Wi-fi, dual-flush loos and eight more Australian inventions

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

  • Published

Australians are perhaps more famed for their sporting feats than for their technological innovation - but a new children's book aims to change that.

Here are 10 eye-catching inventions that come from the land down under, according to Christopher Cheng and Lindsay Knight, authors of Australia's Greatest Inventions and Innovations. In some cases inventors from other countries may also have a legitimate claim, but Cheng and Knight do not want the Australian research to go unnoticed.


John O'Sullivan, an astronomy and space science fellow at Melbourne's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is seen in his home country as the father of wi-fi.

"Some of the original seeds were sown in radio astronomy," says O'Sullivan. "Curiously, it was a failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle.

"I certainly had no idea where things would lead. Back then, we set out to do a wireless network at 100 megabits per second.

"Many people thought we had rocks in our head to try do such a thing. We thought it really would be big, but now I look back and I'm just blown away at how big it has become."

Black box flight recorders

The famous "black box" is, in fact, coated with bright heat-resistant paint in order to be spotted easily after a plane crash.

It is the work of an Australian chemist, Dave Warren, who believed that the dead could help unlock the mysteries of fatal accidents.

In 1953, it was his brainwave to build a device that recorded voices from the cockpit as well as data from flight instruments.

His premise was this - if the black box could remain in one piece after a crash, the final moments of a doomed flight could be replayed to find out what went wrong and help prevent future catastrophes.

Warren was motivated by a family tragedy. His father was killed in 1934 in one of Australia's earliest air disasters, the loss of Miss Hobart in Bass Strait, between the Australian mainland and Tasmania.

The first models were built in the UK, but the idea was born under the Southern Cross.

Hills clothes hoists

An archetypal, if not hackneyed, image of suburbia in one of the world's most urbanised societies. The idea for a rotating "big metal tree" for drying laundry dates back to the late 19th Century and was patented by Gilbert Toyne, a blacksmith-turned-inventor, in Adelaide in 1926.

But it is fellow south Australian Lance Hill who is best known for making these backyard marvels into household names.

"It's a great energy-saving device," says Debbie Rudder, a curator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. "Why burn fossil fuels when you can use sunshine? Whereas people in some other countries don't like to have their things seen by the neighbours."

Cochlear implants

Image caption,
Dr Graeme Clark, and the cochlear implant he invented

The bionic ear has brought the wonder of sound into the lives of thousands of people. For this, they must thank the persistence of Sydney doctor Graeme Clark.

In 1967, he began to investigate ways to tap into the cochlea, the part of the ear that hears, with electrodes. His task seemed insurmountable - how could he squeeze 20 wires into the equivalent thickness of a needle?

Inspiration came while on holiday at the beach. Pushing a blade of grass into a seashell that looked like an inner ear provided the light bulb moment inventors crave.

In 1985, the cochlear implant was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

"It's one of my favourites because it is such an amazing idea that has changed so many lives," says Rudder.

Dual-flush toilets

As Australian as turning the tap off while you brush your teeth. In the world's driest inhabited continent, water-saving measures are religiously embraced.

The dual flush loo has two buttons to dispatch different amounts of water from the cistern - a half-flush for liquid waste and a full one for more heavy-duty deposits.

It was invented in the early 1980s by Bruce Thompson and is a ubiquitous feature in Australian bathrooms and in a growing number around the world.

"We used to put a brick inside the cistern but now the dual-flush loo is fantastic," says Christopher Cheng. "Think about all the water it is saving."

Mountbatten Braillers

The world's first portable battery-powered braille writer for people with impaired vision. Each letter in the braille alphabet is represented by a combination of raised dots and spaces.

"There was an old machine called the Perkins Brailler that was around for many years, but most users found it heavy and clunky," says Rudder.

"The Mountbatten Trust in England decided to have a worldwide competition to design and manufacture an improved version that was lighter in weight. The company in Sydney that developed it was called Quantum and a couple of guys mortgaged their houses in order to get it off the ground."

Super Sopper Rollers

"Aha, here is a backyard invention," says Rudder. "It was invented on the spur of the moment. A fellow was playing golf with some friends. There had been a bit of rain and they said, 'Come on, you're an inventor. Work out how to soak up that water.'"

So the challenge was thrown down to Gordon Withnall in 1974. With his son, he made a giant rolling sponge that soaks up water from rain-soaked fields.

Sports grounds for cricket, gridiron, hockey and horse-racing have all benefited from this super-sized mop.

The smaller model is pushed by hand like a lawn-mower, while the meatier version is motorised and can remove up to 5,830 gallons (26,500 litres) of water an hour.


Image caption,
UI Octoson ultrasound, used from 1972 to 1994

The Commonwealth Acoustic Laboratories in Sydney played a part in developing one of the greatest gifts to parents around the world - the first glimpse of their unborn child.

The laboratory was one of many, in a number of countries, trying to find a way of examining unborn babies without using X-rays.

"While researching the use of ultrasound (high-pitched sound) to 'see' inside the human body, [the team] made a technical breakthrough called 'greyscale imaging'. This was a way of picking fine differences in ultrasound echoes bouncing off soft tissue in the human body and converting them into TV pictures," says the Powerhouse Museum website.

"The Ausonics company commercialised this technology in 1976 in the UI Octoson scanner. The patient lies on a water bed covered with a flexible membrane. Ultrasonic waves from eight speakers are beamed through the water and reflect off the part of the patient's body in contact with the membrane, and off internal organs... The Octoson was the first medical instrument to provide good images of internal organs, or of a foetus inside the uterus, without exposure to damaging X-rays."

Disposable syringes

Cheng and Knight argue that we owe this life-saving therapeutic tool to the expertise of a toy-maker from South Australia - though, once again, there are many others thinking the same way at around the same time.

The development of a convenient and efficient syringe became imperative with the arrival of the penicillin. The bacterial-fighting wonder drug tended to clog up glass syringes and make them difficult to reuse.

"In 1951, Harry Willis, a detailer at A M Bickford and Sons, the drug manufacturing company that was granted the rights to produce penicillin in commercial quantities patented his design for a cheap, disposable hypodermic syringe made from plastic," the authors write.

"Needing to find a plastics expert to make his concept a reality, Willis visited Charles Rothauser, whose South Australian business, the Quality Toy Company, was using plastic to manufacture dolls.

"With his plastic toy experience, Rothauser's task was to find a way to produce an inexpensive disposable syringe."

His early creations were cast in polyethylene, a common plastic. Later his designs were simplified when polypropylene, a more durable polymer, became widely available.

Plastic banknotes

Image caption,
The polymer notes even survive being dunked in water then frozen

In the late 1960s, government scientists were asked by the Reserve Bank of Australia to create a banknote that could not be forged, following the introduction of a new decimal currency.

The solution was a transparent panel and hologram embedded in the note, which would be made of plastic.

The waterproof notes were first released in 1988. Australia now boasts a currency that confounds the counterfeiters, and one that lasts four times longer than its traditional cousins.

It also prints polymer banknotes for many other countries including Bangladesh, Chile, Kuwait, New Zealand, Romania and Vietnam.