Ingenuity and Innovation

The collection of the Museum of Applied
Arts and Sciences celebrates human ingenuity through a broad range of inventions
and discoveries. Our collection includes many made in Australia.
Some of these you may have heard of, like the black box flight recorder or dual
flush toilet. Others might surprise you, like a new way of defining the
kilogram or a kit for spraying on new skin.

Apple iPhone (2008) by Apple Computer Inc.Powerhouse Museum

What is invention?

When we think of inventions and discoveries we normally think science and technology – but inventiveness can be seen in almost every human endeavour: from engineering and architecture to design and fashion. It's there in everyday objects like clothing and money, as much as in high-tech gadgets like computers and smartphones. Exploration, invention and discovery are all about pushing the boundaries of what we know and understand, and what we as humans are capable of.

Silicon sphere (1994) by CSIROPowerhouse Museum

Silicon Sphere, Sydney, Australia, 1994

This perfect silicon sphere was made as part of the 'Avogadro Project'
which is working to redefine the kilogram. For over 100 years the kilogram has
been defined by a small metal cylinder – known as the 'Big K' – stored in a
vault in France. But measurements show that the mass of the Big K is gradually
changing, meaning that ‘the kilogram’ is no longer a kilogram at all!

So that we don’t have to rely on a single kilogram standard, scientists are devising a new method of defining the kilogram that will allow it to be reproduced anywhere in the world. To do this, they have created a series of perfect silicon spheres, like this one. The definition of the kilogram will now be based on the number of silicon atoms in these spheres. Their maker is CSIRO's Achim Leistner who manually grinds and polishes the spheres into shape, using his hands to feel for imperfections. The result is a sphere which is perfectly round to within 30 or 40nm. If the sphere were scaled up to the size of the Earth, the biggest mountains and valleys would be only 5m high!

Cupcake CNC 3D printer (2009) by MakerBot IndustriesPowerhouse Museum

Cupcake CNC 3D Printer, New York, United States of America, 2009

In 2009, the concept of printing in 3D was foreign to many people. As
a new technology it had many flaws but still managed to capture the imagination
of a range of users and was quickly adopted by makers and tinkerers as well as
architects and designers.

This 'Cupcake CNC' is from the first release of 3D printers by MakerBot Industries and was designed and developed in a maker space. At the time of its release this printer was the only accessible and affordable option for individuals and community groups with limited technical skill or knowledge. Its release marked a shift in the 3D printer market from high end industrial rapid prototyping to small scale experimental design and production. As demand increased other companies developed consumer offerings, many of which were based on the open source plans and coding of the MakerBot 3D printers.

Kinematics Petals Dress II (2016) by Nervous System Inc.Powerhouse Museum

Kinematics Petals Dress II,
Somerville, USA, 2016

The shape of this garment was achieved by
importing a 3D scan of the female body into a computer aided drawing (CAD)
program. The program then creates a pattern capable of behaving like a
continuous textile despite the rigidity of the individual pieces. Any body
shape can be supplied to the program and the pattern self-adjusts to fit its
unique contours. The design is inspired by petals, feathers and scales, with
the interconnected elements able to move even as each piece overlaps another. 

The dress has been 3D-printed in durable nylon plastic using the selective laser sintering method which allowed the designers to produce it as one complete piece of clothing. In order to achieve this, the dress has 1600 unique petals, interconnected by more than 2600 hinges. Its digital design is folded up to fit inside the print bed and emerges from the 3D printer fully assembled and ready to wear.

Australian $10 plastic banknote Australian $10 plastic banknote (1988)Powerhouse Museum

Plastic banknote, Australia, 1998

This Australian $10 note, released in 1988, was the world's first plastic banknote. It contained an 'optically variable device' – an image that changes with viewing angle – sandwiched between layers of clear plastic, making the notes impossible to copy. The work was led by chemist David Henry Solomon at CSIRO, whose breakthroughs in polymer chemistry made this possible. However, these developments were not without problems – the ink tended to rub off and the notes were resistant to folding, as people who kept their money in their shoes discovered! These issues were quickly fixed, and plastic notes were adopted by many countries around the world. In addition to being counterfeit resistant, plastic notes last ten times longer than paper money, and can even survive the washing machine.

Peacock figure (1873-1875) by MintonsPowerhouse Museum

Peacock Figure, Stoke-on-Trent, England, 1873-75

This rare, earthenware peacock was modelled
in about 1873 by French sculptor Paul Comoléra for Mintons, England’s leading
ceramics factory. It is coloured in bright majolica glazes, Mintons’
much-admired innovation which was first shown to the public at the Great
Exhibition in London in 1851. It is estimated that Mintons made at least twelve
peacock figures, only eight of which are known to survive today.

Introduced in 1849, majolica-glazed wares brought Mintons a prestigious award at the Great Exhibition of 1851. They also created a sensation amongst Parisian connoisseurs when shown at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855. It is the depth and translucency of light-reflecting majolica glazes that enables the plumage of the Minton peacocks to mimic the iridescent blue and green appearance of its fabulous life model: the blue Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus).

Boomerang found in Sydney Boomerang found in Sydney by Unknown maker, Australian AboriginalPowerhouse Museum

Boomerang, Sydney,
Australia, date unknown

This boomerang was discovered in Sydney in the mid-twentieth century buried under about 10.5 m of earth. The depth at which it was found suggests it may date back hundreds, or even thousands of years, making it one of the oldest surviving boomerangs ever found in NSW.

Boomerangs were developed and used as a hunting tool by the Australian Aboriginal people who have lived on this continent for at least 60,000 years. While most people would be familiar with the ‘returning’ boomerang, hunting boomerangs are not designed to return. A hunting boomerang is more delicately balanced than a returning one, and their development demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of motion and aerodynamics, combined with exceptional craftsmanship.

Boomerangs are an incredibly effective hunting tool: a boomerang thrown at close range is capable of inflicting mortal injuries on large animals like kangaroos and emus, as well as killing smaller birds and animals. Due to its size and shape, it is thought that this boomerang was used to kill small birds and other prey.

GoreTex lockoff jacket (2005-2011) by The North Face IncPowerhouse Museum

GoreTex Lockoff Jacket, San Leandro,
United States of America, 2005-11

Exploring the extreme environments of our
planet requires special equipment. Cas and Jonesy used these jackets when they
attempted to become the first people to make an unsupported return trek to the
South Pole. They succeeded, and now hold the record along with Norwegian
adventurer, Aleksander Gamme. These North Face jackets were selected as they
are made with GoreTex fabric. Using one of the latest products at the time, GoreTex
Pro Shell fabric, they are waterproof, windproof and highly breathable,
making them ideal for the extreme climate of the expedition. But, Cas and
Jonesy learnt on a training expedition in the Arctic that ‘off the shelf’
products could not meet their requirements. 

These jackets have a number of custom alterations sewn on by hand, such as the fur ruff around the hood to keep the wind out of their faces, and the loops you can see on the zippers so they could be opened while wearing bulky gloves.

Earnshaw chronometer No. 520 (1801) by Thomas EarnshawPowerhouse Museum

Chronometer No. 520, London, England, 1801

Long before the era of GPS, Matthew Flinders became the first person
to circumnavigate Australia, and this chronometer was instrumental to his
efforts. Whereas a pendulum-style clock will not work aboard a moving ship,
chronometers like this one were capable of keeping accurate time at sea. This
allowed ships to determine their longitude on the earth, with their latitude
being calculated from the elevation of the Sun and stars above the horizon.
Navigating in this way, Flinders completed his circumnavigation, mapping large
portions of the Australian coastline as he went.

When Flinders left Sydney in 1801 he had five chronometers aboard the ship, but by the time he returned only the Earnshaw 520 was still working. The maps Flinders produced on this voyage were so accurate that they are almost indistinguishable from modern satellite images, an incredible feat that would not have been possible without this reliable little timepiece.

Model, DEEPSEA CHALLENGER (2012) by James Cameron and Ron AllumPowerhouse Museum

Australia, 2012

It’s said that, to date, humans have only explored 5% of the ocean floor and that we know more about the Moon or Mars than we do the watery depths of our own planet. In 2012, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER set about changing that when National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron achieved a new world record in deep ocean exploration. Cameron and submersible co-designer Ron Allum built the unique, vertical DEEPSEA CHALLENGER for a single occupant. Allum created new materials for it, including a special foam called ‘Isofloat’ which could withstand the enormous pressures at the bottom of the sea. On 26 March, the craft reached a depth of 11km, and sustained pressures of up to 16500 psi - more that 1100 times normal atmospheric pressure. Cameron became the first person in history to reach the deepest known part of the ocean, the Marina Trench, as a solo pilot, capturing incredible new 3D footage, and taking scientific samples, of one of the least explored parts of the ocean.  

Antarctic sledge used on Douglas Mawson's expedition (1911) by L. Hagen & CoPowerhouse Museum

Sledge, Kirkegaden 19, Christiania,
Norway, 1911

Sir Douglas Mawson was a keen believer in the scientific work of the expedition and focused on developing maps and gathering meteorological data. Many trips were made inland and along the coast to gather more information. Mawson was accompanied on one of these trips by Dr Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant B. (Belgrave) E.S. Ninnis, but both Mertz and Ninnis tragically perished on this journey. The AAE expedition is now remembered more for this trek, in which Mawson made a remarkable and unsurpassed solo sledging journey of about 100 miles (161 km), than for its scientific achievements.

Feedhorn from the Parkes radio telescope (1969) by CSIRO Division of RadiophysicsPowerhouse Museum

Feedhorn from the Parkes Radio telescope, Sydney, Australia, 1969 

When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the moon the world was watching and the Parkes radio telescope 'The Dish', in regional New South Wales, was part of a global network of tracking stations responsible for receiving the TV signals. In the first minutes of the moonwalk, NASA switched between other stations trying to get the best picture. But when the moon rose high enough to be visible from Parkes, the larger dish gave such superior quality that NASA switched the picture to Parkes, staying with them for the remainder of the 2.5 hour broadcast. Throughout the broadcast the telescope battled dangerously high winds, but somehow managed to stay locked on the Moon, delivering the images we all know and remember. The incoming radio waves, which carried the TV signals, bounced off the surface of the dish and were reflected up to the feedhorn and receiver at the focus. From there they were sent to Sydney for broadcast to Australia and the rest of the world.

HumaPen insulin injector (1997-1999) by Eli Lilly and CompanyPowerhouse Museum

HumaPen insulin injector, Australia, 1997-1999

Humulin was the world's first approved genetically engineered human
therapeutic. The insulin is made by inserting the genetic code for human
insulin into the bacteria Escherichia coli, where it is incorporated
into the bacteria's own genetic material. The bacteria then read the genetic
code and begin producing the insulin, which is subsequently isolated, purified
and packaged ready for use. The insulin made is chemically and physically
identical to insulin produced by a human pancreas and replaces therapeutic
insulin derived from cattle and pigs, both of which have adverse side effects
in some people.

While scientific advances like genetic engineering are frequently met with fear, Humulin is one example of how these technologies are changing the way we treat diseases and improving the quality of our lives.

Fibre optic manometry catheter Fibre optic manometry catheter (2005-2008) by CSIROPowerhouse Museum

Fibre optic manometry catheter, Sydney, Australia, 2005-2008

Described as the 'Hubble Space Telescope of gastroenterology' this set of medical devices allow doctors to map when and how the gut muscles are moving, taking the guesswork out of the diagnosis and treatment of gastroenterological disorders. It monitors muscular activity at 1cm intervals along the entire length of the colon, using 120 individual sensors connected to a series of thin, flexible optical fibres. Each sensor transmits on a different optical wavelength so the signals can be processed simultaneously, allowing muscle movements to be seen as they happen. The development of this device was only possible through the collaboration of people from many different disciplines - physicists, engineers, material scientists, software designers, technicians and doctors. Similar devices are now being developed for a range of other health issues as well as industries such as mining and water management.

ReCell spray-on skin kit (2013) by Avita Medical LtdPowerhouse Museum

ReCell Spray-On Skin Kit, Western Australia,

ReCell enables a surgeon to apply skin cells, collected from a healthy sample of the patient's own skin, to an area that needs new cells, to ensure appropriate healing, skin texture and pigmentation. The kit produces a suspension that contains all the cells necessary to promote healthy skin growth, including cells to promote healing (keratinocytes) and colour (melanocytes).

In the early 1990s Australian researchers, Professor Fiona Wood and colleague Ms Marie Stoner, developed a spray-on ‘autologous’ skin culture technique, meaning samples are taken from the patient. They began by growing skin cell cultures into sheets, then delivered them in suspension to the wound surface. Finally, they worked on delivery as an aerosol using a spray nozzle. The Australian company Avita Medical began research and development into making a useable product that utilised Professor Wood's technique. The result is the ReCell kit which is used for a wide variety of wound, plastic, reconstructive, burn and cosmetic procedures.

Furnace used by SMaRT, UNSW Furnace used by SMaRT, UNSW (2003) by Radatherm Pty LtdPowerhouse Museum

Furnace, Sydney, Australia, 2003

What if you could turn your rubbish into something new and valuable? That was the question that inspired chemical engineers led by Veena Sahajwalla at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to develop this technology. Traditionally when we recycle we simply turn like into like: old plastic into new plastic; old paper into new paper; and so on. But the team at UNSW took an entirely different approach, looking at what elements different waste products contain and what chemical processes could be used to combine them and produce something totally new. In their early research they used this furnace to melt down old car tyres and produce the carbon needed to turn iron into steel, saving millions of tyres from landfill every year. They’ve also figured out how to turn the glass and plastic from windscreens and headlights into high purity ferrosilicon alloys for use in electronic devices.

Apple iPhone (2008) by Apple Computer Inc.Powerhouse Museum

Apple iPhone, Cupertino, USA, 2008

iPhones are everywhere now, but can you believe it was only 2007 that the first Apple iPhone was released? Smartphones like this house an incredibly powerful computer in a tiny package – something previous generations, with their valve technology and main frames, couldn't even have dreamed of. This miniaturisation of technology was made possible through innovations like integrated circuits, which incorporate complex electronic circuits containing dozens of individual transistors onto a single 'chip'. Smartphones have also seen the development of sophisticated touch screens and brought features such as fingerprint and facial recognition to the masses. But perhaps more amazing than the technology they contain are the ways that smartphones have changed our lives, revolutionising how we communicate with one another, and putting banking, shopping and entertainment at our very fingertips.

Traffic light pedestrian crossing button (1976-1989) by K J Aldridge Automatic Systems Pty LtdPowerhouse Museum

The Audio -Tactile Pedestrian Detector (ATPD), Sydney, Australia, 1976 -1987

In 1967, Cecil McIlwraith, a visually impaired resident of Sydney, asked the NSW Department of Main Roads to introduce pedestrian traffic signals that could be heard. Audio signals were introduced to a few Sydney intersections, changing from a bell tone to buzzer when it was safe to cross. Unfortunately, the bells often malfunctioned sounding like buzzers, creating deadly confusion.

It became quickly apparent that a new design was needed and in 1976 the Roads and Traffic Authority (now Roads and Maritime Services) hired acoustic consultants Louis A. Challis and Associates who devised the two-rhythm buzzer that is used today. The model seen here leads the international standards for acoustic and tactile signals for traffic lights and was created by industrial designer David Wood. He added new features like the magnetic button, tested to withstand millions of pushes, and the braille arrow which indicates the crossing direction and vibrates in time with the buzzer. 

DuoSet dual flush toilet cistern DuoSet dual flush toilet cistern (1990) by Caroma Industries LtdPowerhouse Museum

Dual flush cistern, Adelaide, Australia, 1990

The Caroma dual flush toilet was developed in response to Australia's limited water resources. Caroma created a research and development project to reduce water use which was funded by a Commonwealth Government Grant. This project led to a considerable redesign of the traditional cistern and bowl, creating the dual flush system. The use of this system reduced national water consumption for toilet use and addressed the significant issue and cost of wasting clean water. The 9/4.5L dual flush system reduced average water use by about half and it became mandatory around Australia in all new buildings. Caroma redesigned the cistern and pan in 1994 to produce an even smaller 6/3L product which reduced water use to 18L per person per day.

Photograph of Brewarrina fish traps (1880/1900)Powerhouse Museum

Photograph of Brewarrina fish traps,
Brewarrina, Australia, c 1880-1900

The Brewarrina fish traps are so old that the local people, the Ngemba, attribute their construction to the creator spirit Baiame. Great skill and understanding is displayed in their design. Covering a significant portion of the river, they create pools and channels that are used to control the fishes’ behaviour.

Yet, the innovation of the Brewarrina fish traps lies not just in their construction but also their management. They form part of a complex aquaculture system, whose management practices are embedded within the cultural fabric of Australia’s first people. The traps allow them to effectively manage breeding stock, efficiently catch fish and ensure productive harvests at Brewarrina, all without impacting on fish levels at other locations along the river system.

Surf life saving reel (1955-1965) by Lyster Ormsby (Inventor)Powerhouse Museum

Surf Life Saving Reel, Sydney, Australia c. 1960 

This timber lifesaving reel dates from about 1960 and was used by the South Curl Curl Surf Life Saving Club. The surf lifesaving reel is an Australian innovation, invented in 1906 by Lyster Ormsby, who made a model of his invention from a cotton reel and two hairpins. The first full-size reel was built by Sgt John Bond of Victoria Barracks in Paddington, and was later improved by Sydney coachbuilder G.H Olding whose final design was used until 1993.

 The reel allowed a lifesaver wearing a belt with a rope attached to reach a distressed swimmer. The crew on the beach could then pull them back to the beach. It required discipline and control to carry this out efficiently. While lifesaving competitions still include the use of the reel, it was phased out of active service for rescues in 1994. 

'Black Box' prototype flight recorder (1960) by Dr David Warren and S Davall & Sons LtdPowerhouse Museum

‘Black Box’ prototype flight
recorder, designed in Melbourne, Australia, 1960

The story of the 'black box' flight recorder proves that not all good
inventions are an instant hit. While investigating a series of airliner
crashes, Australian scientists realised that if they could capture the final
moments of a flight, it might allow them to reconstruct the cause of the crash
and thus improve the safety of the aircraft. They set about designing a device
that could survive the impact of a crash. Inventor David Warren was forced to
travel to the UK to develop the idea further after little interest was shown
for it in Australia. Ironically, in 1960 Australia became the first country to
make flight recorders mandatory.

They are now legally required in all commercial aircraft and have drastically improved the safety of air travel. And for those wondering, the name 'black box' comes from the generic engineering term for any device or system where the input or output can be observed and understood but not its inner workings - the flight recorder’s famously orange exterior gives no clues as to its function, but is virtually indestructible.

Spectrum splitting solar cell prototype (2014-2016) by Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at UNSWPowerhouse Museum

Spectrum Splitting Prism, Sydney, Australia, 2014-2016

This spectrum splitting solar cell, developed at the Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), represents a major innovation in rooftop solar cell design. In 2014 it broke the world record achieving over 40% efficiency from natural sunlight, approaching the theoretical limit of 52% efficiency. It is a unique approach to improving rooftop solar panels focusing on a solar module design that can be adapted with existing technology. To do this the UNSW team combined two solar cells together in a prism design and used a specially created filter to send the different wavelengths of light to the solar cell best able to capture each wavelength. The team is hoping to establish the design's feasibility by 2020. If successful, they will look at combining cheaper silicon cells with other affordable cell technology to bring the cost of the module down: it currently costs about AUD $10,000 to make one of these solar cells.

Credits: Story

Explore the MAAS Collection

Curated by Sarah Reeves & Nina Earl

Digital Producer: Ryan Hernandez

Ryan Hernandez
Marinco Kojdanovski
Michael Myers
Sotha Bourn
Geoff Friend
Andrew Frolows
Vanessa Pitt
Sarah Reeves
Nitsa Yioupros

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Once Upon a Try
A journey of invention and discovery with CERN, NASA, and more than 100 museums around the world
View theme
Google apps