19 November 2009

Inventive Australia

Australia Post has issued a new set of 55 cent stamps celebrating “Inventive Australia”. The inventions commemorated on the five stamps are:

- the Esky and the wine cask
- the ute and the B&D Roll-A-Door
- the Victa rotary lawnmower
- the Hills hoist
- Speedos and zinc cream.

These are great innovations which benefit us in our everyday lives, and are no doubt viewed with some affection by most Australians, but how much more inventive are the following:

- The “black box” Flight Data Recorder, developed in 1956 by Dr David Warren and his team at the then Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, now a part of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). These are standard equipment on airliners worldwide, and the prime source of information for all post-crash investigations.

- The Mills Cross radio telescope. The Mills Cross was built by Bernard Mills at CSIRO’s Fleurs field station in the Badgery’s Creek area west of Sydney in 1954, in the very earliest days of radio astronomy. The explanation of this innovation is somewhat technical, but it was a very cost-effective way of simulating a large parabolic dish (such as was subsequently built at Parkes), and producing higher resolution scans of radio sources than had previously been achievable. Each arm of the cross was 1500 feet (450m) long, running N-S and E-W, and consisted of two rows of 250 half-wave dipole elements backed by a plane wire mesh reflector; the individual dipoles were aligned in an E-W direction. The beam could be steered in the sky by adjusting the phasing of the elements in each arm.

Subsequently Professor Wilbur Christiansen of Sydney University used the same principle to establish the Chris Cross, a cross built of steerable dishes.

A second and larger Mills Cross, with arms approximately a mile in length, was built at Hoskingtown near Canberra. Following the discovery of the pulsar, the researches of this Mills Cross between 1968 and 1978 yielded 75 per cent of the then known pulsars.

The linking of dispersed elements to simulate very large arrays is now standard practice in radio astronomy around the world.

 - Atomic absorption spectroscopy, a technique for determining the concentration of a particular metallic element in a sample, which was developed in the 1950s by  lan Walsh and his team at the CSIRO Division of Chemical Physics in Melbourne.

- The Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), the unique over-the-horizon radar network, with arrays near Longreach in Queensland and Laverton in Western Australia, which provides wide area surveillance of the northern approaches to Australia. JORN was developed by DSTO, building on fundamental research into the physics of the ionosphere undertaken at the University of New England in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was one of the world’s leading centres for ionospheric research. The key researchers at UNE at that time were Reg Smith (my honours supervisor), a specialist in radio wave propagation in the lower ionosphere, and Frank Hibberd, a specialist in ionospheric fading.

Perhaps at a time when we are concerned to promote the “national brand” we should be celebrating these great achievements rather than the Hills hoist and the Victa mower, much as we love ‘em.

It would be remiss of me to fail to mention that these particular innovations were all the product of government research laboratories, and that they proceeded without the necessity for the researchers to obtain co-funding from industry. This flies in the face of the Howardesque ideology that if industry is not prepared to contribute to a research program, that is a sign that it is not worth undertaking. I look forward to the day when government research establishments can pursue their research without the requirement to raise industry co-funding.

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