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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 9

I Introduction

II The Australian Chemical Industry
i Beginnings 1865-1919
ii Fertilisers
iii Raw materials from gasworks and coke ovens
iv The beginnings of industrial chemical research - in the sugar industry
v Explosives

III Pharmaceuticals

IV Chemists In Other Industries

V The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis

VI The Growth Of Synthetic Chemicals - Concentration, Rationalisation And International Links

VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories

VIII The Plastics Industry

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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Friedrich Krebs' 'Lithofracteur' at Deer Park (continued)

While corporate structures had undergone many changes, the link to manufacture of explosives on the Deer Park site was continuous, well over one hundred years. So was the impact of Nobel's great inventions on the early prosperity of Australia's mining industry and in due course, on the formation of a strong domestic chemical industry in Australia.

Until 1886 Nobel had shown no interest in military uses for explosives -in contrast to his father, who had dabbled in water mines for the Russian Czar. But he was aware of the shortcomings of his earlier inventions for military purposes. Dynamite did not propel, it blasted. Perhaps this challenge caused him to make his last great invention, 'ballistite' which converted nitroglycerine blended with partially nitrated cellulose into a military propellant. It was to be used by the armies of the world, including Australia's, and it was the foundation of his vast fortune and the Nobel prize.

A major patent suit developed in Britain when F. Abel and J. Dewar, who had had access to Nobel's secret recipe, developed a patent evasion, 'cordite', which was to be developed by the UK Ordinance Factories and eventually also in Australia.

The private chemical industry in Australia, however, did not become involved. Australian Governments had already set up an ammunition factory at Footscray (Victoria) in 1888[37] and built a cordite factory at Maribyrnong in 1910. At the same time, C. N. Hake, Inspector of Explosives and Advisor to the Department of Defence was appointed Head of the scientific laboratory at the Victoria Barracks. This, together with CSR's modest sugar laboratories of the 1890s, must rank amongst Australia's earliest science-dedicated laboratories.

From that date on the further development of military explosives was essentially a matter of defence science which is the subject of chapter 13. In contrast to the explosives producers in most of the world, the USA, UK, Germany, France, the chemical industry in Australia has always regarded it as a matter of pride that not only has it never produced military explosives as a commercial venture in peace time, but also that it assisted national defence during the wars, in times of national emergency and for a short transition period after the war as a commissioned Government Agent. Mellor, in his history, Australia in the War comments: 'ICI Australia Ltd. was able to provide valuable assistance to the Government during the war. Moreover, the company could call upon the great fund of technical experience of its parent organisation'.[38] At least in passing a few outstanding scientists and administrators in defence science who came from the chemical industry should be mentioned: C. N. Hake, A. E. Leighton (who chaired the important permanent Armaments Chemicals Committee and was later involved in the establishment of the Defence Research Laboratories), Sir lan Wark, Sir James Vernon, and T. Donaldson, formerly of ICI Australia and later appointed Head of the Directorate of Explosives Supply. Government chemists made significant advances, e.g. in the safer manufacture of 'cordite' M.D. (J. R. S. Cochrane and W. H. Coulson)[39] and in the displacement nitration process of wood cellulose which permitted the use of locally produced paper-wood cellulose (1941-43). An important fundamental finding arose in 1942/3 from the interaction between industry, the Munitions Supply Laboratories and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, or CSIR, as it then was) which through a circuitous route found its way from local science into international technology and then back into original Australian technology. This is the process so often claimed as one of the objectives of fundamental scientific inquiry, yet the eventual return and economical benefit from it to a small country of origin is indeed the rare exception rather than the rule.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Armaments Chemicals Committee; Australia. Department of Defence Scientific Laboratory, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne; Defence Research Laboratories; I.C.I. Australia Ltd; Munitions Supply Laboratories (M.S.L.)

People in Bright Sparcs - Cochrane, J. R. S.; Coulson, W. H.; Donaldson, T.; Hake, C. Napier; Krebs, Friedrich; Leighton, A. E.; Vernon, Sir James; Wark, Sir Ian W.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 643 - 644, Online Edition 2000
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