Australians can be an ingenious bunch. Here are some of the best inventions to have come out of the nation.
Black box flight recorder: This has helped make commercial air travel the world’s safest form of travel. It was invented by Australian scientist Dr David Warren, who lost his own father to an aircraft tragedy in 1934 when the Miss Hobart crashed into the Bass Strait.
This remarkable device is virtually indestructible and records the final moments of a crashed plane’s last flight. While it is a box, it’s not black – it’s bright orange colour is called ‘international orange’, making it easier to find in crash-site rubble.
Spray-on skin: In 1999, Perth-based plastic surgeon Professor Fiona Wood patented her spray-on skin technique. The innovation involves taking a small patch of the victim’s healthy skin and using it to grow new skin cells in a laboratory. The new skin cells are then sprayed on the victim’s damaged skin. This process significantly reduces recovery time and scarring.
Fiona and her spray-on skin technique played a key role in treating burns victims from the 2002 Bali bombings. Fiona and her team are credited with saving the lives of 28 people.
Electronic pacemaker: Australian doctor Mark Lidwill and physicist Edgar Booth developed the first artificial pacemaker in the 1920s. Now, more than three million people worldwide rely on pacemakers to keep their hearts beating properly.
Artificial pacemakers send small electric charges into the heart to help it maintain a regular beat. Since the late 1960s, these have been implanted inside the body; the first of these was developed in Sydney by Lidwell and Booth. Lidwill used the invention in 1928 to revive a stillborn baby – small pulses of electicity were sent through a needle directly into the child’s heart. After 10 minutes, the equipment was switched off, the heart continued to beat and the infant made a full recovery.
Google Maps: Danish brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen developed the platform for Google Maps in Sydney in the early 2000s. Along with Australians Neil Gordon and Stephen Ma, they founded a small start-up company called Where 2 Technologies in 2003. The following year it was bought by internet giant Google, which also hired the four men, and the technology was turned into what we now know as Google Maps.
Medical application of penicillin: In 1939, Australian scientist Howard Florey purified penicillin from a special strain of mould. The team demonstrated penicillin’s ability to fight bacterial infection in mice and, later, humans. The antibiotic was mass produced and used to aid victims of World War II. Penicillin has been used around the world saving many lives through the combating of infection by common bacteria. Today, it is still widely used in combating infections, but its efficacy is at risk from the growing resistance to the antibiotic.
Polymer bank notes: Plastic bank notes were developed in a combined effort by the Reserve Bank of Australia and CSIRO in the 1980s. The first plastic bank note to be put into circulation was the $10 note, released in 1988 to celebrate the bicentenary. In 1996, we became the first country to have a complete set of plastic currency.
Traditionally, bank notes are made from paper, cloth fibres or a combination of both. Our bank notes are made from a special polymer which, along with a series of in-built security devices, makes them almost impossible to counterfeit. They also last about 10 times longer than traditional bank notes.
Cochlear implant (bionic ear): Professor Graeme Clark invented the first bionic ear in the 1970s – the first prototype was implanted in a person in 1978.
Cochlear implants are devices that are implanted into the head to electronically stimulate the auditory nerve. Graeme’s motivation to advance hearing loss technology was spawned from his own father’s inadequate hearing. So far, the Cochlear implant has brought hearing to more than 180,000 deaf and partially deaf people worldwide.
Electric drill: DIY-enthusiasts can thank an Aussie for this indispensible piece of equipment. In 1889, Australian electrical engineer Arthur James Arnot patented the world’s first electric drill with his colleague William Brain. The invention was originally designed to drill rock and dig coal, and although it was a long way from the portable hand-drills used today throughout the world, the underlyng technology was the same.
Winged keel: Ben Lexcen, an Australian yachtsman and marine architect, invented the winged keel – a nearly horizontal foil, or wing, at the base of a sailing boat keel. They are typically found on high-performance sail boats. The winged keel made its debut in 1983 in America’s Cup on Australia II.
Wi-Fi technology: In 1992 John O’ Sullivan and the CSIRO developed Wi-Fi technology, used by more than a billion people around the world today. The core parts of the technology came out of research in the mid-1970s in the field of radio astronomy, when John and his colleagues at the CSIRO were originally looking for the faint echoes of black holes.
As a result of this work, the CSIRO has held key patents for Wi-Fi technology since the mid-1990s, bringing the organisation millions of dollars in royalties every year.
Ultrasound scanner: In 1976 Ausonics commercialised the ultrasound scanner. Studying ultrasound from 1959 onwards, the Ultrasonics Research Section of the Commonwealth Acoustics Laboratories Branch (later to become the Ultrasonic Institute) discovered a way to differentiate ultrasound echoes bouncing off soft tissue in the body and converting them to TV images. This discovery forever changed prenatal care as it gave expecting parents a window to the foetus without x-ray exposure. Ultrasound technology is also used in the diagnosis of medical problems of the breast, abdomen, and reproductive organs.
Racecam: In 1979, Channel 7 introduced live television broadcasting from racing cars, allowing viewers to watch the race from the driver’s perspective. Today the Racecam has been adapted to fit other sporting events such as snow skiing, basketball and cricket.
(Ed. If you would like to learn more, book your ticket to attend a talk by Ian Thompson on Saturday, 7th August at 2:00 pm at the City of Canada Bay Museum, 1 Bent Street, Concord. For more information see “Events” on right.)