The great invention search

9 February 2017

PhD candidate Jonathan Englert needs inventors to share tales of ingenuity, for a new study investigating Australia's strong track record of creation. 

University of Sydney PhD candidate Jonathan Englert.

'Invention obsessed': PhD candidate Jonathan Englert is researching the qualities that define Australian inventiveness.  

Be it the world’s first practical refrigerator or the wireless network enabling you to read this very sentence, world-changing inventions have long had Australian creators.

Now a doctoral researcher at the University of Sydney is calling on inventors across the country to share the nuts and bolts of their approach to innovation to help better understand the prevalence – and impact – of Australian ingenuity. 

Inspired by a ‘long, substantial and eclectic’ list of Australian inventions, Jonathan Englert is researching the cultural, historic and individual traits that yielded Australian inventions as wide-ranging as the black box recorder, the pacemaker, and the bionic ear.

“Most of all, it seems to me that no one has ever really explored Australian inventiveness the way it ought to be explored,” said Englert, a doctoral researcher at the University’s Department of Media and Communications. 

“There have been a handful of children’s books and the odd inventor’s profile, but nothing that’s tried to dig down into the why of Australian inventiveness, nothing that’s looked for what might be different in the ways Australians approach invention.”

I’m beginning to think a kind of fearlessness is very important for inventors.

Englert wants to pin down why and how it is that Australia has contributed so substantially to global invention – and he needs inventors’ help.

To aid this research, Englert is calling on inventors across Australia to share details of their process, practices and approach. His collaborators will need to be able to demonstrate that their invention story has a clear connection to Australia and that it is sufficiently advanced.

“First, I want to learn about their invention process. How does it happen? An initial spark? Tinkering? A problem to solve? Boredom? And then I’d like to get them to speculate as to what distinctly Australian elements influenced their inventiveness, if any. If time and other factors allow, I may visit and observe them in the invention process,” he said.

Australian invention is long and storied, as Englert recounts.

“The characters behind these inventions are fascinating; like Lawrence Hargrave who played a major role in the invention of the airplane and who was against patents (he was the open source pioneer of the 19th century), James Harrison, the journalist inventor of mechanical refrigeration to create ice, who made a disastrous decision around freezing beef and had to return to journalism, and Barry Marshall who overturned the medical establishment and won the Nobel Prize for discovering the cause of most ulcers.”

Englert has interviewed a number of inventors in the initial stages of his research – and even now, there is the hint of a theme emerging.

“I’m beginning to think a kind of fearlessness is very important [for inventors], but it’s not necessarily physical courage so much as it is a kind of essential confidence that one has a right to ask the questions that one is asking, and test the ideas that one wants to test. It’s still early days in my research, but this word “fearlessness” has come up again and again,” he said.

You can follow him on Twitter at @inventionsearch

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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