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An Entrepreneurial Nation: Agricultural Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth Century Australia

by Ann Moyal

John Buncle's iron works, North Melbourne, n.d.

John Buncle's iron works, North Melbourne, n.d.

North Melbourne Library

In a period when both Australian historiography and the earlier volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography were preoccupied with governors, politicians, judges, public officials, clergymen and explorers, a striking assemblage of inventors and innovators also emerges from the ADB’s twelve volumes covering the period between 1788 and 1939. These men (for there were few women amongst their ranks) contributed significantly to the course of Australia’s development and history and, in many respects, stood on the very front line in the making of Australia. Their work dealt directly with the physical landscape, and their endeavours and inventions made an important contribution to the development of Australian social and cultural life. In this essay I will consider agricultural innovation as part of an exchange of ideas occurring within a wider global context, both colonial and non-colonial. I argue that agricultural innovation drew upon external influences which were adapted to the unique demands of the particular setting, reflective of a wider process in which Australian identity was negotiated between internal experiences and external ideas.

For this essay, I identified some fifty biographical entries in Volumes One to Twelve of the ADB (including the Supplementary Volume of 2005) on people who could be described as ‘inventors and innovators’ in Australian agriculture, their contributions suggesting a sustained commitment to an entrepreneurial agrarian development that placed Australia on the international map. These life stories also suggest that much of this endeavour had its genesis in informal or unofficial settings, developed outside institutional conditions, and was often dependent on trial and error, and occasionally on chance discoveries. Equally, given the close connection of the landscape to the business of survival, much of this innovation had strong emotional implications, which provides insight into evolving relationships with the land.

Forsaking the old world for a little known country across the seas, these men brought with them their talents, experience, and technological know-how to meet the challenges of a new environment and new commodities, to develop their entrepreneurial skills, and to contribute collectively to moving the Australian colonies into an industrial age. Their presence represented far more than what Manning Clark called the ‘bush convention – all that making do, that genius for improvisation of the great army of the deprived in the Australian bush’, although that was there. But conspicuously in an immigrant country, these settlers introduced a significant multicultural component into technological innovation, bringing skills and expertise from England, Ireland and, particularly, Scotland, as well as Europe, America and Canada, to establish innovative ventures across the Australian colonies. With training as skilled artisans, wheelwrights or apprentice engineers often grafted onto their original education at home, and spurred by the gold rushes and other opportunities offered by a new land, they initiated a broad range of agricultural mechanization: wind power, transport, canning, refrigeration, irrigation, hydraulic railway brakes, mechanical implements,and occasional areas of telecommunication, concentrating on the critical needs of a young country and contributing collectively to the growth of an industrial and exporting nation.

In 1841, Scottish immigrant William Morton (1820-1898) arrived in Port Phillip with some training in engineering, and set up as a pastoralist. His invention and patenting during the forties of a successful sheep dip for dressing scab, and a swing gate for drafting sheep, made an early contribution to what was to become a highly competitive field in Australia’s first century of British colonisation. Another Scot, John Buncle (1822-1889), arrived in Melbourne in 1852 with a background in Scottish engineering workshops, and initially joined Langland’s foundry as a general engineer, designer, wood worker and contractor, supplying iron work for several of Melbourne’s large bridges. But he soon turned to the construction and diversification of agricultural implements becoming, as his entry notes, ‘a prominent member of that extraordinary group of men whose inventions put Australia in a notable place in the history of the evolution of “extensive” farming techniques in the nineteenth century’.

English born James Alston (1850-1943) arrived in Victoria in 1861 (or 1863) and, after an apprenticeship in the iron trade at Ballarat and several years training in general engineering, turned his inventive skills to the construction of iron (and later steel) windmills of circular design with curved sails, which both provided the solution for tapping artesian water and met the growing demand for power to drive saw mills, shearing machines and even ploughs. His windmill design was patented in 1884 and, with improvements in design, by 1890 he was on the way to dominating the Australian market and exporting to South Africa. By the 1890s hundreds of Alston’s windmills were operating in the Western District of Victoria. With a large modern factory built in Melbourne in 1897 and equipped with skilled staff and machinery he had invented or adapted, Alston is described as ‘probably the last of the Victorian manufacturers who had made that colony the industrial leader of Australia’.

Family firms played a central part in the development of agricultural equipment designed for Australian conditions. The Scottish-born brothers, John (1845-1932) and David (1850-1936) Shearer, became key inventors of fixed ploughs, scarifiers, harrows, strippers and grubbing machines which were crucial in dealing with landscapes of mallee and native pine scrub, and the harsh groundscape of Australia.  John’s ‘Patent Four Light Stump Jump Plough’ won prizes in 1887 and was followed in 1888 by his invention of resilient steel ploughshares which he patented throughout Australasia. By the century’s end ‘resilient steel’ (‘Resilflex’) had become ‘the backbone’ of all the instruments of the successful Shearer family firms.

The adaptation of ideas from abroad could be useful to innovation locally, and honed approaches to solving problems peculiar to the Australian agricultural environment. Scottish-born Alexander Dobbie (1843–1912), having set up a successful foundry in Adelaide in 1862, drew on a visit to the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876 to secure importing agencies for milking separators, washing machines, sewing machines and bicycles which he used as a foundation to focus productively on reinventing and reproducing ‘for farm and home’. Such adaptation was stimulated and advanced by colonial, inter-colonial and international exhibitions during the last three decades of the nineteenth century where new machinery and inventions were displayed, and by the Agricultural Societies of the different colonies. Furthermore, colonial governments periodically offered rewards for machinery that was particularly needed. Australian-born inventors frequently doubled as pastoralists and built their innovative approaches both on knowledge garnered from their own experience and from the emerging egalitarian Mechanics Institutes, with their libraries and lectures in each colony, such as the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in 1833 and the Launceston Mechanics Institute and Public Library in 1842. They accordingly became widely involved in adapting, modifying and improving agricultural implements and machinery, some of which were developed and patented overseas but were not wholly suitable for Australian conditions.

Australian-born John Furphy (1842-1920) began his career as a blacksmith in Kyneton, Victoria, and moved to Shepparton in the Goulburn Valley in 1873 where he opened the town’s first blacksmith’s and wheelwright’s shop, expanding later into iron founding to make his establishment the largest of its kind in northern Victoria. There he produced a range of farming equipment modified to suit local farming conditions. In 1884, his patented grain stripper won him first prize at the Grand National Show, while his entry of a grain stripping machine, a furrow plough and iron swingletree won him high awards at the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1886.

Patenting was central to innovation in Australia and crucial to subsequent industrial development. Nonetheless long interludes between invention and eventual production also brought frustration. After promising starts, many innovators and inventors were forced to confront the prospect of failure and financial pressure before their ideas reached fruition. English immigrant John Ridley (1806-1887) arrived in South Australia in 1839, invested widely in land, and invented a wheat reaper built with combs and beaters that swept off the heads of wheat. A decade later, over fifty of these machines were operating in the Australian colonies and others had been exported. Yet compared with his investments in mining and land, Ridley derived little financial benefit from his invention. Similarly Richard Bowyer Smith (1837-1919) unveiled his stone and stump jumping plough at Moonta, South Australia, in 1876, a radical invention that allowed the shares to glide over stumps that otherwise required grubbing, and promised a complete revolution in tilling uncleared land. While recognised as the inventor of the stump jump plough however, he made no fortune from it.

Examples of colonial collaboration feature strongly in the story of Australian agricultural innovation and invention. Thomas Sutcliffe Mort’s (1816-1878) arrival in Sydney from Lancashire in 1838 led him to accrue capital as an auctioneer and promoter of railways and a foundry. But driven by a vision of opportunities for Australia, he teamed up with the French engineer, Eugène Dominique Nicolle (1823-1909), who trained at French and British engineering works, immigrated to Australia in 1853, and in 1861 patented an ice manufacturing process dependent on the evaporation of ammonia. Together the two men began to experiment freezing carcasses in a small factory; carted country-killed meat to Sydney and established a large freezing works near Sydney and an abattoir at Lithgow. In this multicultural enterprise Nicolle called on basic scientific work being developed in France, while Mort added his energy, drive and organization to recruit investors – a key ingredient of colonial industrialization – and to renew their efforts when the process of refrigeration encountered problems. He would sum up his own input in telling words as ‘unremitting toil, increasing anxiety and mental strain, and merciless expense’. In 1878 Mort and Nicholle chartered a ship to transport a cargo of meat to Britain but, delayed in its fitting up, it sailed without the cargo. Mort died that year but the process he had initiated was capitalized on a year later when the SS Strathleven carried 40 tons of frozen beef and mutton to Britain, all of which was discharged in excellent condition. While Andrew McIlwraith (1844-1932) would head the successful syndicate that carried meat export forward, Mort stands as the pioneer of refrigeration in which his long entrepreneurial leadership formed the basis for successful innovation.

European talent for innovation and invention fertilized other Australian fields of endeavour. Belgian born Auguste de Bavay (1856-1944) arrived in Melbourne in 1884 with skills as a brewer, bacteriologist and metallurgist, and was at once taken on as a brewer by T & A Aitkens Victoria Parade brewing and distillery. At the time, the fermentation process for brewing was the only one available world wide, ‘Cascade’ in Hobart being the first brewery established in the Australian colonies in 1824. But de Bavay developed Australia’s first ‘pure yeasts’ foundation process and emerged as the first brewer in Australia (or possibly the world) to adopt pure yeast in fermentation brewing. He subsequently joined Fosters, Melbourne, as chief brewer and developed a trade in draught beer that established Melbourne at the forefront of brewing technology. His ‘Melbourne No 1’ brew, which he created in 1889, became the basis of colonial and Australian brewing. At much the same time, Christian Koerstz (1847-1930), arriving in 1887 from Denmark via New Zealand, brought consummate inventive skills to Australian industry, including improved wool presses, water pumps and rotary pumps. Joining his initial efforts with Frederick Mason, Koerstz began a long series of inventions and patents, his wool presses designed to suit both small and large establishments finding wide distribution that brought him a significant reputation in Australia’s pastoral industry.

Other native born entrepreneurs added their singular inputs. Hugh McKay (1865-1926) responded to the South Australian Government’s offer of a prize to produce a harvester combining stripping, threshing, winnowing and bagging. With his father and brother John, he assembled and patented a stripper harvester from existing implements and machines, patenting it in 1885. He went on to form the McKay Harvesting Machinery Company in 1890 and, after its demise in 1892, the Harvester Company, which in 1893 produced the famous ‘Sunshine’ harvester. After soaring sales in Australia, the ‘Sunshine’ was successfully marketed in South Africa, Argentine and North America, and by 1904 had made the company the largest manufacturing exporter in the Commonwealth.

Many contributed to this expanding arena of agricultural progress: their names flicker across the Dictionary volumes. Accordingly, by 1900, the economic historian Noel Butlin concluded that, through innovation and the application of skilled manpower, agricultural development and manufacture had become the fastest growing sector of the Australian economy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (Butlin 1964). The twentieth century would see it gather further momentum and entrepreneurial vision. But the nineteenth century stands essentially as the domain of the individual inventor who, through imagination, drive and technological persistence, brought the Australian colonies to productive agricultural maturity. In this critical and competitive endeavour patenting offered a vital ancillary to the work.  It was an expensive process. Patents had to be registered in all colonies to afford protection (in South Australia they required an Act of Parliament).  Information, however, was made available in each legislature’s annual Patenting Proceedings where information on new machinery and new approaches encouraged and underpinned modifications in products, processes and designs. To ignore it proved countervailing. John Ridley’s failure was a case in point, while the versatile locally-born inventor, Henry Sutton of Ballarat (1856-1912), an imaginative designer of ‘high technology’ in the 1880s and 1890s, including mercury air pumps, a host of telephone designs and an embryonic television device, eschewed patenting to his own and, perhaps, also to the national cost. Sutton believed that the free flow of information was a gift to science, while his imaginative inventions fertilized work overseas.  Similarly, Australia’s flight hero, English-born Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915) – outside the agricultural environment yet long honoured on five penny and forty-five cent postage stamps and the paper twenty dollar note – also believed in the free flow of unfettered  scientific knowledge. Indeed it is possible that his unremitting research and labour assisted the Wrights’ successful early flights and flowed into aeronautical technology abroad. A failed innovator, isolated, and working in a conservative environment, he was unskilled in enlisting or drawing either technical or financial assistance to his cause.

An additional feature of success lay in the timely marriage of invention and ‘outsider’ knowhow and management, pertinently illustrated in the record of the Irish immigrant Frederick York Wolseley (1837-1899) who arrived in Victoria in 1854 and who, through persistent experiments over twenty years, devised and developed a mechanized sheep shearer. Wolseley himself was not a trained inventor but a ‘technical outsider’ who called in expertise to develop and demonstrate his idea, drawing in a number of skilled partners and patenting his modifications as they emerged. His machine was first demonstrated in 1886 and initially brought strong resistance from shearers and graziers. But the widespread demonstration of the machines throughout eastern Australia, ‘pitting it against the blades’, and the distribution of information on the new technique, together with the machine’s speed and financial returns to shearers, won through, and by the century’s end machine shearing had revolutionized the wool industry and established a technological lead. Wolseley left Australia in 1889 to set up the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company in England in order to establish an international market. After his return to Britain he sent Herbert Austin from his Birmingham headquarters to serve in his workshop at Goldsborough Mort, Melbourne, to improve the overhead gear of the shearing machine. Austin (later Baron Austin) would subsequently return to Birmingham to design and make the first Wolseley car and found his own Austin Motor Company.

Certain points can be drawn from the experience of agricultural innovators and inventors in nineteenth century Australia. Firstly, innovation and diffusion of technology was spurred by patenting and invention, and entrepreneurial skills – the ability to finance and market the product – were the most conspicuous features of successful nineteenth century innovation. ‘First failure’ among inventors followed by renewed efforts and a motivated search for entrepreneurial backing could lead to important innovations. Inventors and innovators found specific niches, promoting and marketing techniques and products that enabled Australia to establish a technological lead in important areas, such as the stump-plough, machine harvesting, and reaping.

There is an unexpected footnote to the story of Australia’s rise as a country of significant agricultural innovation. ‘First failure’ among a spread of technically trained immigrants, did not always lead to renewed efforts in the development of promising ideas. A remarkable number, notably of Scottish engineers who came to the colonies to try their hand at manufacturing and innovative schemes, fell back after their first venture, declining to take the risks required for manufacturing enterprise, and made their way into the colonial bureaucracy. The public sector benefitted. Australia made strides in railway extension, bridge building, and telegraph and long-line telephony and in port construction using technologies and know-how adapted from overseas. The public service hence provided a safety net for highly educated technologists and engineers; inventors and innovators, although lost to the private manufacturing centre, were to bring their skills and imagination to the extension of Australia’s public infrastructure.


Noel Butlin, Investment in Australian Economic Development, 1861-1900, Cambridge University Press, 1964.

R. A. Buchanan, ‘The British contribution to Australian engineering: the Australian Dictionary of Biography entries’, Historical Studies of Australia and New Zealand, 1983, vol. 20, no. 80, pp. 401-419.

S. Encel and A. Inglis, ‘Patents, invention and economic progress’, Economic Record, 1966, vol. 24, no. 98, pp. 572 – 588.

G. J. T. Linge, Industrial Awakening: a Geography of Australian Manufacturing, 1788-1890, Australian National University Press, 1979.

Stuart Macdonald, ‘Australia – the patent system and the individual inventor’, European Intellectual Property Review, 1986, vol. 6, pp. 154-9.

Stuart Macdonald, ‘The distinctive research of the individual inventor’, Research Policy, 1986, vol. 15, pp. 199-210.

Ann Moyal, ‘Invention and innovation in Australia: the Historian’s Lens’, Prometheus, June 1987, 5 no. 1, pp. 92-110.

Citation details

Ann Moyal, 'An Entrepreneurial Nation: Agricultural Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth Century Australia', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 26 February 2015, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John Buncle's iron works, North Melbourne, n.d.

John Buncle's iron works, North Melbourne, n.d.

North Melbourne Library


James Alston patent iron windmill, 1894.

Museum Victoria, 1500516


David Shearer Harvester, 1910.

State Library of South Australia, 35208


David Shearer Ltd Factory, c.1890.

State Library of South Australia, 35204


Furphy's Foundry, Shepparton, Victoria, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 53159547


Engine used by John Ridley in his flour mill at Hindmarsh in 1840, 1915.

State Library of South Australia, 7567


Ridley's reaping machine, c.1900.

State Library of South Australia, 8586


stump jumping plough, invented by the Smith brothers in 1876.

National Archives of Australia, A6180:18/​1/​79/​17


E. D. Nicolle's patent for a revolving freezer, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, A 2751


Koerstz improved wool press, c.1916.

Queensland Museum, 289582


Wolseley sheep shearing machine, 1911.

State Library of Western Australia, b1962618


first combine harvester invented in Australia, made in 1885 by Hugh McKay.

State Library of Victoria49344546


McKay's Sunshine Header Harvester, c.1920.

Museum Victoria, 007969