From convicts to Nobel Laureates

Australians are an inventive lot. The nation's past is punctuated with major innovations and scientific achievements from expatriates and native born Australians, few of whom are well known, and some of whom are frequently identified with other nations. But before applauding the inventiveness of European settlers in Terra Australis, it is fitting to recognise and give due respect to the ingenuity of the original inhabitants of the island continent, who for many thousands of years, lived in harmony with nature in their land. Their acute understanding of natural bush medicines and an inherent ability to survive in harsh conditions with seemingly simple tools, was a major achievement in itself.

At the time of their settlement, some 50,000 years ago, Aborigines were the most technologically advanced people in the world. Their best known tool, the boomerang, is not however unique to Australia. Similar curved throwing sticks were later developed quite independently by Egyptians, Hopi Indians of Arizona and by some tribes in Africa. This versatile old hunting tool was used to bring down fleeing game or adversaries in battle. Most were sharp and heavy, weighing between 1 and 2 kilograms, and were not designed to come back. Returning boomerangs were used for recreation and to scare birds into the open where they could be struck down with hunting boomerangs.

The woomera is another ingenious ancient implement used by Aborigines, primarily as a spear thrower. Woomeras were sometimes fitted with a stone cutting tool and also used as an axe. The multi-purpose pitchi - a long flat basket-like container carved from wood - could be used for carrying food, water and sometimes children.

With more than 200 languages, 600 dialects, and no written language, Aborigines devised a method of communicating using message sticks. Rather than carry an entire message, the carved sticks were used by the carrier to remember the message and sometimes used merely to show that the message was genuine. Simple in their design and construction, these were highly functional tools for a society of nomad peoples with a deep spiritual link with their land, living in harmony and as an integral part of their environment.

With its unique fauna and flora, this was a wonderful place to discover, and inspired some very famous European explorers. One of the first visitors to make a name for himself was botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who arrived on board the Endeavour in April 1770, when Captain James Cook took possession of Terra Australis at Botany Bay for King George III and called it New South Wales. Banks became famous with his unusual specimens on his return to London.

For early settlers however, this was a harsh and unconquered land that required taming. A land where everything was new and nothing resembled anything from home. Coming from a green and pleasant land with permanently flowing rivers without major variations between summer and winter flows, the first settlers were unaccustomed to droughts, arid regions and salinity of streams. Not realising at first that this was a very different land, their values and expectations were at odds with their environment. By European standards, rivers were small, and the country was vast. There were large areas of desert and many salt lakes, and some promising soils turned out to be saline, or impervious to water. The unbearable high summer temperatures caused water reserves in ponds and dams to evaporate faster than they had ever experienced.

The settlers learned about their strange and often hostile environment by painful experience. Within a few years of the first settlement, floods and droughts caused major problems for the new inhabitants. Through improvisation, toil and sheer determination, they overcame their hardships and carved a living out of their uncompromising new land.

Inevitably, much of the colony's first achievements are attributable to expatriate settlers from other lands. Many of the first achievers were convicts, often referred to as 'government men' who laboured for the government or were assigned to work for a free settler. Of the 1,485 people of the First Fleet that sailed into Botany Bay in January 1788, 770 were convicts. Among them was a man called Bloodsworth, an English brickmaker who made use of the brickmaking equipment brought on the voyage and became the colony's first brick maker.

James Squire, who also arrived with the First Fleet, saw the need to quench the colonial thirst, and became the colony's first brewer in 1790. Another convict, James Wilkinson, produced a 5 metre wide mill wheel, propelled by two other convicts walking inside it, and became one of the colony's earliest millwrights. Among the officers of the First Fleet was Lieutenant William Dawes, who set up an observatory and became the colony's first weatherman. Later, Captain Theodore Henry Alt of the Royal Engineers became the new settlement's first engineer and surveyor, and set about the task of laying out the town of Sydney under the direction of the colony's first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip.

Some visitors and expatriate settlers, made long lasting changes to the new found land, without even realising it.

The name 'Australia' was first officially used by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in December 1817. It was suggested by English explorer Matthew Flinders three years earlier in his book, Account of a Voyage to Terra Australis, because he thought it was 'more agreeable to the ear and an assimilation to the name of other great portions of the earth.' Flinders died on the day his book was published and never saw the name 'Australia' in print.

The Australian national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, was composed by Scottish songwriter Peter Dodds McCormick. It was first performed in Sydney on St Andrew's Day on 30 November 1878. But it was not until 19 April 1984 that it replaced God Save the Queen as the national anthem.

From the moment of their arrival, the new Australians were at a technological disadvantage to their relatives in the northern hemisphere. Travel and therefore exposure to new ideas and developments was difficult and time consuming. Isolated from the rest of the world, particularly before the turn of the century, Australians were dependent on their own resources and showed extraordinary ingenuity and inventiveness, both in adapting and improving imported technologies. Although early technology was largely derived from Europe, it was often skilfully adapted to local needs. The spirit of adaptation and improvisation that ensured the survival of the first settlement, has persisted to this day.

The establishment of sustainable agriculture and an effective transport system, were the two most important objectives for the settlers from Britain.

  • Early Innovations in Agriculture
  • Early Innovations in Transport
  • Early Innovations in Communications
  • Early Innovations in Science and Medicine
  • Imaginative Innovations
  • Notable Australian World Firsts from 1838 to 1995.

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    Print Edition: ISBN 0646252119 - Paperback - 224 pages - 350 illustrations - $55.00 incl. GST.

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