In the first of our two-part series looking at Australia’s amazing steel inventions, we looked at some of our home-grown steel and stainless steel inventions that have gone on to become household items around the world. In the second post in the series, we’re getting a bit more high-tech and also looking at a couple of surprising inventions that were instrumental in the early defence industry.
The Brennan Torpedo
At just 22 years of age, Melbourne engineer Louis Brennan invented what is sometimes referred to as the world’s first guided missile back in 1877. What made the Brennan torpedo different to its predecessors was its simple concept, consisting of two steel drums mounted inside the torpedo shell, each carrying several hundred metres of high-tensile steel wire. The torpedo’s operator would be positioned on a (12 m) high telescopic steel tower, which could be extended so that the operator could track the torpedo and steer it with a greater degree of accuracy than previous designs had achieved. The Brennan torpedo became standard harbour defence across the British Empire and production of the torpedo continued until 1906.
While the idea was rejected at the time, it’s now acknowledged that the sketches and descriptions of an armoured vehicle concept, drawn by South Australian, Lancelot Eldin de Mole were the catalyst for the invention of what we now know as an army tank. In 1911, when de Mole sent his work off from an Adelaide to the British War Office in London, he was informed that they it been rejected. It wasn’t until a British royal commission was held after World War One that the British government officially recognised de Mole’s contribution, and he was sent a cash payment as recognition of his work.
Atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS)
Now we’re getting technical, but in a nutshell, atomic absorption spectroscopy is used across many areas of clinical chemical analysis, when scientists need to assess the amount of metal in biological fluids and tissues, such as blood, plasma, urine, saliva, brain tissue and muscle tissue. AAS can also be used to test metal concentrations in soil and water.
Although the concept had been around since the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1950s that a team of Australian chemists at the CSIRO fully realised its potential and invented the modern version of AAS that is widely used today.
Black box flight recorder
The most surprising thing about the black box flight recorder is that it isn’t actually black; they’re now orange to increase their visibility following an incident where the ‘black box’ needs to be recovered. Invented by Australian engineer David Warren, the first prototype was built in 1958. Essentially, the black box is an audio recorder in a super-strong stainless steel casing that records the conversation of the pilots in a plane’s cockpit. The term ‘black box’ is not often used in the aircraft industry and the exact origins of the name ‘black box’ are unclear, but with a ‘black box’ stainless steel system installed in every commercial airplane in the world, its long-term value as a flight recording tool is without doubt.
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Image Source: Brennan torpedo replica at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence; cut-out shows the two drums of wire used for propulsion and guidance By I, KTo288, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2367448