Stump-jump ploughs, the Furphy water tank, the Coolgardie safe – these extraordinary inventions of pioneering days, born when early settlers were forced to adapt British products or craft their own from simple materials and limited tools, have filled books on Australian history.
Only a few of these histories, however, have considered the products and practice of industrial design from the 20th century. Generally, only the Hills Hoist, Victa rotary mower and the first Holden rate a mention.
The legacy of these examples of pioneering days has been great, and many of Australia’s industrial design products have become familiar words in the language.
While many of Australia’s 19th century “rural” design objects are extraordinary, they should not be used to define the Australian national character over a century later.
The 1874 Furphy water tank, the 1876 stump-jump plough and the Coolgardie meat safe of the 1880s all sprang from the needs of pioneering men and women on the land and are well known to most Australians.
On the other hand, Australians have tended not to eulogise those goods designed and manufactured for the urban or domestic sphere: kitchenware cast in iron, sporting goods, musical instruments, white goods and home furnishings. How many of these objects and their designers are national icons?
The pioneering spirit reborn.
The pioneering spirit is popularly held to have been reborn during the 1930s when so-called “depression-era” design objects were cobbled together. Furniture was constructed from old kerosene-tins, toys were made from jam tins and pieces of wire, while musical instruments were crafted from whatever their makers could lay their hands on.
Many historians and collectors have chosen to see the Australian national identity somehow revealed in these simple objects created ‘against the odds.’
Certainly these objects are the product of resourceful people, but the ability to improvise against adversity is by no means a character trait unique to Australians, which some writers would have us believe.
It is possible that the great innovators of today could be those who recycle discarded objects among the rubbish tips of large cities such as Cairo and Bangladesh.
Despite this, the pioneering qualities of improvisation and innovation have been popular in being presented as Australian themes – witness the successful television program The Inventors shown from 1970 onwards and its accompanying book by Leo Port and Brian Murray – Australian Inventors. (Stanmore, NSW: Cassell, 1978.)
The Australian public’s enthusiasm for the backyard inventor has been reflected in popular presentations of design issues in the mass media. The ABC’s popular television program The Inventors launched several new products onto the market.
The program also supported a new prize for inventors. The prize, National Award for Inventors, was inaugurated by John Lysaght (Australia) in 1971 to commemorate fifty years of manufacturing galvanised sheet steel and coil.
The award was also supported by the Inventors’ Association and the Industrial Design Council of Australia, and was to be bestowed upon the: “person or persons responsible for an invention which is likely to lead to improvements in the Australian way of life, directly or indirectly”.
Industrial design products in the fields of transportation, consumer products, furniture, building, machinery, communications were all eligible.
The award’s source, emphasis and phrasing – all suggest a direct appeal to a very Australian way of designing which has its roots in the term “inventing”. It is almost as though the term “design” and its associations with fine art and culture was perceived by Australians to be too grand, too “European” for this “settler” nation of pragmatists.
It does seem to be the case that Australians are in love with the mythology of the backyard inventor.
This is evidenced by the recent popularity of Mark Thompson’s book and television documentary Blokes in Sheds (Sydney: Angus and Robertson 1995) which explored all of the many uses to which Australian men put their backyard sheds: as a workshop, as a retreat from the wife and kids, as a place to mend the car, to invent, store junk, and drink beer.
Similarly in Anne Atkinson’s Dictionary of Famous Australians (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1992) many sports people, public figures and artists are celebrated but there is no section devoted to designers.
Instead, there is a section called “Inventors” that lists only practical men: Lawrence Hargrave, Lawrence Hartnett and other makers of useful things such as sheep-dips, agricultural implements and medical technologies.
Is the term “design” a little too cosmopolitan for Australians? They seem to prefer the more workmanlike term of “inventor” which might be explained by the continuing Australian identification with the “rural” national identity.
Many new products were launched by The Inventors, including the Swirl-on hose attachment, Decor’s range of plastic kitchenware and the Triton workbench – all good practical Australian designs.
The revival of The Inventors on ABC TV in 2004 demonstrates that innovation and improvisation still strike a chord with Australians.
It is useful to consider which of the many fascinating inventions shown weekly on the series will go on to be commercialised and become well known Australian products.