Innovation and invention

Eve Terry
Friday, 18 March 2022

Australia has long been a nation of innovators. From the iconic to the unique and quirky, explore some of the thousands of patents, designs and trademarks in the National Archives' collection.

Let there be light

Did you know that patents, trademarks and designs are only commercially protected in countries where they have been registered?

This explains why we hold a patent application from American inventor Thomas Edison for his ‘Improvements in Electric Lamps’ from 1881. His electric lamp – which we know as the common light bulb, ‘consist[ed] of an incandescing conductor of high resistance, hermetically sealed in a glass vacuum chamber … ’ Edison achieved this despite the fact that the maintenance of a stable vacuum had been pronounced impossible by many scientists. The patent also describes a method of continuing the flow of electricity in a circuit in the event that a bulb is blown.

Click go the shears

In 1888 Tottenham Lee Richardson of New South Wales sought to improve on the sheep shearing method of his day by altering the motion of the shear cutters. Rather than a lateral motion cutter, he designed circular motion cutters to more easily and thoroughly shear those sheep.

This is produced by attaching to the underpart of my machine a number of steel blades radiating from a varying or changing centre, thus forming a comb which will admit of a revolving cutter being used on the upper surface.

While the revolving cutter isn’t widely in use today, a number of cutters on the market have evolved into a curved shape. Different cutters are used depending on the type of wool being shorn, and its eventual purpose.

Putting the ‘roll’ in rollercoaster

The invention process isn’t always fun and games, but in this case, it was! In 1913, Rogelio Garcia from Cuba patented an amusement ride that performed a somersault in midair before reaching its landing point. Garcia was actually a crash test dummy for his invention. He writes in his specifications that:

The vehicle was estimated to be travelling at the rate of over 200 miles per hour on leaving the trackway and rising approximately 20 feet into mid-air, effected three complete forward somersaults before landing on a resilient platform.

As Garcia declared the experiment a success, it appears that he escaped his death-defying demonstration unscathed.

Marks of quality

Well-known Australian brands need to be protected by an application for a trademark. In the late 19th century, these were submitted to the relevant state’s Patents Office.

The Castlemaine XXXX company has several iconic trademarks. The ‘eagle on cask’ trademark was registered in Queensland in 1894, by The Castlemaine Brewery and Quinlan Gray and Co.

Brands from overseas are also registered in Australia to protect the use of the trademark or product ‘down under’.

John Robertson and Son, who hailed from Dundee in Scotland, registered the Craignish Whisky trademark in Queensland in 1893. The father and son duo were also the makers of ‘Fine Old Scotch Whisky’.

Another ageless trademark is Sunlight Soap, registered in Queensland in 1896. Manufactured by the Lever Brothers, of the multinational company Unilever, Sunlight Soap was once marketed under the name Lever's Pure Honey. However, the requirements of the UK's 1875 Trade Marks Registration Act forced the company to abandon the name, as their soap was not pure and did not contain honey.

No leg to stand on

Design registration protects the visual appearance of manufactured products, in contrast to patents which cover function and construction. This design for ‘A lever for lifting the metal seals of bottles jars and the like’ was registered with the Australian Capital Territory’s Designs Office in 1922 by Francis Thomas Paten, and is a representation of a human leg!