The inaugural Henry Sutton Oration: rediscovering the Australian who invented television, telephone handsets and networks in a lifetime of innovation

Jarrod Watt
Sep 4, 2016 · 16 min read
Henry Sutton with the world’s first wireless radio receiver that he designed and built. Image courtesy Lorayne Branch

Today is the very first Henry Sutton Day, marking the birthday in 1855 of Henry Sutton, one of Australia’s greatest innovators and inventors. He’s best described as Australia’s equivalent to Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, but sadly his achievements get nowhere near the same recognition as his American counterparts. He conceived of the technology for television, was the first to network telephones, designed the first telephone handsets, designed and built the first front-wheeled drive car and in 1892 met with Nikola Tesla in London — where the two discussed the new concept of ‘wireless’ and experimented with sending an image wirelessly.

Yet his name has been written out of the history books — Alexander Graham Bell even travelled to Ballarat, outside Melbourne, to meet him personally, but curiously made no mention of their discussions about how Henry had created a network of telephones linking his workshop to the Ballarat School of Mines and the local fire department, nor of his work in developing the first handsets for telephones.

This is an edited transcript of the inaugural Henry Sutton Oration in 2014 at the annual meeting of Telsoc, otherwise known as Telecommunications Association, the peak body for Australia’s telecommunications engineers and professionals that began its existence as the Telegraph Electrical Society in 1874

It was delivered by Robyn Williams, renowned science journalist and broadcaster, and presenter of Radio National’s Science Show.

Robyn Williams, Henry Sutton Oration, July 2014, RACV Club

“I’ve been around the country for many years, and I’ve asked the question: what did Henry Sutton do in in 1885?

And when I did this in Ballarat, not too long ago, with George Negus as the main speaker in a room, like this, he looked completely bewildered. When I did it in 101 Collins Street, at an event hosted by Simon McKeon, the chairman of the CSIRO and now AMP — he looked rather bewildered. One person in the room nodded wisely, and that was Katherine Livingstone, which is Telstra, and another person who always nodded, because he knew way, way, way back is barry Jones, former Minister for Science. When I mentioned that on air when being interviewed by Ray Martin on Channel 9, he asked me what would be the most exciting thing for people to know about, I said ‘Henry Sutton’.

Barry Jones had actually taken the demonstration of the telephane, the television precursor as part of an exhibition — people don’t know this.

Now, science has an awful lot of those sorts of stories. And the one in America which has just passed — if I were to ask you what did Alfred Schatz do in New Jersey in 1943 — huh?

Well the answer is he found the cure for TB. Now, if you’ve got Florey and that imposter Fleming, well-known in association with penicillin, why hasn’t anyone heard of Schatz? I mean, TB? Every opera star in the third act dies of it. Any number of poets… It was the scourge — and in some places it still is. And Schatz had done an experiment — the 11th experiment — with stuff out of the soil. And he put it on the TB germ, and he killed it. And he told his professor, who promptly purloined the discovery, and went on to win the Nobel prize. Waxman got the Nobel prize, and Schatz was forgotten, until just over a year ago, when Peter Pringle from the Sunday Times wrote a book called Experiment Eleven. It is a sensational book and tells you how some people still manage not to be remembered by history, despite having discovered something quite incredible, such as Henry Sutton did.

So the question is: what do you need for innovation really to be recognised for the follow-up to take place? You need leadership, you need creativity, you need collaboration between different forms of culture and society. Not just the technologist, but the entrepreneur, the politician and the people, and you need communication — you need the word to get out effectively.

One of the problems with leadership — I’ll illustrate by quoting someone who’s vaguely in your field, you’ll know who it is, I don’t have to tell you, you’ll guess — he was in a big enterprise with lots of people a while ago, just over 20 years ago with bloody computers. They all turned up with different sorts of computers, there were Macs and PCs, also different sorts of mainframe and mini computers, and they ran different operating systems… Not everyone ran Unix and people became wedded to them; they brought their teams from universities, so when they produced documentation they used their favourite computer, running their favourite operating system.

So CERN had seen people create documentation systems, and CERN had documentation systems coming out of its ears, and of course none of them talked to each other.

Now I, says this chap, had a certain amount of training in physics and it trains you to generalise. So when you look at a problem like this, and I’d spent some time bashing my head against it, I’d spent time writing code to pull stuff out of one documentation system and put it into another, and when you’ve done that a few times and you’ve looked at the number of working protocols you generalise — so I’ve realised you can generalise this into an abstract documentation system which is flexible enough to include all of it. And I suggested it to a few people.

Of course the moment you had somebody who had a trace of physics about them saying “Hey! It would be really cool if I wrote this program,” all the world’s programmers say “Oh yes, join the queue over there,” — there was not even a queue. There was a queue over there suggesting a new physics experiment, but there was no queue for designing software systems or new network protocols.

So there was nowhere to go. Somebody suggested I write a proposal about it. So I did.

In 1989 in March, I wrote a proposal about an internet-based hypertext system. Somebody said to me a year later, “Hey, how about that hypertext system?” I said I’d written a proposal about it. They said “You did? You should send it to me.” I said “I did.” And he said ‘Well send it again.” So I sent it around to the usual suspects, and just to rub it in, having sent it on March 1989, crossed it out, and dated it May 1990. I sent it around, and the same thing happened. Absolutely nothing. Nobody had the mandate to go and get me to design the Web.

If you’re wondering why innovation happens, one of the things is that great bosses let you do things on site — and a couple of companies now they initiate this formally, with 20% of time given to do all sorts of things. When the right boss turns up, it happens.

Here we’ve got the problem of trying to get innovation recognised, and we’ve got the problem of follow-up to some bright ideas. So let me shamelessly plagiarise Lorayne [Branch]’s writing and quote a few examples of what Henry Sutton did.

At the age of 14 — this was in 1870 — he invented a type of electric motor, which could also be used as a dynamo. It was the prototype of the first electric motor which would be used in factories all over the world. Henry did not patent his dynamo; Henry’s dynamo had the same features as the dynamo as the one featured in the French Academy of Sciences in 1871, invented by someone with a very long name. At the same time he invented an ornithopter, which mimmicks the flight of birds, driven by clockwork which could fly in a circumference of 12 feet from left to right, and upwards from a left or right angle. The ornithopter was fixed on a lever, having a universal joint so it could move in any direction. Henry is credited as the first Australian who experimented with flight, which was long before Hargreaves had those first experiments.

Aged 20 in 1876, Henry read a brief caccount of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the Scientific American. Bell’s telephone patent was issued on the 7th of March, 1876. Within six months Henry had designed and built at least 20 different types of telephones. Henry wired up Sutton’s Music Store and warehouse with telephone lines. This was at least 2 years before Australia’s first official telephone system was installed in Melbourne; that was about 1878, and the first telephone exchange was in 1880, shortly before Ned Kelly was hanged, and by 1884 over 7,000 calls had been made.

Henry did not patent his telephones; he believed the fruits of science should be available to all, and later 16 of his designs were patented by others who were less noble.

1880. He was working independently, and without any knowledge of Thomas Edison’s work on similar lines on carbon lamps; incandescent globes, in other words. Henry designed and builds the electric light bulb independent of Edison, but due to his isolation from the rest of the world, Edison beat him to it. Edison on the 21st of December 1879, Sutton on the 6th of January; that’s only 16 days apart. It was recorded by the Victorian Government astronomer, Ellery, that Henry had invented the light globe at the same time as Edison, but due to Henry’s isolation from the world stage, Edison got the credit.

1883; he was by then, lecturer at the Ballarat School of Mines, and he set up various organisations to develop instrumentation in Australia, and quote “that facility lead to the emergence of Victoria’s scientific instruments industry” and during henry’s time atas lecturer at the Ballarat School of Mines he set up a telephone system around the Ballarat School of Mines, probably the first school to be wired up with telephones.

Which brings us to 1885, that amazing year. Henry’s invention of the telephane, forerunner to television, three years before John Logie Baird was born. Around 1871 at the age of 15, Henry first invented a method so that any big event in Melbourne could be seen in Ballarat by the medium of the telegraph. Henry was so sure of this that he wrote the particulars to Mr Ellery who was the Government astronomer of Victoria, so the invention could be in the hands of someone capable of stating his claim of being the first in this direction.

And so it went on, Henry’s paper on the telephane was published in England, France and America and the Scientific American republished his paper in 1910. Henry did not patant the telephane, but Baird did use Henry’s principles to invent television some 43 years later. The telephane is considered to be Henry’s magnum opus by some people. Especially me.

Final example: there are many. In 1899 he designed and built in Melbourne one of Australia’s first cars, it was called the Sutton Autocar, which was an Antipodean invention, which could go at 30km/h; this car may have been the first front-wheeled drive car in the world. Henry’s car was reported in the English press at the time and featured in the English magazine Autocar, which the car was named after.

Two prototypes of the Autocar were built; and the Austral-Otis company was going to go into business with Henry to manufacture Henry’s car but the cost of car was rather too disarming and could not compete with the cost of imported cars.

Just a few more examples; I could go on for an incredible amount of time, and it makes you wonder really what the situation is with innovation in Australia that so few of us know of these examples.

You know it’s a ‘lucky country’ and you know that was meant as an ironic statement, that we’ve got too much and we don’t necessarily need to push ourselves to develop these ideas.

I was reporting on it last week on the Science Show, vis a vis solar technology. Here in Melbourne you’ve got Andrew Holmes working on organic solar, and in Queensland as well as the University of New South Wales you’ve got the world record performance when it comes to solar — but when I ask the question is it going to be applied, because we need it so much and because it turns out to be cheaper than using fossil fuels, there’s lots of evidence… the answer from the professor of physic at the University of Queensland is ‘no, you can’t beat the grids’.

The industry using the old-fashioned way has got it all tied up and it’s not going to happen. That is one of many examples of, if you like, incremental innovation.

I’ve mentioned Katherine Livingstone already, and she is a past master of explaining, as I can’t necessarily, how you are actually taking too many risks when you do the other sort of innovation which is disruptive, as Henry Sutton did.

In other words, if you do something really amazingly different, and it really clicks, people says “God that’s a fantastic idea’ — and they copy you.

One of the great examples of that is the smartphone and Mike Lazaredes in Canada, who developed the Blackberry and for about three years he held the market to himself, curious people in other places thought ‘yes, go this way’ and outflanked him, and he’d spent all that money in development. Huge amounts. It’s really costly doing disruptive. It’s so much easier if you just tweak something and make it slightly different and get more in the way of secure profits

One of the great examples of that I read about in the Economist some years ago in an editorial is the Frito-Lay little biscuit, which is simply a corn chip for guacamole. They put a curl in the corner so you could scoop up more. And their profits went through the roof. Why invent a new biscuit if you can just tweak the corner.

We are great tweakers in Australia. We have all sorts of ways of just slipping past, getting through, not necessarily following up the bright ideas, and this is a worry. We could actually do this, and we could do it quite startlingly.

If you look at the ways Australia has developed its own technology, you’ll find as Mark Dodson says… “We can be wonderfully innovative in Australia. When get up in the morning, we might use our dual-flush toilet, have a breakfast of vegemite and an aspro to overcome the hangover we got from drinking the wine cask the previous night. Clean our shoes using Kiwi polish, have a swim in our Speedos and find our way using Google Maps on wifi — make our tea using Zip instant hot water, do some woodworking on our Triton workbench and do some gardening with some dynamic lifter and a two stroke lawn-mower bought with polymer banknotes would help.

In doing so we are immersed in Australian product innovation, and when we add some of the organisational innovations in the public sector, such as the Flying Doctor Service, surf clubs, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or service innovations such as the Macquarie Bank’s funding of infrastructure, then we have much of which we can be proud.

The Sutton Autocar on display at the Ballarate Heritage Weekend in 2011. Photo: Jarrod Watt

Now. if you actually look at ways which we can exploit some of the cleverness going around the place is to follow up precincts — bright ideas in various places. They don’t necessarily have to have grown up there. If you were, say 50 years ago, to say ‘let’s go to California and develop all sorts of information technology — people say ‘ugh?’ You’d go to San Francisco… Nah, that won’t work. And then — Silicon Valley happened; it took off.

One interesting thing about Silicon Valley is, if you look at what has happened since with Steve Jobs, and if you look at the smartphone which he helped revolutionise, all seven technologies in that smartphone come from campus government funded research. He put them together and made them cute.

Would you go for a kind of valley in Woollongong? Port Kembla… smokestacks. Did you know there is an innovation institute of 100 people there, and they’re developing things like 3D printing of nerves and muscles. They’re now in conjunction with QUT. Have you heard of QUT recently? 3D printing of nerves and muscles. The infrastructure, the webbing of nerves and muscles. The infrastructure, the webbing through which cells can march and rewire broken central nervous systems.

Here in Deakin, we talked about carbon fibre, which could be the basis for everything, from vehicles but also space lifts — why use rockets when you could use the strongest materials in the world lifting you up. Maybe into orbit. Maybe to another planet. So around Geelong there could well be a materials based precinct.

Macquarie University and Katherine Livingstone again, based on Cochlear and the genius of Graham Clark you have an audio precinct, and in WA where I was this morning you have the prospect of big data — the Square Kilometre Array — looking at the stars, but it’s going to crunch as much information in a day as the world does in computers in a year. Big data.

So there we have the possibilities of precincts and the sort of thing that could, for example, happen in Ballarat. But the problems we have to overcome. We overestimate what innovation is all about. Yes, we are 9th on the list on OECD list in investment in research. Where are we in terms of translation or products, developments? We are 32nd of 33, according to Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist.

This is a worry. Given what we’ve done with education perhaps in the budget perhaps we might remind ourselves that 4 million people of the working population in this country are functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate. That’s an awful lot of people who are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

If you look at the way we are overestimating, to some extent, the innovation worldwide, there was funnily enough a report for the Pentagon on the amount of innovation done generally around the world, and the man who did it, he estimated if you look at the per capita innovation, what we’re doing now, is roughly the same as it was in the year 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

Now we’ve got all sorts of fuss about how clever we are and how much gizmos are coming off the conveyor belt, but if you analyse how much innovation actually happens, you find yourself — actually if you look around common sense tells you this anyway — you’re not in the promised land you might have achieved.

This really upsets me, because each week I broadcast a PhD, usually a young person, but two weeks ago it was a woman aged 93, Elizabeth Kirby… she was very much interested in why it was people get depressed about the times we live in because of various slumps, and she wrote a PhD on it and graduated at age 93. That’s pretty good isn’t!

But most of my PhDs are very young and I saw them last night in Fremantle, enthusiastic, talking about curing prostate cancer, doing work on fibres and each week I try and demonstrate to the world through our broadcasting, the sort of brilliance that is available in young minds just as with Henry Sutton when he started with those two amazing inventions.

How are we going to follow that up? I think we will follow that up by being more expansive about just encouraging people. Mark Dodson did a series on innovation for the Science Show, and he said one word, above all, is important, and that’s collaboration. People working with people. People in sheds working with people in Parliament working with people in business and giving each other the support that they need.

I want to finish with two thoughts. One of them was something written by a friend of mine whom I had dinner with on Friday, who is a professor of economics at Macquarie University. His name is Throsby, he has a sister called Margaret. He wrote a little article for the Times literary supplement about the how the ‘dismal science’ got its name — you know, economics, the dismal science.

Economics first appeared as the ‘dismal science’ about 1849, which is almost Henry Sutton’s time, really, in an essay by Thomas Carlyle, historian, who portrayed the subject as a dreary, desolate and indeed quite abject and distressing one. It is a sentiment many would still find appropriate today. But Carlyle’s words in inventing a sobriquet for the hated study of political economy are perhaps less interesting than the context in which he wrote them. The essay in question was entitled ‘Occasional discourse on the Negro question’.

It was a violent, virulent diatribe on the indolence of African labourers in the West Indian plantations. Although slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire 15 years earlier, Carlisle’s tirade advocated not emancipation, but tighter disciplines to compel the recalcitrant blacks to work. And it’s interesting that the Empire was so rich just because of the sugar in the plantations in the West Indies and the Caribbean, and looking at people who feel an entitlement, in this case the slaves, who thought they shouldn’t be treated as inferior humans. You have to be somehow supportive and humane about the exploitation of talent. You have to give some people what’s known by the simple phrase as ‘the hope of progress’.

And that seems to me to be one of the lessons of Henry Sutton. Everything he did was about not doing patents but doing it for the common good. I don’t know whether that’s right — I know you wouldn’t necessarily do it now — but for that reason, a well as his brilliance, Henry Sutton is a hero of mine.

Thank you very much

Lorayne Branch is has completed her biography of Henry Sutton and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to get it published

Jarrod Watt

Written by

Journalist, multiplatform editor, broadcaster; deputy online editor for South China Morning Post

More From Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade