Early Innovations in Transport

Australia and America, share a number of historical similarities. Apart from their common beginnings as penal colonies of England, they both experienced much of their early growth and development directly as a consequence of improvements in their transport systems.

The survival and prosperity of the colony depended on the movement of people, and the transportation of goods, but establishing an effective transport system in an immense island continent, with a seemingly endless variety of geographic conditions, proved difficult for the first settlers. Initially, the scarcity of draught animals meant that people moved about on foot, and, chained together in groups, convicts were used to haul carts loaded with all manner of goods.

Sea and river transport played a vital role in the early development of the colony. All of the state capitals, except Adelaide, were established on navigable rivers and sea inlets. But because this was a penal colony, and the sea was the only possible escape route, regulations in 1791 restricted the size of vessels to 14 feet, and private construction of ships that could sail the Pacific to Asia was prohibited until 1813. Gradually, ports developed along rivers to serve the many steamers and barges that brought people, goods and prosperity to the outback.

By the mid 1800s, the introduction of clippers from America reduced the average sea passage from England to Australia from 140 days, to under 70 days. Both the British-built Cutty Sark, and her rival Thermopylae were frequently employed on the Australian run.

At around the same period, bullock wagons and horse-drawn carts became a common form of transport. In the interior, large teams of up to 42 bullocks, yolked in pairs, were sometimes used to haul tons of wool, wheat and timber. English coaches and gigs for passenger transport were largely replaced by the rugged Concord Coach from North America, used by American settlers on their westward migration. They were imported by Freeman Cobb, an American who had worked for Wells Fargo and The Adams Express Company during the California gold rush. Together with fellow Americans John Murray Peck, James Swanton and John Lamber, Cobb started Cobb & Co in 1853, which opened up a new era in transport that lasted for 70 years. Along the way, the design of the American Concord coaches were substantially modified to suit local conditions, both in the shape of the cab and in the treatment of the timber to withstand the extreme heat of outback Australia.

Camels were naturally suited to the arid conditions of the colony and were introduced in 1860. Used by many explorers, camels became an important means of transport in the outback.

The first steam railway in Australia opened in 1854, between Flinders Street in Melbourne to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne). By Federation in 1901, a vast railway network had been established linking capital cities, ports and the inland, with much of the equipment and technology imported from England. In this Victorian era, steam locomotives ruled supreme up until 1919. In the cities, cable tram networks that spread rapidly was based largely on American technology. By 1923 Melbourne's tram network was considered to be the world's largest.

Whereas the adaptation and improvisation of imported transport technologies was common, Australian inventors were often at the leading edge of international developments in the early days of both the automobile and aeroplane.

In 1897, David Shearer from Mannum, South Australia was driving around in the steam car he built with differential inside left rear wheel hub, and rack and pinion steering. He used the car to drive the 100 miles to Adelaide - where he needed permission from the Mayor before entering the city, led by a man carrying a red flag.

Lawrence Hargrave, who arrived in Sydney from England in 1865, pioneered flight with his models of kites and planes. In 1894 he achieved Australia's first heavier-than-air flight on the beach at Stanwell Park, south of Sydney, by flying 4.9 metres (16 feet) above the ground attached to one of his elaborate box kites. Although he failed to achieve free flight, and was beaten into the air by the Wright brothers in 1903, his research and experiments laid the groundwork for the development of powered flight. The radial rotary engine he developed in 1889, was the forerunner of the type of engine later used in many early aeroplanes.

In later years the country spawned a number of pioneering aviators. Brothers Sir Keith Smith and Sir Ross Smith won the England-Australia race in 1919 in a Vickers-Vimy. The following year, with financial backing from grazier Fergus McMaster, ex Flying Corps lieutenants, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness founded the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Services Limited in November 1920. Now known simply as Qantas Airways Ltd, next to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, it is the second oldest airline in the world.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith circumnavigated Australia in 1926 with fellow pilot C T P Ulm in 10 days 5 hours, halving the previous record. The following year, they made the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean, from Oakland, California to Brisbane in the Southern Cross. In 1928, Bert Hinkler made the first solo flight from England to Australia, and in 1930, Smith completed a round-the-world flight.

Pilot Arthur Affleck and Dr Kenyon Welsh began operating a DH50A air ambulance equipped with two stretchers out of Cloncurry in Queensland on 17 May 1928, and started the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In their first year they attended to 255 patients. Today, Flying Doctors travel more than 7 million kilometres a year and attend to more than 150,000 patients.

One innovation in the history of the automobile, was the idea of a farmer's wife, who wrote to the Ford motor company in Geelong, Victoria in 1932, asking why they could not make a vehicle suitable for taking the family to church on Sunday and the pigs to market on Monday. The company's only designer, 22 year old Lewis Brandt, designed an adaptation of the company's range of passenger cars with a strengthened open air load carrying space behind the enclosed front cab. The resulting utility vehicle with a front like a car and a rear like a truck, was commercialised in 1934.

Perhaps the best known Australian world first was the 'black box' voice and instrument data recorder constructed to survive a crash and document the last moments of a flight. In 1953 David Warren joined a team investigating Comet jet airliner crashes at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne. There he conceived and produced the first prototype of the 'black box' in 1958. It could record aircraft speed, altitude, pitch and roll, as well as the flight crew's dialogue for up to four hours on an assortment of stainless steel wire immune to fire damage. The Australian authorities dismissed the recorder as unnecessary, but fortunately the innovation was capitalised on by a British company and has since been installed in nearly every large aircraft in the world.

The inflatable aircraft escape slide which doubles as a raft in emergency situations, was invented by Jack Grant at Australia's international carrier Qantas Airways Ltd in 1965. Today, aircraft slide rafts are standard safety equipment on board all major passanger aircraft.

In the early 1970s, the need to haul large amounts of coal and iron ore by rail over long distances, led to the development of Locotrol which remotely controls a second group of locomotives in the train by radio, and made 2 kilometre long trains possible.

Physicist Bill McDowell and his team at Dunlop (now Pacific Dunlop Limited) developed the multi award winning Pulsar automotive battery in the late 1970s with a reserve power source which could start a car even when the main battery was dead. The lightweight fully sealed battery has been further developed and is now sold in the United States as the Switch battery, by GNB International, a division of Pacific Dunlop.

The interscan microwave landing system (MLS) developed by the CSIRO in the 1970s used a computer on board the aircraft to read a fine three-dimensional horizontal and vertical grid transmitted by microwave radio from an antenna on the runway. Another radio beacon gave distance measurements. Using the three signals, aircraft could pinpoint the runway from 30 kilometres away. The system allowed aircraft to approach the runway at a steeper angle and on a curved path. It also enabled aircraft to be guided into airports in bad weather conditions, including in zero visibility.

Engineers and scientists from the Department of Civil Aviation and the CSIRO researched and developed a radically new system of airport approach lighting known as T-VASIS - visual approach slope indicator system - with groups of lights which appear to the pilot on final approach as an upright 'T' if he is below, and an inverted 'T' if he is above, the correct glide slope. If dangerously low the pilot sees red warning lights. T-VASIS has been adopted as a standard at airports all around the world.

  • 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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