The popular image of an inventor is someone toiling away for months or years in a back shed and finally emerging with some wondrous gizmo that no-one else had ever thought of. Another image is of the person in a white coat running out of their laboratory shouting "I've done it!".
While these images are appropriate for some of the inventions we have listed on our Australian Inventions page, there are many others where it is harder to answer the question 'who is the inventor?'. In many cases we cannot answer that question without first answering the question 'what is the invention?'.
We tend to reserve the word invention for something that is quite different from what came before or creates a big improvement in an existing system – often by doing things in a completely different way. On the other hand there are numbers of things which make our life better where we cannot specify when they were ‘invented’. Many just evolved over a period of small continuous improvements. This doesn’t make them any less important: it just means they came to be part of our lives through a different route.
The principal of a wineskin - storing and dispensing wine from an airtight animal skin - has been around for several millennia. The wine cask utilises the same principle but different materials and shape, and the use of the plastic bag in a cardboard box has had an enormous impact on the production and distribution of wine in recent decades.
In some cases the creation process is isolated enough for us to categorically call somebody the inventor of a particular system.
However, many cases are not so straightforward and to think of a single inventor is misleading. We list some examples below.
Sometimes an invention is the result of the work of a team of people, particularly in the case of academic research or corporate research and development. Thus Professor Graeme Clark lead the Australian team that developed the bionic ear but that work would not have been achieved without earlier work by Ingeborg Hochmair and Blake Wilson. Similarly David Mann's name is on the patent for the Cineon Digital Film Workstation but that doesn’t make any one person the sole inventor.
Sometimes people are independently working on a problem in the same period and come up with solutions around the same time. Often in this case we remember the ‘best’ solution rather than the ‘first’ solution. Thus James Morrow’s combine harvester appeared slightly before H. V. McKay’s, but McKay’s design was superior and addressed numbers of problems that Morrow’s didn’t. McKay’s design went on to be the world leader while Morrow’s was abandoned. Thus we tend to remember McKay as the inventor of the combine harvester.
Sometimes Person A discovers a substance or process while Person B later invents a way that it can be used or harnessed. Thus while penicillin was ‘discovered’ by Alexander Fleming, it was later isolated by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at Cambridge and it was Florey and his team who turned it into the practical medication that was used to save millions of lives. Thus there were numbers of important people in the ‘invention’ of penicillin as we know it, and Fleming, Chain and Florey shared the 1945 Nobel Prize. Who you regarded to be the most important at the time may depend whether you were writing a piece of popular journalism or whether you were in danger of death in a hospital bed. For a brief video-based examination of these issues see Penecillin: The Magic Bullet below.
Sometimes studies in pure or theoretical sciences lead to discoveries that then change the way that commercial products can be made. Thus Professor David Boger's work on fluids has revolutionised ink-jet printing and has major implications in other areas, but he is not necessarily recognised as an inventor.
Sometimes the invention isn’t so much the original core product as its manufacturing process or its marketing and image or in a superficial design that captures the imagination of the public. Thus although the substance we know as Aspro was invented by George Nicholas it was his brother Alfred Nicholas who was vitally important in addressing the manufacturing and marketing issues which made the product a world leader.
Thus in our listing of Australian inventions and inventors we have often listed the significant people associated with the invention. However for a full understanding of that invention and its inventor(s) you need to go away investigate each one on a case-by-case basis. We encourage you to investigate some of these inventions and you may well decide that people other than the ones we name were more important.
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This documentary first screened on SBS on 3 August, 2006. It is expected that it will soon be available for sale to the public. The accompanying promotion reads:
"As World War Two rages, a small team of scientists at Oxford University, led by Australian Howard Florey, make one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine: penicillin. As news of their funny yellow powder leaks out to the press, wartime Britain looked for a hero. Instead of Florey and the Oxford team, they choose someone else to shower with honours, Alexander Fleming, How it happened is a fascinating story of wartime scarcity, personal conflicts, and a sobering lesson in the damage done to truth by wartime propaganda."