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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
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Sir Lindesay Clark


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Introduction (continued)

It is an achievement which has rarely been assessed in these terms and in which Australia led the world; the massive technology transfer and development by Japan and the emerging Asian nations, which occurred much later, when the means of communication had been improved immensely, has been much admired and described. Little has been said by comparison of Australia's technological evolution. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is that technical development is buried in many Australian corporate histories very few of which have been recorded and most of which are the result of teamwork. Surprisingly, perhaps the best records relate to early settlers, the pioneers of goldmining, explosives and pharmaceuticals, because they are dealing with individuals, as are the biographies of great scientists. While brief accounts of their achievements such as is attempted here may be sketchy and omit important events and pioneers, they are nevertheless representative of the spirit and personalities of the time. Accounts can be given by name and event.

By contrast, most technologies of the twentieth century were the collective products of sizeable teams. Corporate inventions tend to be anonymous; when polyethylene was invented in 1933 by Fawcett and Gibson and virtually rediscovered in 1935 by Perrin, all of ICI U.K., the product and the technology carried ICI's name -ICI polythene, not Fawcett's, Gibson's or Perrin's. When twenty years later (and after polythene had been fully developed) an individual worker, Professor Karl Ziegler, invented a new process for making a variant of the product, high density polythene, the process became known as 'Ziegler chemistry'. History has been kinder to individuals than to collective workers.

In Australia, in contrast to the gigantic enterprises which pioneered technologies overseas, few Australian companies were large enough to create the whole of a technology or even clearly discernible segments of it. The post-war policy of diversified industrialisation produced a thin spread of technological evolution over many areas, with little concentration apart, perhaps, from the resource-based industries. Australian innovations were, therefore, thinly spread branches grafted onto the trees of international technology. As a result it is easy enough to discern individual pioneers in the early history, and a few isolated inventors, but it is much more difficult to do justice to later collective achievements often of equal or greater merit and economic impact. In keeping with this, the account presented here therefore mentions some of the early pioneers by name and those of a few leaders and individual scientists; but with histories of corporate innovations it is fairer to present a collective record; contemporary workers in most cases are therefore mentioned by footnote only.

There is yet another element of anonymity in Australian technological case histories. Conventional history pays tribute to creative leaps -invention, discovery, insight in depth. But many of the Australian achievements are achievements in breadth -the absorption and reconstruction of massive data by individuals or small teams, modern technology transfer. If the history of technology of the twentieth century is anonymous, the history of technology transfer is doubly so.

This trend could be expressed differently. At the beginning of each technology wave the element of step-change and the impact of personality are large. As technology becomes more complex and insight deeper, individual contributions, however great, become a smaller part of the whole and the logic of technical development assumes a determinism of its own; parallel developments and simultaneous inventions become more frequent. Thus, the discovery of the catalytic oxidation of xylene to terephthalic acid by Chempatents predated ICI by one day: Natta's discovery and synthesis of polypropylene predated Phillips chromic oxide process for polypropylene by one day; and ICI Australia's synthesis of the veterinary drug tetramisole -a world-wide monopoly -predated American Cyanamid by just six weeks. The pre-eminent role of the inventor, scientist or entrepreneur remains, only there are many more of them at the crest of each wave.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - I.C.I. Australia Ltd

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© 1988 Print Edition pages xxix - xxviii, Online Edition 2000
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