What will we think of next?

Sport and popular culture - the socceroos and Savage Garden - are the most conspicuous engines of Australia's global influence. But right from the start, even before European settlement, Australians have conceived, designed, invented and produced things of world-shaking importance, beauty and wonder.

Let's begin at the beginning. An age before winged flight, the continent's first inhabitants invented a spinning wooden aerofoil used for hunting - the boomerang. The first Europeans were a flea-bitten band of exiled felons and their first accomplishment - not an insignificant one - was their own survival. Their second was the invention of an authentic dialect and a brash attitude. As soon as the colonists set about taming the land and tapping its natural resources, their talent for invention blossomed.

The preservation of food was of paramount importance in the sunburnt country and it was not long before necessity fathered the invention of refrigeration. In 1854, engineer James Harrison, a Scottish immigrant and editor of The Age, created a commercial ice-making machine in Geelong. This was followed by a more sophisticated machine which forced refrigeration gas - in this case ether - through a condenser, where it cooled and liquefied before passing through the refrigeration coils as vapour, cooling the interior. The process that Harrison patented in 1860 is still used in refrigerators and airconditioners today.

Around the same time, the fledgling agricultural economy spurred the invention of the stump-jump plough, devised to allow blades on a plough to lift above any obstacle encountered. And in 1920, the world's first powered rotary hoe - until then fields were tilled by horse-drawn plough or by hand - was devised and patented by Moss Vale engineer Arthur Clifford Howard. In the space of a decade it revolutionised agriculture worldwide.

The young nation's ingenuity also found expression in what would become the dominant cultural medium of our age. In 1906, the world's first dramatic feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was produced on a budget of £400 and screened in Melbourne and regional Victoria. Cinema as mass entertainment was born.

Against a brewing debate about the sources of Australian prosperity in a post-manufacturing future, Good Weekend assembled a panel of experts to identify and honour our most significant creations. Biologist and immunologist Suzanne Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science, takes a long view of the subject.

"Australians are a very practical people because we started off at the other end of the world, needing to feed ourselves and take care of our health under conditions that were very difficult," says Professor Cory. "This no longer applies, but it was part of the formation of the Australian character.

"Australian Nobel Laureate Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet always thought it was an advantage living on the other side of the world, because he wasn't so interested in everyone else's thinking and had to think it through himself. Living remotely developed local ingenuity and local solutions."

The other panellists are Roy Green, dean of business at the University of Technology Sydney; Liane Rossler, designer and co-founder of Dinosaur Designs; Paul Berkemeier, president of the Australian Institute of Architects; Stuart Cunningham, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation; and Bill Mackey of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. The first five of their top 20 Australian inventions - the boomerang, refrigeration, the stump-jump plough, the powered rotary hoe and feature films - are outlined above; here are the remaining 15.

Penicillin
After its discovery by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming, the trial and medical use of the antibiotic was one of the most important advances in the history of medicine, and it was the work of a team gathered around Australian scientist and Nobel Laureate Howard Florey at Oxford University in the late 1930s. By 1944, Florey had begun testing the drug on wounded soldiers, which had some influence on the outcome of the war by helping to prevent infection on the battlefield. It was not until after World War II that large quantities of penicillin could be manufactured, and it has since saved more than 80 million lives.

Plastic money
Polymer banknotes were developed by the Reserve Bank of Australia, CSIRO and the University of Melbourne, and first issued to coincide with the 1988 bicentenary celebrations. In 1996, paper money was withdrawn and we became the country of the plastic dollar note. Polymer notes, which are stronger, longer lasting and harder to counterfeit than paper money, are now in use globally.

Gardasil
This vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV), developed from technology patented by the University of Queensland's Ian Frazer and colleagues in 1991, has significantly reduced the incidence of cervical cancer around the world. Gardasil vaccinations are believed to have caused a 77 per cent fall in some HPV strains responsible for the estimated 250,000 deaths each year from cervical cancer. More than 40 million doses of Gardasil have been distributed around the world.

The bionic ear
As a result of pioneering work in the early 1970s by Graeme Clark, foundation professor of the University of Melbourne's Department of Otolaryngology, hundreds of thousands of people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing are able to understand speech thanks to this electronic device surgically implanted into the ear's cochlea. Clark was inspired initially by his relationship with his father, who was deaf. The cochlear implant, as it is also known, is not a cure for deafness. Rather, it is a hearing prosthesis.

Wi-fi
CSIRO scientist John O'Sullivan's work in radio astronomy led to the invention of Wi-Fi, a technology now integral to the way people use computers, printers, televisions and telephones. IT specialists predict there will soon be more than one billion Wi-Fi devices worldwide. By mid-2010, the Wi-Fi patent had already netted CSIRO an estimated $250 million.

Relenza
CSIRO also gave us the influenza drug Relenza through the work of Peter Colman, Graeme Laver, Mark von Itzstein and their teams. Millions of doses of Relenza have been stockpiled and used by nations around the world to protect against bird flu and swine flu, bringing in $63.7 million in royalties for the Melbourne-based company Biota in the 2009-10 financial year alone.

ResMed
Thanks to the invention of this sleep apnoea device by Colin Sullivan at the University of Sydney, millions of people around the world are benefitting from better-quality sleep. Because sleep apnoea can cause heart disease and other chronic illnesses, their longevity has increased, too.

The wine cask
Australia's great contribution to the international wine industry - and perhaps to liver damage - is the wine cask, developed in 1965 by Tom Angove in South Australia. The device was made more commercially appealing in 1967 by the invention of a plastic tap, and this is how it is sold today.

The KeepCup
This clever eco innovation, designed by Abigail Forsyth in an effort to reduce the use of disposable cups - particularly for coffee - went to market in 2009. Since then, over three million of these colourful plastic containers have been sold in Australia, Europe and the US.

The power board
This ubiquitous device - a block of electrical sockets allowing several electronic appliances to be used at once - was invented in 1972 by Australian electrical engineer Frank Bannigan at Kambrook. But the invention is at once an Australian success story and a cautionary tale, for the company failed to patent it. As a result, today Kambrook shares the market with countless other companies. "I've probably lost millions of dollars in royalties alone," Bannigan has said.

Google Maps
The Danish royal family and the Sydney Opera House are not the only examples of Danish-Australian collaboration. In 2003, two Danish brothers, Lars and Jens Rasmussen, who had left Silicon Valley looking for fresh opportunities, started an IT mapping company in Sydney called Where 2 Technologies. Their application came to the attention of Google, which snaffled it up for an undisclosed amount the following year for use as a web application. The technology is now near universal.

Hot spot
This invention, by Warren Brennan of Melbourne-based BBG Sports, leaves an infrared illumination wherever ball touches bat. Thus has Australian sporting passion teamed with Australian smarts to revolutionise the game of cricket.

The Fairlight
In 1979, Australians Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel, who shared a passion for electronics, launched a digital synthesiser and sampler that allowed musicians to play any sound on its keyboard - even the barking of a dog - that had first been digitally recorded. Pop music has never been the same. Big-name early adopters included Peter Gabriel, whose 1982 song Shock the Monkey was the first major hit to use the Fairlight, and Stevie Wonder. Since then the Fairlight, named after a Sydney hydrofoil ferry, has been used by artists as varied as Kate Bush and New Order, U2 and Elvis Costello; in fact it might be easier to compile a list of bands who have not used it. With the possible exception of AC/DC it is Australia's greatest gift to pop music, and the latest Fairlight Pro app runs on iPads and iPhones.

The black box recorder
Australian scientist Dave Warren, whose father died in an air crash in 1934, invented and developed the black box flight data recorder to record voices from the cockpit, flight information and incidental noises and preserve them in a fireproof and shockproof case in the event of a crash. Warren built a prototype in 1957 and further refined it over the next three years. After the 1960 crash of TAA Flight 538 in the ocean off Mackay, Queensland, killing all 29 people on board, all Australian civil airliners were fitted with the device. Australia was the first country to make the black box (which is actually red) mandatory; today every civil passenger plane in the world carries one.

The car baby capsule
The world's first capsule - a bassinet inside a base kept in place by a sea belt - was designed in 1982 by Australian industrial designers Robert Pataki and Phillip Slattery at PA Design (the forerunner of design firm Invetech), together with Bill Botell and Bob Heath of Rainsfords (now part of Britax International). Over two million infants have been protected by their baby capsule, which is now regarded as an Australian design icon. In fact many hospitals won't allow a newborn to travel home in a car without one.

Lead-in photography by Damian Bennett; fairfaxsyndication.com

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