The belief that Australians are a uniquely original and innately inventive people is one of the great Australian legends. But are we really any more inventive than, say, the Japanese - or the English, Chinese, Americans, French or Canadians?
The story of Australian inventiveness is perpetuated by a number of anecdotes, traded in schoolyards, expounded around suburban barbecues, and integrated into the national consciousness.
Australians love to be reminded of the fact that their country developed the world’s first heart pacemakers and the world’s first ultrasound scanners. Australians adore hearing that one of their compatriots led the team that proved the clinical efficacy of penicillin. Australians delight in having won seven Nobel Prizes in science - or nine, depending on how you count them. Australians are also rightly proud of having pioneered the world’s first pre-paid postal service, and of having invented the ballot box.
But scattered throughout the pantheon of national inventions, there are also a number of lesser achievements, soberly elevated into pride of place among those few wild and shining exemplars of brilliance.
Excessive powers of observation, for example, are not required to see how Australians like to congratulate themselves whenever they remember (and this is not infrequently) that one of their own invented the aircraft voice and instrument data recorder, the famous black box. Never mind that this happened way back in 1953. Never mind that the jumbo jet has more than six million parts and represents as assemblage of who knows how many tens of thousands of inventions, of which the black box is but one.
In Australia, we have made ourselves so proud of this single innovation that it has almost come to define Australian brilliance. As a cultural critic once told me: “For contemporary Australians the black box is the most important advance in the history of aviation since the Wright brothers.”
But it doesn’t stop with the black box. Some years ago I met a South Australian engineer who espoused a rock-solid opinion that South Australian engineers and technologists had especially rarefied abilities. I asked him to give me a few examples of great inventions from his part of the world - that is, of totally new creations, not simply innovations or improvements to existing technologies. All that he could recall, now more than a hundred years after the event, was that one of his tribe (Richard Bowyer Smith, of Kalkaburry, South Australia) once dreamed up something called the “stump-jump plough”.
If the South Australian temperament is so truly, deeply and madly inventive, I thought, one has to wonder what on earth they have been doing with all their bottled brilliance over the intervening century. Still, full marks for trying.
I think sometimes that in Australia we are desperate to believe that we possess a particular kind of intelligence. I once saw it advertised by an Australian research agency, as a boast no less, as if it were a really marvellous, wondrous thing, that Australians in the middle of the 20th century built the world’s fifth electronic computer and that they had a crack at electrostatic photocopying even before Xerox in the US patented a much better process that was eventually commercialised so profitably by umpteen Japanese companies.
Whoever wrote that pamphlet knew exactly what they were doing. There is no better way to flatter Australians than to tell them stories about local inventiveness, even of a half-cocked kind. One can only be astonished that the agency in question didn’t also mention the work of Sydney engineer RJ Hastings, who in 1947 invented the world’s first automatic crumpet manufacturing machine, and who followed through soon afterwards with the world’s first machine for the automatic manufacturing of pikelets. Or that they omitted to describe the brilliance of Cyril Callister, who, in 1922, invented a vegetable extract called Vegemite.
Arguably, there is across Australian society an epidemic of vanity about the potency of the national imagination. Many Australians can’t help themselves: even though we believe on the whole we are a self-deprecating lot, many Australians are also intensely proud of their country and an awful lot of them seem to be the happy victims of a fantasy about our collective powers of invention.
Indeed, while most of us do at least have the capacity to approach a few ideas like the Hills hoist, the two-stroke lawn-mower and the wine cask with a degree of ironic sensibility, the very selectivity of this attitude serves mostly just to quarantine all other examples of apparent Australian inventiveness from hard scrutiny.