Our patently forgetful inventors

Annabel Crabb

Annabel Crabb

Annabel Crabb pays tribute to CSIRO’s WiFi patent win and praises a slew of other home-grown, sometimes obscure, inventions.

I AM ASHAMED to say that I did not know, until the reporting of this month’s international patent settlement, that the CSIRO had actually invented wireless technology – known as wi-fi – in 1992.

Wi-fi makes so much possible.

Working from the bath, for example.

The theft of one’s personal details by that Google truck chugging past. Hideous insights into the proclivities of complete strangers (and here I direct a long, stern stare at the person living near my train line who has a wi-fi network called ”Rapedungeon”; I presume you know who you are). The continuing commercial viability of luxury hotels, whose ability to gouge customers on phone calls – tragically undermined by the advent of the mobile phone – has been happily superseded by their new ability to charge $28 a day for wi-fi.

And after an extremely lengthy and complex legal proceeding, the CSIRO has emerged with a total of $425 million in patent royalties for its invention, from various US companies.

The litigation has set off all sorts of whining in the US, where various technology types accuse the CSIRO of being a greedy ”patent troll”.

Well, America: suck it up.

You want to complain about profiteering on intellectual property rights? How about you try a continent of people who haven’t been paying for Microsoft Word all these years? And anyway, the truth is that Australia – and this is a fact largely obscured by our comfortable national self-identification as a continent of dunderplunkens – has a fabulously eclectic, valuable, under-capitalised and definitely under-reported history of invention and innovation.

We all know about the bionic ear, penicillin, the stump-jump plough, the Hills Hoist, Vegemite and so on.

But did you know that Australians invented the notepad?

And the feature film? And the electric drill? And pre-paid postage? And the permanent crease for woollen trouser fabric (a CSIRO innovation without which the Mad Men series would be nothing)? And 1970s wedding presents would never have been the same without the Splayd, invented by William McArthur in 1946.

And 1980s music … well. As much as anyone can be blamed for it, the Sydney inventors of the digital sampling synthesiser, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, are your men in this case.

Part of our problem seems, historically, to have been that Australian inventions, for reasons of geographical isolation, or the unassuming nature of their inventors, have gone unacknowledged or been pipped at the post.

Just ask Lancelot de Mole, the South Australian who invented the armoured tank in 1912 and tried patiently to give the idea to the British Army, which filed his letter away and only found it after World War I had ended, whereupon it made de Mole an honorary corporal and paid him £987.

Or Henry Sutton, who came within a bee’s dick of inventing the television, only his was called the ”Telephane” and used telegraph wires to beam images of the 1885 Melbourne Cup to his house in Ballarat. Sutton, terminally unlucky, also recorded his successful construction of a light bulb on January 6, 1880 – 16 days after Thomas Edison.

Or Lawrence Hargrave, whose dogged work on aeronautics, box kites and wing design won him several minutes of exhilaration on a Wollongong beach in 1894 when he lashed four kites together and flew aboard them, five metres in the air.

Unlike the Wright brothers, who undertook the world’s first manned, powered, controlled flight nine years later and then spent the next decade suing the pants off anyone else who gave it a shot, Hargrave refused to patent his ideas.

”Workers must root out the idea that by keeping the results of their labours to themselves, a fortune will be assured to them,” he wrote, maintaining that the dream of flight was a collective human aspiration, rather than a business proposition.

Sometimes, Australian inventors have just not thought to commercialise their work.

Like the CSIRO’s Doug Waterhouse, who in 1963 came up with a fly repellent formula and respectfully delivered a sample for use by Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Australia that year.

Upon subsequently receiving a call from a representative of the Mortein company, Waterhouse handed over the formula for Aerogard, no strings attached.

In happy penury he joins Frank Bannigan, who invented the electrical powerboard for Kambrook in 1972 but failed to patent it, forgoing the staggering royalties that might otherwise have been payable on this international household item.

And what about Maria Ann ”Granny” Smith, the Sydney orchardist who, in 1868, developed the apple that still bears her name? She did not get a bean, though the late Steve Jobs was to wage a mighty and expensive war with the Beatles’ record label, Apple Corps, over the right to use the band’s famous record logo, a halved Granny Smith.

So I’m not too bothered about the CSIRO extracting a bit of baksheesh for wi-fi. Call it payback for the Granny Smith and trouser pleats.

Annabel Crabb writes for ABC Online’s The Drum, and tweets as @annabelcrabb.

This article was originally published in The Sun Herald

One thought on “Our patently forgetful inventors

  1. To Say Henry Sutton was terminally unlucky as an inventor is a great misscarrige of facts of Henry’s acheivements. On the contrary for instance Edison had many helpers and it took all of them years and thousands of experiments to produce the light bulb, yes Edison got the credit for it but Henry achieved his light bulb in isolation in Ballarat with no knowledge of Edison’s work or experiments. This singular achievement by one person in isolation of the world’s greatest inventors to me out weighs the credit of what was in the end many peoples work not just Edison’s. If Ms Crabb were to have attended the exhibition on Henry Sutton and his achievements in Ballarat last May then no doubt she would have understood clearly that Henry Sutton could never be described as terminally unlucky .which gives the readers of the article the impression that he was a failure somehow. Henry Sutton came up with the first fesable television system in 1885 if this is not amazing enough consider that it took another 63 notable inventors and 41 years before television became a reality and caught up to Henry’s vision. Failure I think not.

    Henry Sutton’s Great Granddaughter
    Lorayne Branch

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