Tasmanian Alfred Alexander made his own in 1922. He perfected a dry-bent, cross-grain, alternating-layer laminating process. It created a strong racquet frame that was quickly in international demand. His patent led to the Alexander Patent Racket Company, the largest manufacturer of sporting goods in the world at the time. Australian Champion, Jack Crawford won Wimbledon in 1933 using one of Alexander’s rackets marketed under the name Cressy. The company went into liquidation in 1961 and was bought by Spalding.

7. First automatic vinyl record-changer

Tasmanian born and raised Eric Waterworth designed the first stepped-spindle record-changer, allowing six vinyl records to be automatically played in sequence – demonstrating it to politicians and business men in Hobart in 1925. Business and economic issues hampered its market release in both Australia and England. After the patents lapsed a British company launched the same product.

8. First women to sail around the world west to east

Kay Cottee was born into a Sydney sailing family. In 1988 she became the first woman to sail solo and non-stop around the globe west to east, and south of the five southern-most capes. On 29 November 1987 she sailed out of Sydney heads on Blackmores First Lady and started a voyage that lasted 189 days. Combating wild seas, being washed overboard and boat damage that she repaired as she sailed, Cottee returned to Sydney on 5 June 1988.

9. First Aboriginal Australian ambassador

Woollarrawarre Bennelong was a Wangal man kidnapped in 1789 by European settlers at Manly Cove, NSW. He became the first official ambassador between the British and Aboriginal peoples after a period of imprisonment. He voluntarily helped explained indigenous life to the NSW colony’s governor, Arthur Phillip and later travelled to England, the first Aboriginal Australian to do so. His unique life has resulted in a number of places being named after him including the point that the Sydney Opera House sits on and a federal electoral district in northern Sydney. This Sydney seat was, for a long period of time, held by former Prime Minister John Howard.

10. Crankless engine

One of Anthony George Maldon Michell many significant contributions includes the crankless engine. In 1920 he formed Crankless Engines (Australia) Pty Ltd to commercialise his 1917 invention of this efficient engine that was balanced at all speeds. It was tested in the USA by General Motors and Ford who both highlighted it was better than their own, but was not enough to warrant the cost of changing their engine-manufacturing tools. Refined by many inventors over the years, today versions of this engine are used to propel torpedos and in air compressor pumps.

Chrystopher Spicer’s book Great Australian World Firsts lists many more Australian firsts.