Early Innovations in Agriculture

The first problems to overcome in the harsh new land was the provision of adequate food and shelter. Not surprisingly therefore, many of the country's early innovations were to do with agriculture and food processing. Although many ideas, processes and tools were originally imported and adapted to local conditions and requirements, a good number were world first innovations that made significant impact on agricultural practices globally.

English flour miller John Ridley arrived in Adelaide in 1839 with a James Watt steam engine and milling machinery, and set up South Australia's first steam-driven flour mill. In 1843, the shortage of labour and a bumper wheat harvest led him, and a local farmer named John Bull, to develop the grain stripper that cut the crop, removed and placed the grain into bins. Ridley followed Bull's unsuccessful first attempt at a working model two months later with a similar design that worked. The stripper was a major advance on the laborious harvesting of wheat by hand. It meant that four men could strip as much wheat grain from straw in one day as they used to in a whole harvest season. Ridley returned to England in 1853 to adapt the stripper to local conditions.

Born in Renton, on Loch Leven in Scotland in 1815, James Harrison came to Australia in 1837, and became the editor of the Port Phillip Patriot in 1838. Eventually he established the Geelong Advertiser and prospered in his new land as a newspaper proprietor. While cleaning type with ether, he noticed that the metal became cold as the ether evaporated, and realised that this could be used to make ice. He built the world's first mechanical refrigeration plant, installed in a brewery in Geelong, Victoria. By 1857 his patented machine could produce 3 tonnes of ice a day, but people claimed they preferred 'natural' ice imported from the United States. The venture failed, as did his subsequent attempt to export surplus Australian beef to England aboard the sailing ship Norfolk, fitted with his cooling system. Now regarded as the father of refrigeration, Harrison returned penniless to Britain in 1873 to work as a journalist.

Among the many expatriates who contributed much to the history of Australia was Scotsman William Arnott, who arrived in Sydney in 1848. A baker and pastry cook in Maitland, New South Wales, he eventually set up William Arnott Limited, a company which became synonymous with Australian biscuits.

Frederick York Wolseley who had arrived in Melbourne in 1854, began working on a practical hand piece for a shearing machine in 1868 - the same year that James Higham of Melbourne patented 'a new apparatus for shearing and clipping wool for sheep and other animals'. Seventeen years later in 1885, Wolseley demonstrated his shearing machine and started manufacturing it with his foreman Herbert Austin. In 1888, Wolseley returned to England and set up the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Co Ltd in Birmingham, and was joined by Austin soon after. The pair became famous when in 1895 Austin designed and made the first Wolseley motor car.

While ploughing his land, agricultural equipment maker Robert Bowyer Smith made a fortunate discovery. His plough hit an obstacle and a bolt holding a ploughshare broke. Surprisingly, the plough not only continued to work, it also jumped over stumps and stones. Together with his brother Clarence Herbert Smith, he developed a plough with a pivoting blade that slid over obstacles and was pulled back into the furrow by a weight. The prototype of his Vixen three-furrow stump-jump plough was exhibited and won first prize at the Moonta Show in 1876. Among the most important agricultural inventions of the nineteenth century, the plough revolutionised global farming practices by allowing the cultivation of newly-cleared land before all the stumps and rocks were removed. Unfortunately, Robert could not afford to extend his patents and his brother Clarence and others started making their own version of the plough, and ploughing in the profits.

The first stripper-harvester, the forerunner of the combine harvester, was conceived by 17 year old Hugh Victor McKay in 1882. He built the prototype with his brothers from scrapped farm machinery and kerosene cans, and successfully trialled it on the family's farm in Drummartin, Victoria in 1884. The machine could strip, thresh, winnow and bag grain in a single operation. The same year James Morrow patented a successful stripper-harvester for his farm machinery firm Nicholson & Morrow. McKay's unlikely looking contraption worked well and by 1885, his patented 'Sunshine Harvester' was in full production in Ballarat. Another farmer's son, Headlie Shipard Taylor from Henty in New South Wales, perfected and patented a machine that could remove grain from crops tangled and flattened by bad weather in 1813. Hugh McKay attended one of the trials and was so impressed that he bought the rights to the 'header' and manufactured the 'Sunshine Header Harvester' in 1916. Taylor also produced the first motorised harvester in 1924.

In 1886, American born A F Spawn launched his Climax fruit evaporator. Sliced apples were spread on trays, which were suspended and rotated in a chamber heated by a flow of hot air. This imaginative world first was the beginning of mechanical dehydration.

Other American expatriates were the Foster brothers who came from New York in 1888, with an American brewing plant and a German-American brewer to set up the famous Fosters brewery.

Although it was E C Hansen at Carlsberg in Denmark who developed the technique for producing pure yeast strains for brewing, it was Belgian born brewer and chemist Auguste de Bavay who arrived in Melbourne in 1884, that developed the first pure yeast culture to be used commercially in top fermentation in 1888 at Terry's West End brewery in Melbourne. Bavay eventually became head brewer at Fosters.

The son of a small landowner, Cambridge University graduate William James Farrer was unable to pursue a career in medicine due to ill health, and came to Australia in 1870 to become a sheep farmer. Instead, he became a surveyor in country New South Wales, where he saw the effects of disease on wheat crops. The devastation of wheat crops was so bad, that Australia was hard pressed to produce surplus wheat for export. In 1886, he took over the management of a small farm near Queanbeyan and began collecting strains of wheat from around the world. His 20 years of cross-breeding wheats began in earnest in 1889 in an effort to produce a naturally rust resistant high yielding wheat variety that had good milling qualities. Among the many disease- and drought-resistant varieties he produced was the famous Federation variety, which by 1920 accounted for 80 per cent of Australia's wheat crop.

Sixteen year old farmer's son Arthur Cliff Howard built the world's first rotary hoe in a blacksmith's shop at Gilgandra, New South Wales in 1912. Howard saw how his father's tractor wasted power by turning its wheels and just pulling the plough. He wanted to put the power of the tractor directly into ploughing, and through trial and error, he designed the rotary plough. There was little interest in his first version powered by a motorcycle engine. After World War I he tried again and in 1921 raised sufficient finance to start manufacturing the present rotary hoe. A year before his death in 1971, Howard was awarded the Order of the British Empire. His equipment had been exported to more than 120 countries and had revolutionised agriculture globally.

Even the humble crumpet was not overlooked. In 1947, Sydney engineer R J Hastings patented a machine for the continuous and automatic production of crumpets.

Scientists at Cambridge University in 1932, showed that the storage life of chilled beef could be doubled by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the refrigeration chamber. Subsequently, a group led by J R Vickery at Australia's foremost research body, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) were the first to develop the idea commercially. Established in 1926, CSIR's first patent application was in 1938 for Dr M Lipson's new shrink-proofing treatment using caustic soda dissolved in methylated spirits. In 1949, the CSIR was renamed the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The organisation has played a vital role in the development of much of Australia's science and technology contributions in recent history.

Until the mid 1970s, wool was the main source of Australia's wealth for more than 140 years. At its peak in 1951, wool represented 65% of the nation's total exports. Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of time, money and effort spent on research and development, and a significant number of major innovations have been made relating to the growing, treating and manufacturing of wool into textiles and garments. Many of these inventions were the work of scientists at the CSIRO.

Up until the 1950s, the wool industry lost a great deal of money every year from the use of henna, tars and paints used to brand sheep. These brands could not be removed by washing the raw wool, known as scouring, and had to be removed by hand before further processing the fleece. The invention of Siro-mark by the CSIRO, a new sheep branding product that could be removed from raw wool, was released in 1954. Siro-mark is a branding fluid consisting of selected pigments in a stabilised emulsion of lanolin which is easy to remove during scouring.

1957 saw the introduction of the world's first trousers with permanent creases, produced by the patented Si-ro-set process invented by Dr Arthur Farnworth at the CSIRO. A special resin was added to the wool fibres to temporarily change their chemical structure. When cloth woven from this wool was steam-pressed, the chemical evaporated and left a permanent crease in the garment.

In 1960, the self-twist yarn system, which was more than 10 times faster than previous spinning systems, was invented by David Hanshaw at the CSIRO and commercialised by Repco Ltd. The spinner worked by producing two-ply woollen yarn by twisting each strand individually and allowing them to untwist around each other.

In 1977, scientists at the CSIRO developed the water-soluble polyurethane pre-polymer, from which they developed the Sirolan-BAP wool fabric shrink-proofing process. This is still the main method of shrink-proofing wool textiles.

A new mechanical approach to wool yarn splicing was developed by the CSIRO in 1981. The Twinsplicer was commercialised by the major manufacturer of yarn-winding machines Savio SpA, who have incorporated the splicer into their machines.

  • 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.

    Public Notice: Due to an unresolved dispute with the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade), who copied and adopted as their own certain material from Tomorrow's World, the Australian Initiative, and published the material in their Australia Open for Business website, without remorse or recompense, access by Australian Government servers to this online edition has been blocked indefinitely.

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

  • Home | Editions | Reviews | Promotions | Publisher