(Related pages - Australian Inventions and innovations)
When you first look at Australian inventors they seem to have nothing in common. They come from a wide range of backgrounds – engineers, farm hands, artist, university professors, businessmen and hobbyists. Some had internationally recognized careers while others had the barest minimum of schooling. However, on closer examination, certain common threads emerge, and we have tried to summarise these below.
Nearly all of our significant inventors showed a curiosity from an early age and a desire to understand ‘how things work’ – whether those things be mechanical or social. While their friends were happy to accept an ‘off the shelf’ solution to a domestic, business, political or social problem, our inventors wanted to understand how it worked and whether it could be improved. This curiosity had often been fostered by a particular teacher. parent or relative.
Continuous model building
Virtually all significant Australian inventors continuously made models - whether these models were mechanical, mathematical, electronic, computer models or social models. They were continuously making, taking apart, fixing or reconstructing things. In the case of social innovators they were involved in existing social organisations, setting up new ones and through their long hours of involvement at the grass roots level were trialling ways of doing things better while many of their colleagues were merely sitting in meetings discussing the theory of how things should be done. If they didn't have the skills to do things, our inventors learned them - often over many years. We know of no great Australian inventions that resulted from writing an essay on inventions, but many great Australian inventions which were inspired by such things as studying the mathematics of the lever.
Doers not dreamers
Most of our Australian inventors would be bemused by the recent American pop culture fashion that encourages people to ‘dream’ about what they want to achieve while repeating the mantra “I can do anything if I want it enough” while conveniently ignoring the hard work, knowledge and skills acquisition that are usually required. They would be equally bemused by the current Australian derivative of this fashion whereby if someone declares themselves to be an ‘ideas person’ or ‘big picture person’ you immediately know it is code for “I want other people to do the hard work while I swan around - and besides, I never bothered to find out how any of this stuff works anyway”.
By these current definitions, none of the Australian inventors listed on our Australian Inventions page were dreamers or ideas people or big picture people. They were simply intelligent and motivated people prepared to knuckle down and do years of hard work in order to make a difference to society. While their friends were heading off to the motivational, self-help or new age sections of the library or the internet, our inventors were heading off to the sections that provided solid (and often difficult) information that would help them actually do or make things rather than dream about them. We are aware of no significant Australian invention where somebody had a ‘good idea’ and then had somebody else develop it – ideas without hard work and understanding remain ideas. Similarly we are not aware of any significant Australian inventor who came out of the ‘talk-based industries' or even design courses. Quite simply, they just rolled up their sleeves and did things.
The motivation of many Australian inventors seems to have been quite simple – to make the world a better place. Some just put their invention in the public domain. David Warren (the inventor of the Black Box Flight Recorder) was partly motivated by the fact that his father had died in an airline accident. Few were motivated by money although some (such as H V McKay and Alfred Nicholas) became wealthy as a result of their inventions. Greed however was often a strong motivating factor for blocking inventions. It has often been the greed of certain public servants, unions, employees, businesses or individuals that has blocked or delayed the development of inventions that would benefit others because it would undermine their own privileged situation or monopoly. Regarding the Black Box Flight Recorders the Federation of Australian Airline Pilots declared that "no plane would take off in Australia with Big Brother listening" and similarly for years members of the musicians union would not play in a studio that owned a Fairlight CMI. Public servants around Australia long blocked inventions which allowed people to generate their own energy, communicate, collect their own water or recycle their own waste because it might diminish their control over their own little empire which funded their lifestyle. When investigating Australian inventions you will find numbers of world class Australian enterprises driven out of business because they might cause jobs to flow from one public service sector or union to another one.
In reading the source materials on Australian inventors, the most common satisfaction they express could probably be summarised as follows - "I have changed the lives of people for the better". H.V.McKay for instance decided to call has combine harvester the Sunshine Harvester after hearing an inspiring sermon on the topic of sunshine.
Most Australian inventors displayed formidable talents of self management and working alone. Although some inventions were the result of teamwork (such as the Bionic Ear) most involved the inventor realizing when ‘the team’ was wrong and that 'consensus' has never produced any great inventions and so headed off to doggedly develop their invention by themselves.
Breadth of interest
Far from being single minded nerds, most Australian inventors had wide ranging interests. In fact, in many cases it was their breadth of knowledge that allowed them to recognize that an application in one area could be adapted to provide a solution in a completely different area. Had David Warren, an aeronautical engineer, not been interested in recoding jazz performances, he probably would not have noticed the advances in tape recorders that allowed him to create the Black Box Flight Recorder.
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References and resources
In-line References and Citations: White Hat uses in-line references, sources and notes. Wherever you see a small white hat , rest the pointer over it for a second and a note or reference will appear.
Some useful resources on inventions and inventors:
Lord Howard Florey
The Deakin T2 Car
Who is the Inventor?
- You will find numbers of useful resources in our free newsletter - Inventions & Innovations - the White Hat guide
- The White Hat listing of forthcoming events related to inventions and innovation
- The Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC) is a leading service organisation helping innovators achieve commercial success. Around Australia they help business, research organisations and governments to convert their ideas into successful outcomes.
- Scienceworks in Melbourne, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and the CSIRO Discovery Centre in Canberra provide excellent resources in understanding Australian inventions and innovation.
- The ABC television series Landline regularly features Australian innovation and inventions. Unlike many gee-whiz pop science programs, Landline usually provides thorough and unhysterical coverage of Australian breakthroughs relating to country Australia together with their commercial ramifications. (You do need to watch the Sunday or Monday morning broadcast however, rather than the shortened Monday evening version.) Unfortunately, the same is not true of the current series on the ABC called The New Inventors. Made in infotainment style it chooses to present only a cursory investigation of the invention and skates over the top of the issues involved in successfully bringing an invention to market. Many of the products presented are not really inventions but design improvements, but any exposure in the media for creativity in such areas is to be welcomed and applauded.
- You will also find useful information at Intellectual Property (IP) Australia, The Inventors' Association of Australia and The Triton Foundation (founded by George Lewin, inventor of the Triton Work Bench) and Innovic, a Victorian organisation which provides advice on the bringing to market of innovations..
Some useful books on inventions and inventors
Edison in the Boardroom Revisited:
How Leading Companies Realize Value from Their Intellectual Property