10 arts inventions you didn’t know were Australian

By Lynda Delacey April 14, 2016
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Here are ten little-known Aussie inventions that made a big difference to the arts industries.

1. World’s earliest television

In the 1880s, Ballarat inventor Henry Sutton developed a device that was to pave the way for the invention of the television. Sutton’s early version, which he dubbed the ‘telephane’, was a long, tube-shaped appliance designed to transmit images over telegraph and telephone wires. The Government Astronomer of Victoria confirmed that he witnessed the telephane, and it worked well. Sutton’s paper on the telephane was published widely in 1887 and again in 1910, but unfortunately, Sutton did not patent the device. The first TV, invented in the 1920’s by Scotsman, John Logie Bard, used Sutton’s principles of synchronised transmission and reception.

Telephane invention

(Image courtesy Lorayne Branch)

2. World’s first full-length feature film

If ever an invention changed the world, it was the feature film. The Story of the Kelly Gang was an 80-minute full-length feature film, shot in Victoria in 1906, at a time when moving pictures were ten minutes long at most. Melbourne’s John and Nevin Tait, Millard Johnson and William Gibson wrote, produced and directed the breakthrough film. One of the Kelly gang’s original coats and helmet is said to have been borrowed from the Victorian Museum and used in the film. The film toured Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain, grossing over £25,000. By 1911, Australia had produced 16 more feature films.

Story of the Kelly Gang

Screen grab from the 1906 film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. (Image: Wikimedia)

3. The world’s first automatic record changer

Tasmanian engineer, Eric Waterworth, was just twenty when he invented the world’s first automatic record changer. Launched in 1925, the Electric Record Changing Salonola had a stepped centre spindle, allowing six vinyl records to be played in sequence. When the Salonola’s manufacturer in Australia went into liquidation, Waterworth sold the patent to a London manufacturer, freeing himself to build a career on freelance design work. Although the patent lapsed and the Salonola never went into production, the stepped centre spindle was used in the record changers that were enormously popular in later years.

4. An invention that transformed cinematography

Much of the creativity in movie camera work owes a debt to an Australian invention. Prior to 1946, movie camera operators relied on complicated and expensive gear-driven equipment to make basic sideways pans or up and down tilts. Diagonal movements weren’t even possible. Sydneysider Eric Miller spent six years developing a solution based on his patented “viscosity drag” principle. The fluid head camera mount gave camera operators the freedom to make smoother, more dynamic movements at lower operating costs. Miller fluid head mounts and tripods are still made in Australia and are sold globally as standard TV and movie camera equipment.

5. Early electronic musical instruments

Invention rarely happens in a flash of inspiration – the title “inventor” often goes to the first person who patents and successfully markets an idea that others worked towards for decades. This is certainly the case with electronic musical instruments – inventors around the world tinkered with early versions long before the first synthesizer was invented. Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger began experimenting with a range of eccentric “free music machines” as early as the 1920’s. His “Kangaroo Pouch Free Music Machine”, built in 1952, stood nine feet tall and used four vacuum tube oscillators to create gliding, atonal sounds.

6. The breakthrough that launched a musical revolution

Before two Sydney high school students used off-the-shelf hardware to create the Fairlight CMI in 1975, electronic music was confined to instruments with basic processors that only generated artificial sounds. Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel discovered that using the waveforms of naturally recorded sounds provided far superior results. The Fairlight – named after Sydney Harbour’s fastest ferry at the time – was the first musical instrument that let users sample sounds from various sources, make quick changes to wave patterns, place notes in up to eight channels at once, and move, transpose, or alter their tempo. The Fairlight won superstar fans such as Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Jean Michel Jarre.

Peter Vogel instrument

(Image: Peter Vogel’s personal collection)

7. Software that took movie special effects to a new level

In 1991, the Australian visual effects studio, Animal Logic, released Eddie, a groundbreaking software package that enabled film-makers to create visual effects in the style of The Matrix – at 1/10th of the cost of rival products. Prior to the release of Eddie, animators needed a range of programs and computers to achieve these effects. Eddie was the first compositing software with an interface, and the first commercially available product that could perform morphing. Eddie was used by Animal Logic in the production of films such as the Matrix and Babe, and exported to the international software market.

8. Incredible stage effects at the push of button

Theatre is big business – and calls for ever-increasing levels of production and creativity. In the early 1990s, Australian company Bytecraft Pty Ltd created State, the world’s most advanced computerised stage movement control system. Before State, sequences such as the crash of the half tonne chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera required hours of exhaustive preparation and rehearsal. State allowed controllers to execute complex sequences of stage and scenery movement with the push of a button. The system took its name from the initial install into Melbourne’s State Theatre, and has since been installed into prestigious theatres around the world.

Video comparison of the chandelier crash scene in various productions of The Phantom of the Opera. (Source: Glass Prism/YouTube)

9. A4 DSP chip

A digital signal processing chip co-developed by the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics and Austek Microsystems in the 1980s caused a splash in the live and recorded sound industries in the 1990s. The technology formed the basis of two new organisations, Lake Technology Limited and Accusound Pty Ltd. Accusound became successful in the loudspeaker design industry, and Lake expanded rapidly, developing acoustic research tools for Bose, the Huron Digital Audio Workstation, and the processor behind the widely used surround sound technology, Dolby Headphone.

10. The technology that remastered Hollywood’s classic movies

In 1993, a team of engineers from Kodak Eastman, Melbourne, invented a way for old-fashioned film images to be digitally remastered and sent back to film with no loss of quality. The Cineon Digital Workstation was the breakthrough that allowed older movies to have their scratches, faded colours and distorted sound tracks repaired and re-released in stunning “digitally remastered” formats. The Cineon file format is still in common use today, and when a subsequent product was nominated for an Sci-Tech Academy Award in 2005, these Australian engineers were formally recognised with an Academy Plaque as the creators of the innovative technology behind the product.