Innovation is the Australian way

By Andrew Bain 19 December 2010
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Colonial heritage, geographical isolation and resourcefulness are a few possible reasons why Aussies are top inventors.

FOR A COUNTRY with such a small population, inventions and ideas from Australia exert a massive influence. Worldwide, untold numbers of people navigate their way around using Google Maps. Air travel has been improved by the black box flight recorder, now in every commercial aircraft. The bionic ear is bringing the miracle of sound to the profoundly deaf. The first cervical cancer vaccines have already protected many thousands of women from a frequently fatal diease. And the potential of the technology that drives wi-fi networks has only just begun to be tapped.

That is just a taste of the globally significant innovations that have emerged in recent decades from Australia or have been made by Australians living abroad. According to the most recently available World Intellectual Property Organisation statistics, Australians filed about 0.6 per cent of all patents in 2007, and yet we comprise just 0.003 per cent of the world’s population. So, why is a nation ranked as the planet’s 55th most populous placed 13th for the annual number of patents issued? And how do we manage to consistently figure in the advancement of fields such as agriculture, medicine, mechanics, media and technology?

Local inventions

IT SEEMS CLEAR that in Australia’s colonial days the old maxim “necessity is the mother of all invention” held true. The early European settlers arrived here with very little that was appropriate for local conditions and they needed to adapt or perish. “[They] had to constantly experiment…because nothing from England was really working out here,” says Australian architect Sally Dominguez, a panellist on ABCTV’s The New Inventors program and the brains behind the award-winning Nest High Chair for children and the Rainwater HOG modular water-storage system. “We’ve got a bit of the ‘bitser’ about us. We use anything at hand and if we have to compromise we’ll wangle it to try to make it work.”

Inventor and former journalist George Lewin explains that the country’s isolation and frontier mentality have stimulated its creative compulsion. “Given our convict beginnings and our vast geographic separation from the civilised world…we just had to make do with whatever we had,” says the inventor of the Triton Workcentre – a portable, multipurpose work bench – and founder of the now-defunct Triton Foundation, which was established in 2000 to support Australian inventors. “The early settlers were often stuck on a farm in the middle of Woop Woop and they had to make do, because they went to town perhaps one day every three months. There’s a tradition of improvising [here].”

The shrinking of the world due to modern communication and transport technologies means Australia no longer suffers from the same “tyranny of distance” that impelled many early innovations. But our standing as a nation of inventors and innovators remains strong as the flow of new creations continues from laboratories and backyard sheds. A few telling statistics: in its eight years of operation, the Triton Foundation registered about 3800 inventors; in 2007 alone, Australian residents filed 2718 patent applications; and last year The New Inventors presented 124 creations – just a sample of the 1000-plus applications it received. “Australians get a real lateral feel for something and then they’ll try a whole lot of different things and see what sticks,” says Sally.

Inventions the spirit of Australia

THE SPIRIT OF invention already ran deep when the first European settlers arrived in 1788. They came to a place that had perhaps the world’s oldest wind instrument (the didgeridoo) and a unique weapon (the boomerang) with a more than 9000-year history. Half a century later, colonial Australia literally put its first stamp on the world when, in 1838, Sydney postmaster-general James Raymond began issuing envelopes marked with the seal of the Sydney post office, creating the world’s first pre-paid postage. It preceded the introduction of the first adhesive stamps – Britain’s Penny Blacks – by two years.

A golden age of agricultural invention began in 1843 when flour miller John Ridley responded to a labour shortage on the land in South Australia by inventing the horse-drawn grain stripper, which mechanised wheat harvesting. During the next 60 years Australians created the stump-jump plough, Federation wheat and, most prominently, Hugh McKay’s Sunshine Harvester, which took Ridley’s concept a step further by adding a winnower. So successful was the combination that, for a time, the Sunshine Harvester Works was Australia’s largest factory, employing 3000 people and covering 31 ha.

Despite the farming focus of the nation’s early innovations, Australia’s greatest and most numerous successes have arguably come in medicine. In the late 1930s, a decade after its accidental discovery by Scotsman Alexander Fleming, penicillin’s medically useful anti-bacterial qualities were developed by a research team led by Australian Howard Florey. They created antibiotics and soon many previously life-threatening infections became little more than modern discomforts. Although US cardiologist Albert Hyman is credited with inventing and patenting the pacemaker in the early 1930s, it’s widely accepted that Australian anaesthetist Mark Lidwill created a similar device as early as 1926, but never patented it. Even Hyman referred to an earlier Australian “electric device for stimulating the heart” when writing about his own technology.

Through the late 1960s and ’70s, Melbourne University’s Professor Graeme Clark led a team developing what would become another of the world’s great medical advances: the cochlear implant. Better known as the bionic ear, it was first implanted in 1978 and the technology has since benefited more than 100,000 people worldwide. Graeme was subsequently awarded the 2004 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

More recently, Queensland University’s Professor Ian Frazer has contributed to Australia’s medical prominence by developing the world’s first cancer vaccines – marketed as Gardasil and Cervarix – to prevent human papilloma virus infection, the major cause of cervical cancer. Ian was named Australian of the Year in 2006 and awarded the 2008 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science; he and his groundbreaking team are now working on a skin cancer vaccine.

The Royal Perth Hospital plastic surgeon Professor Fiona Wood, who developed spray-on skin for burns victims, says it’s no accident Australia has such a remarkable track record in medical advances. “The health system here is excellent,” she says. “On the world stage, within our system, there is excellence. The expectation here is that we should be able to raise ourselves to the highest level.”

Fiona shot to national fame when her spray-on skin was used to treat burns victims of the 2002 Bali bombings. Like so many ideas, the invention sprang from a broader goal: to reduce the time it takes to grow replacement skin for burns. “Oh geez, we should just spray this stuff on, Marie,” Fiona burst out to colleague Marie Stoner during a meandering discussion about the difficulties of harvesting cells by the traditional method of growing large, thin sheets of skin.

Today, the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting process of invention continues for Fiona as she pursues the goal of scar-free healing. She believes that although Australia’s new crop of inventions and advances may no longer be attributable to our isolation, the country’s inbuilt spirit of invention remains a significant factor in propelling modern work. The Yorkshire coalminer’s daughter grew up in the UK but has called Australia home since moving here to work in 1987. “I felt that Australia was a place where you didn’t have to put constraints on yourself,” she says. “[This] is a place where you can work hard and be rewarded for your effort.”
IT’S NOT SURPRISING that, in such a vast country, Australian innovation has also made significant contributions to the advancement of aviation and that safety has been a major inspiration. The idea for the black box flight recorder, for example, came to Dr David Warren, a scientist at Melbourne’s Aeronautical Research Laboratory, as he investigated a series of unexplained de Havilland Comet air crashes during the 1950s. The device records cockpit conversations and flight data, which enables investigators to trace the causes of air accidents. In a world first, use of the black box – actually orange in colour to help locate it among wreckage – was made compulsory on aircraft in Australia after a Fokker F27 Friendship crashed during landing at Mackay, Queensland, in June 1960, killing 29 people.

Aussies an inventive bunch

The inflatable escape slide, the mid-1960s brainchild of Qantas employee Jack Grant, was something of a safety companion to the black box. It wasn’t the world’s first escape slide, but it was the first one that also doubled as a raft.

As the world’s technology has advanced, so too has Aussie ingenuity. A revolutionary software program created by brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen at their mapping start-up company Where 2 Technologies, based in Sydney, is now better known as Google Maps. Lars became Google’s lead engineer after the corporate giant acquired the Rasmussen’s company late in 2004.

The technology behind the modern wi-fi connection, used in most wireless electronic devices worldwide, was patented by the CSIRO in 1992. It was developed as part of research that emerged ultimately as a spin-off from radio astronomical observations, first in The Netherlands and later at the Australia Telescope National Facility in the late 1970s, that attempted to measure pulses from tiny exploding black holes. This invention earned CSIRO systems engineer John O’Sullivan the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in 2009.

“Initially we were just trying to do difficult radio astronomy measurements and, as is so often the case, when you try to do something difficult – that reach-for-the-stars aspect – even though you might not succeed, it can have unexpected spin-offs,” says John. “In my case it was a growing feeling that, ‘Hey, we’ve got something here’… It’s fair to say that at the beginning we didn’t have any idea how to do it and it was way beyond what we thought you could do, but we were quietly confident that something interesting would come out of it.”

Further evidence that Australian endeavour continues to make a significant mark on the world stage came last year with Time’s annual list of the best new gadgets and breakthrough ideas. The US-based magazine named an aquaculture system designed by South Australian company Clean Seas as the second-best invention of 2009 – a remarkable runner-up to US space agency NASA’s Ares rockets.

The development for the first time makes it possible to breed southern bluefin tuna in landlocked tanks. With it came the potential to revive an industry that last year incurred a 20 per cent worldwide cut in its wild-catch quota of a species that’s critically endangered. In naming the Australian invention ahead of the likes of an electric eye and a vertical farming system, Time wrote that “by coaxing the notoriously fussy southern bluefin to breed in landlocked tanks, Clean Seas may finally have given the future of bluefin aquaculture legs. (Or at least a tail.)”

It’s a sign that as the world struggles with calamities such as food shortages and climate change, Australian inventors will be in the vanguard offering groundbreaking solutions.
Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2010