Aussie Inventions that Changed the World

Comprehension Activities

Search for a National Science Week event near you: https://www.scienceweek.net.au/find-events/
60 great Australian inventions: https://www.weekendnotes.com/60-great-australian-inventions/
Aussie inventions to make your life easier: https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2014/03/10-aussie-inventions-that-make-your-life-easier/
Aussie inventions in the arts: https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2016/04/10-arts-inventions-you-didnt-know-were-australian/

Australian health care inventions: https://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/about-us/news-and-community/blog/how-innovation-improves-lives-10-australian-health-and-wellbeing



Without them, we’d have no wifi… no antibiotics… and no Google Maps. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to Aussie Inventions that Changed the World—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.

And I’m Bryce Corbett.

Bryce, National Science Week is coming up! There are more than 1000 events happening all over the country to celebrate science and technology, and more than one million Aussies are going to take part. Now, there are two purposes of Science Week – the first is to give a shoutout to the Australian scientists who have contributed so much to the world of knowledge; and the second is to encourage an interest in science. And Bryce, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be EXTREMELY interested in what we can learn from some of the Australians who have literally changed the world with their scientific inventions.

I don’t doubt that for a second. Today, we’ll take you through WHAT are some of the biggest Aussie inventions that changed the world; WHO are the inventors who’ve revolutionised medicine in particular; and WHY Australians are so good at inventing things.

Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!

Bryce, do you remember that not so long ago, the only way to connect to the internet was to plug a cable in to your computer?

Oh yes… I wonder what they did back then in classrooms?

Well, to put it simply – they didn’t do anything. There was no Internet access for kids at school. It’s a lot easier now with Wifi, isn’t it? And, you guessed it, WiFi was invented by two Aussie scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – known as CSIRO. What’s really cool is that they were originally looking for ways to measure black hole signals from outer space… but because the best scientists always keep their minds open, it occurred to them that they could use the same technology to build the core of what we now know as WiFi. Every year, CSIRO gets MILLIONS of dollars from around the world, because they hold the patents to key WiFi technology.

A patent, of course, is what you get if you invent something that is new and useful. If you’re granted a patent by your country’s patent office, then anyone who wants to use your invention has to pay you.

Every year, more than 2,500 Australian inventions are submitted to our patent office… with every inventor hoping that they might have the next Google Maps or black box flight recorder on their hands.

Hold on… they’re all Australian inventions? I thought Google was an American company.

Google is an American company that quickly buys other companies whose technology Google thinks will change the world. And they were right on the money in 2004, when they snapped up a Sydney company called Where 2 Technologies. The four guys who started it had the idea for a web-based mapping platform. Now, more than 7,000 people work for Google Maps, all over the world.

And the black box flight recorder? That’s the thing that records everything that happens on a plane, so if there’s a problem or a crash, investigators can figure out what happened, and prevent it from happening again.

That was invented by an Australian called David Warren, whose Dad died in a plane crash in 1934, when David was only nine years. By the 1950s, he was a research scientist in Melbourne, investigating what had gone wrong when the world’s first commercial jet airliner, The Comet, had crashed. He remembers seeing a little mini voice recorder and thinking, “If a businessman had been using one of these in the plane and we could find it in the wreckage and we played it back, we’d say, ‘We know what caused this.'”

So he invented the black box.

Although actually, it’s painted orange. Boxes that contained electronic components used to be called “black boxes”, but orange is easier to find at the scene of a crash. Australia was the first country in the world to make it compulsory for all commercial flights to have a black box, and nowadays, it’s required all over the world.

Imagine how many lives David Warren has probably saved, by preventing problems with planes from happening again. Speaking of saving lives, many of the Aussie inventions that have changed the world have been in health care. WHO are some of our most famous medical scientists?

There are SO many, Bryce, it’s hard to choose. But to start with, I don’t think we can go past Dr Mark Lidwill and his friend, the physicist Edgar Booth. Let’s see if you can guess what they invented. The first case of it working in a human was in 1928, when a newborn baby’s heart stopped. Dr Lidwell put a needle into the baby’s heart, then sent small pulses of electricity through it. After 10 minutes, the machine was switched off, and the heart continued to beat. That baby made a full recovery.

Oh my goodness! Was that an early version of a pacemaker?

That’s exactly right. Lidwell and Booth eventually made them so they could be implanted into your body. Your heart beats regularly thanks to its own natural electrical system, but if that doesn’t work too well, the pacemaker steps in, and starts your heart again. More than three million people around the world right now can thank these two Aussies that they’re alive – because they all have pacemakers in their bodies.

The next one on your list is an Australian scientist whom you say was behind the development of antibiotics… but I thought it was an English scientist who discovered penicillin, which is the key ingredient?

Yes, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but it was an Aussie who figured out what to do with it! In 1939, while working in England, Howard Florey and his team purified penicillin, and showed that it could fight bacterial infection. That led to antibiotics being mass produced and used to help injured soldiers in World War II. It’s impossible to say how many lives have been saved by Howard Florey’s antibiotics.

Then there’s the Australian company that developed plastic lenses for spectacles, which were much safer, lighter, and cheaper than glass…

And the Australian company that developed the ultrasound machine, which allows doctors all over the world to look at developing babies without exposing them to the radioactivity of an X-ray…

If your parents have a grainy black and white printout of you when you were still inside your Mum’s tummy, that’s thanks to ultrasound!

Then there’s Professor Graeme Clark, who invented the bionic ear. This one’s especially important to me, Bryce, because it was Professor Clark’s cochlear implant that allowed my Gran to hear again, after being deaf for a very long time.

Then there’s the Perth-based surgeon who invented spray-on skin for burns victims; and the Brisbane-based researchers who have developed the world’s first vaccine against cancer.

That’s right. Since 2008, their vaccine has been approved for use in more than 120 countries to protect women against cervical cancer. Again… just think of the lives improved and saved.

This all makes me pretty proud to be an Aussie, Amanda. WHY are my fellow citizens so good at inventing things?

Now we all think of Australia as a big country, which it is, if you look at how much land there is. But our population is only 0.003 per cent of the world’s population! Yet according to the most recently available statistics, we file 0.6 percent of all patents. That’s 200 times more than you’d expect, based on our population.

Wowsers! So what’s our secret sauce?

One theory is that we got good at inventing things because we were forced to! Early white settlers arrived in Australia without much stuff – and much of what they did bring from England was completely useless in the Australian climate and conditions. So they had to innovate, or suffer. I mean, there’s a reason the Coolgardie Safe – which kept food cold without the use of ice or electricity – was invented in a boiling hot gold mining town in WA.

But it’s highly likely that those early settlers were also learning from indigenous Australians, who invented the world’s oldest wind instrument, the didgeridoo, and an ingenious hunting tool called the boomerang.

Absolutely – the knowledge of people who’d already survived here for 60,000 years definitely helped. And in the past hundred or so years, we’ve also learned a lot from people all over the world. Australians are explorers – we travel a lot, and many of our brightest minds spend time learning and working overseas. Some of the inventors we’ve talked about did their most important work while they were living in other countries.

But they took that innovative Aussie spirit with them.

This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. Wifi was invented by scientists who were originally studying what?
2. What’s the name of the technology that allows people to see their babies before they’re born?
3. What did Howard Florey develop from penicillin?