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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)

There are many reasons why the history of technology is full of gaps and its appreciation is not always balanced. We can cope with the historic record at the point of conception, with the basic invention and the individual inventor. We find it harder to do justice to his successors who transformed it into complex technology, particularly in the large corporations whose professional role is innovation and where individual contributions are submerged in massive team work. We value originality but hesitate to draw lines in the continuum from mere novelty to the scintilla of creativity. The scientific method is, of course, common to both science and technology, but we find it easier to trace the iterative sequence of theory, experiment and hypothesis in the individual scientific record; in technology we merely see the massive practical end result of a collective process. Hindsight colours the interpretation of scientific advances towards theoretical prevision and the image of technology towards empirical determinism -yet the reality is often the opposite. The technologist converges purposefully on the target but the scientist owes as much to serendipity as to prevision and lateral thinking.

These difficulties are reflected in the history of technology transfer between generations and nations. We know of the correspondence of leading scientists and their mutual stimulation it well documented; much less is known and written of the great migrations of skills and the carriers of these skills between nations, tradesmen invited by kings, migrants from famine, refugees from oppression by the extreme right or left, the migration to the Americas and Australia, the refugees from the French and Russian revolutions and from Nazi Germany. Yet transfer of skills and technologies has determined the economic emergence and demise of nations: The Phoenicians' skill in ship building and its decline with the denudation of the forests and the concomitant erosion of the soil of the Balkans; the flowering of Venetian glass making and its decline with the loss of its trade secrets; the migration of miners and mining technology from Germany to Bohemia and Russia and from Cornwall to the former British colonies and, of course, most notable to us, the transfer of American and European technologies to the emerging Asian nations -to name but a few examples of this almost silent undercurrent of history.

The Western cultural climate rightly pays tribute to individual creativity, great writers, musicians, scientists, inventors, and pioneers. Yet in looking at the peaks we overlook the landscape; with the emergence of the professionally innovating corporation the economic impact has changed. The science/technology system encompasses both extremes -the challenge of the creative leap by the individual and the challenge of the mastery of the breadth and depth of collective technology. They are complementary; both must be understood.

Nowhere is the juxtaposition of these challenges -individual discovery and absorption of complex collective technologies -more relevant than to new and small nations, particularly Australia.

A population of a few million Australians, initially a few hundred thousands and even now only 0.3 per cent of the world's population, in a vast and arid continent, had to compress 2000 years of man's evolution into two centuries. The passage from primitive huts and primitive tools to a prosperous community took place in a few decades. That this was possible at all was due to technology and its interaction with social factors: The discovery of gold, which brought large numbers of new citizens into the country, many adventurous and skilled; the rapid and widespread development of railways, the transfer of steam technology on a grand scale; and the fact that the new country had no entrenched peasant farmers or primitive tools to be displaced. The availability of cheap land prevented the formation of a permanent proletariat as a pool of captive cheap labour, since there was always the alternative of a living in the bush; hence labour-saving skills and rational production were valued. The key enabling tools in that period were steam power and, for cost effective mining, explosives. Without technology the conquest of the resources of the vast land would have been inconceivable. Australia, the oldest continent, is indeed the product of modern technology. Australia's development was a massive achievement by relatively small groups, some trained and many untrained, isolated from the technological world by thousands of miles.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages xxvi - xxvii, Online Edition 2000
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