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Australians have a talent for ingenuity and creative thinking. From ancient times, Australians have used the materials around them to develop unique and practical tools to help them live and prosper. Among the huge variety of Australian inventions are the boomerang, cochlear implants, polymer banknotes and wi-fi technology.
Australia is an ancient land. Some Australian fossils are around 3.5 billion years old. The history of modern humans in Australia goes back tens of thousands of years, with archaeological evidence dated to at least 65,000 years ago. Australia’s first peoples developed many objects, weapons and practices that helped them survive in the Australian landscape—an environment that was often harsh.
The diet of the first Australians consisted of fruits, tubers and berries found throughout the Australian landscape; these varied by region. They would also hunt small animals such as birds, lizards, snakes and fish, as well as big game like emus, kangaroos and wallabies. In a time before firearms, Indigenous Australians relied on spears with sharp stone tips; clubs; axes; and an iconic Australian symbol—the boomerang. These tools helped them hunt more effectively, greatly increasing their chances of success. This meant that they were better able to provide for their community.
Hunters were skilled in the art of throwing boomerangs over long distances. Boomerangs were crafted from hardwood and sculpted in a way that made them aerodynamic. Many people think of the boomerang as an object that always returns to its thrower. However, returning boomerangs were made and used only by a select few groups—mainly as toys or for scaring birds while hunting. Heavier, longer boomerangs were used for hunting. They were not designed to return but, instead, to maim or kill their target from a distance.
Another tool developed by Indigenous Australians was the woomera. Woomeras varied in design from group to group, but the basics were the same. A long, thin handle was carved from very hard wood and a point made of bone or stone attached to hold a spear in place. A woomera attached to the end of a spear gave the thrower more leverage. It was like an extension of the arm, meaning that the spear went further. A spear thrown with a woomera can produce around four times the kinetic energy of a modern compound bow. Woomeras were often used as multipurpose tools; some designs were flat and shallow, with a sharp edge that could be used for cutting or digging.
For millennia, Australian Indigenous peoples used their knowledge of the land to carefully manage the areas they frequented. They used fire to sculpt the country in ways that would help them hunt, grow crops and prevent large-scale fires from destroying communities. They employed a complex technique called ‘firestick farming’ to create a mosaic across the land—burning some areas, leaving others and opening up wide plains next to forests. Unlike European trees, 70% of Australia’s native plants need fire to germinate. Traditional owners knew this and used fire to encourage new growth. They also knew that certain animals liked to eat fresh new grass and plants; burning areas of land to promote new growth attracted such animals, making them easier to hunt. While communities lived off the land and knew how to exploit it, they were sure not to stay in one place for too long. This would lead to over-harvesting and damage to the ecosystem. Indigenous communities occupied different lands in a cyclical fashion to look after the land and country.
Colonial Australia (1788–1900)
In the mid- to late eighteenth century, Australian agricultural output was thriving. In Great Britain, however, poor harvests and crop disease led to food shortages and riots in major cities. It wasn’t possible to ship meat or fresh produce back to Europe from Australia; with no way of keeping it cold, the food would spoil as the ships sailed through the tropics.
The transportation of fresh food was not possible until James Harrison, a printer from Melbourne, accidentally discovered a way to artificially cool metal while he was cleaning his printing press with ether. As the chemical evaporated, it cooled the type metal. Inspired by this, Harrison created a simple machine that pumped ether through metal coils, cooling them and, in turn, cooling their surroundings. In 1850, Harrison set up an ice factory in Geelong, Victoria, and built a refrigeration machine that produced 3 tonnes of ice per day.
In 1873, Harrison spent his own money on an experiment to send meat from Australia to England. He installed a cooling system on the ship Norfolk and filled it with 20 tonnes of beef and mutton. Unfortunately, the machinery was inadequate and the meat spoiled long before it reached England. The experiment failed and Harrison went bankrupt. However, his experiment and ideas inspired other inventors and, in 1879, the first successful shipment of refrigerated meat arrived in England. This opened up enormous export possibilities for Australia.
1889: Electric drill
Humans first used simple rotary tools around 35,000 BC. Using a sharp rock spun in the hands, they drilled holes through wood, bone or antlers. The ancient Egyptians used bow drills in carpentry and jewellery making from around 2,500 BC. Heavy drills were used on the Australian goldfields in the 1800s to tunnel through hard bedrock and into the quartz that held the precious gold. Drills were cranked by hand, waterwheel or windmill until 1889, when Arthur James Arnot of Melbourne patented his design for an electric drill.
With a background in electricity, Arnot designed a large drill that would be able penetrate coal and rock, and was mostly intended for use in the mining industry. His drill was different to the power drills we use today, and much larger. Nonetheless, his drill is considered to be the original prototype which led other inventors to create the smaller, handheld electric drill. German brothers Wilhelm and Carl Fein invented the first portable drill several years after Arnot came up with his design. The electric drill we see in our toolboxes today was developed in 1900.
Modern Australia: Twentieth century
1948: Hills hoist
The Hills hoist transformed backyards across Australia in the years following the Second World War—all because of some lemon trees in a suburban Adelaide garden.
In 1945, Lance Hill and his wife were fed up with half their clothesline being blocked by a lemon tree. They needed more space to hang their clothes. Rather than getting rid of the tree, Hill looked for alternative solutions. Using his home laundry as a workshop, he fashioned an innovative replacement: a rotating clothesline that could be raised or lowered. Hill sold his first clothesline in 1946. Soon orders became too much for Lance and his brother, who had joined the business, to handle. In 1947, they moved into a larger workshop, bought three trucks and employed staff to help assemble the clotheslines that have come to symbolise Australian suburbia. Hills Industries, as the company is known today, still produce clotheslines, as well as security systems, car parts and garden equipment. In 1994, the company sold its 5-millionth clothesline.
1951: Victa lawnmower
Before the invention of the motorised lawnmower, push mowers were used to cut grass. Many early models were made of heavy wood and cast iron, and were slow and awkward. They had no motor; the user had to push the mower to make the blades turn. It wasn’t until 1948 that an Australian man, Lawrence Hall, came up with the idea of attaching a plough disc to a boat motor so that he could more easily cut his parents’ lawn. It worked but was very heavy and hard to transport.
In 1951, Mervyn Victor Richardson, an engineer from Sydney, took the basic idea of a powered mower and made one that was light and strong. At first, he sold the mowers out of his house, but there were soon lines of people waiting outside to buy one of the machines, which he had nicknamed the ‘Victa’. Within three years, the company was making 3,000 machines a week. In 2011, the world’s biggest lawnmower factory produced its 8-millionth lawnmower.
- Take a class survey recording what each student thinks was an influential invention in human history. Plot each invention on a timeline. Before beginning the survey, ask the class to agree on a definition of ‘influential’.
- In the last 50 years, advances in technology have been more rapid than in any other period of history. As a class, brainstorm some technological advances from the last 50 years. Then ask the class to predict what technological advances we may see over the next 10, 20 and 50 years.
- Choose a scientific discovery of the last 100 years. Imagine what it would be like if that invention or discovery had never been made. Have the students speculate what their life might be like without it.