‘The electric light: some to its phases’, 1 July 1882, State Library of Victoria

‘The electric light: some to its phases’, 1 July 1882, State Library of Victoria

For a long time, light has been a constant source and taken for granted. But in its earliest days it was considered one of the great marvels of the industrial age. Indeed one 1837 Sydney Herald article called the ‘mysterious agent’ – electricity – ‘the greatest discovery of modern times’.1Van Diemen’s Land, Electricity a motive power’, 20 November 1837, The Sydney Herald, p. 4 In another newspaper article, electric light was described in novel terms:

The light resembles a spark of the most brilliant and vivid fire, about the size or rather less than the burner of a common aground lamp. It is not a flame, but it is an incandescent light.2The electric light’, 15 May 1849, Geelong Advertiser, p. 4

Football match by electric light on the Melbourne cricket ground, David Syme & Co, monogram by James Waltham Curtis, published in The Illustrated Australian News 30 August 1879, State Library of Victoria

Electric light on the Melbourne cricket ground, in The Illustrated Australian News, 1879, State Library of Victoria

Australia’s first, and one of the world’s first, night football match under electric light made the headlines when it was played on 5 August 1879 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, dramatically depicted in the Illustrated Australian News.3Football match by electric light on the Melbourne cricket ground‘, 30 August 1879, Illustrated Australian News, p. 137. State Library of Victoria collection: Accession no. IAN30/08/79/137. See also The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 30 August 1879, p. 84 Yet despite this vivid illustration, the reality was far from the exciting illuminated spectacle the papers built it up to be.

An estimated 10,000 people gathered to witness the ‘Grand Exhibition of the Electric Light’, however, The Argus reported the night was hampered when one of the lights failed. It described the light as:

‘very peculiar being something between a strong moonlight and twilight with brilliant points opposite the lights…The lights were fitful. The one on the opposite side to the stand and close to the engine burned badly from the first and soon went out altogether. The play did not excite much interest as the men were continually going out of sight into dark patches….’4Football By Electric Light‘. (1879, August 6). The Argus, p. 3

Sydney Town Hall illuminated, 1908, Australian National Maritime Museum

Sydney Town Hall illuminated, 1908, Australian National Maritime Museum

In other displays, audiences were wowed back during the early 1900s, when spectacular light shows were seen across the city of Sydney.5Nicole Cama, ‘It was ‘a veritable blaze of splendour’: Lightshows of the past’, 5 October 2013 In 1908 during the United States Navy’s visit, electric lighting and searchlights were placed around Customs House, Martin Place, Circular Quay, Sydney Town Hall and across the US Navy battleships in ‘dazzling brilliance’.6Sydney’s Illuminations‘. (1908, August 29). The Muswellbrook Chronicle, p. 2 One newspaper called Hyde Park a ‘fairy land’ and another revealed how the ships ‘burst into light, their lines, from hull to fore, and mainmast, picked out with countless electric lights. It was a veritable blaze of splendour’.7Sydney’s Illuminations‘. (1908, August 29). The Muswellbrook Chronicle, p. 2 and ‘Warships Illuminated‘. (1913, October 6). The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 6 And it seems our fascination with light has not faded with contemporary displays such as Vivid Sydney.

When it came to innovations and inventions, some focussed their attention on this new source of energy. In 1921, former Australian cattle dealer turned Londoner Francis Forbes reportedly invented a nickel-plated lamp for dentistry, which consisted of a semi-spherical chamber containing an electric arc apparatus.8Australian Invention‘. (1921, October 8). The World’s News, p. 4 One dentist demonstrated the ‘brilliant violet-colored light’ as it was shone onto a patient’s gums, it produced a cooling effect rather than a burning sensation. It was seen as a step forward in ‘painless dentistry’.

Searchlight practice, US Navy Fleet, 1908, Australian National Maritime Museum

Searchlight practice, US Navy Fleet, 1908, Australian National Maritime Museum

The Booty-Lofthouse apparatus US Patent, Google Patents

The Booty-Lofthouse apparatus US Patent, Google Patents

Yet not all had access to electric light and some individuals harnessed their innovation into older technologies. On 18 July 1910, Perth residents Jacob Matthias Lofthouse and Emily Rosalie Booty patented their air gas apparatus which simplified the supply of gas for lighting and heating in domestic dwellings.9Patent no. 18,646/10, application no. 1910018646 via AusPat and US Patent. See also ‘Advertising‘. (1914, June 26). Western Mail, p. 2 The ‘Booty-Lofthouse’ Patent System supplied ‘healthy, clean, safe, automatic and economic’ gas, a ‘new method’ of carburetting air.

More than 40 years after the ‘Booty-Lofthouse’ system of lighting and heating emerged, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) developed one of their successful research programs. The team, led by Roger Neill Morse, in their workshops in Maribyrnong, Victoria pioneered the development of a new industry to manufacture solar-powered hot water heaters.10Solar hot water systems’, 10 February 2011, via CSIROpedia By 1954, a prototype solar water heater had been built and tested and the production of solar water heaters was well underway by the 1960s.

The Booty-Lofthouse apparatus advertisement, Western Mail, 26 June 1914, p. 2, Trove, National Library of Australia

Booty-Lofthouse apparatus advert, 1914, Trove, National Library of Australia

The CSIRO notes that for the period 1920 to 1981, applications for patents in the solar thermal energy field were 201 in Australia, 199 in the USA and 319 in all other countries. Of these 201 applications, 17 were lodged by the CSIRO and 14 by universities, with the rest lodged by individuals or companies.11Solar hot water systems’, 10 February 2011, via CSIROpedia Roger Morse had been registered patents as early as 1936, and associated with his work with the CSIRO from 1960.12Patent no. 102,638 (1936) and 250,840 (1960) via AusPat After Morse and his team’s findings were shared, the solar water heating industry thrived and it has been estimated that by 1985 there were about 1.12 million square metres of solar collectors operating in Australia, equivalent to five per cent of annual hydro-electric power generation.13Solar hot water systems’, 10 February 2011, via CSIROpedia

Art & Culture

Russell Lea Manor convalescent home, 1920, City of Canada Bay

Russell Lea Manor convalescent home, 1920, City of Canada Bay

Australian artist LeRoi Levistan de Mestre (later Roy de Maistre) experimented with the treatment of light and colour in paintings, focussing on its impact on mood and atmosphere.14Daniel Thomas, ‘de Maistre, LeRoy Leveson (Roy) (1894–1968)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1981 After trying to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force and failing his medical examination in 1916, de Mestre became interested in the treatment of shell-shocked returned servicemen. He developed a colour- based treatment programme for traumatised veterans in 1917. He painted rooms in the Red Cross convalescent home in Russell Lea, Sydney in soothing colours, the ceiling in sky-blue and walls in primrose yellow to suggest sunlight with violet curtains.15Hospital Camouflage‘. (1919, April 8). Darling Downs Gazette, p. 3. Fran Strachan, ‘Artists explore pathos and human tragedy of WWI’, 24 April 2015 and ‘Roy De Maistre’ via Bonhams He developed his ‘colour innovation’ further by creating a harmonising chart which he patented in 1924 and it was later sold through Sydney’s Grace Brothers department store.16De Mestre took a British patent, no. GB232787. See ’Colour in Music in Australia: De-mystifying de Maistre’. See also Zoe Alderton, ‘Colour, Shape, and Music: The Presence of Thought Forms in Abstract Art’, Literature & Aesthetics 21 (1) June 2011, p. 244 and Sasha Bru, ed., Europa! Auropa?: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), p. 498

Seen in a new light

Fingerprints visible with the Polilight forensic lamp, image courtesy Rofin Australia Pty Ltd

Fingerprints visible with the Polilight forensic lamp, image courtesy Rofin Australia Pty Ltd

In the early 1980s, forensic scientists Professor Ron Warrener and Milutin Stoilovic at the Australian National University developed ‘Unilite’ to improve the results of fingerprint examinations. This innovation was sold to Rofin Australia, who developed it further into Polilight – a portable light source which reveals forensic clues invisible to the naked eye such as blood stains, fingerprints and writing that has been scribbled over.17Polilight forensic lamp’, Australia Innovates, Powerhouse Museum

The old method of powder imprints was successful on some surfaces, but less so on paper and uneven surfaces.18Researchers throw new light on fingerprints‘. (1988, April 2). The Canberra Times, p. 11 The Canberra Times noted that Warrener and ‘his team realised that if the fingerprint could be made fluorescent, the ridges [of a fingerprint] would show up more clearly’.19Researchers throw new light on fingerprints‘. (1988, April 2). The Canberra Times, p. 11 The team used a metal salt solution and the resulting ‘photoluminescence revealed fingerprints as bright ridges on a dark background’.20Researchers throw new light on fingerprints‘. (1988, April 2). The Canberra Times, p. 11 The team then experimented with different coloured lights and with filters were able to highlight prints against various background surfaces, textures and colours.

Considered one of the most significant inventions in Australian history, the lamp has been used to detect forged artworks and has been adopted worldwide.


This article was originally published by IP Australia. Read the original article. Reproduced here courtesy of IP Australia.

References   [ + ]

1. Van Diemen’s Land, Electricity a motive power’, 20 November 1837, The Sydney Herald, p. 4
2. The electric light’, 15 May 1849, Geelong Advertiser, p. 4
3. Football match by electric light on the Melbourne cricket ground‘, 30 August 1879, Illustrated Australian News, p. 137. State Library of Victoria collection: Accession no. IAN30/08/79/137. See also The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 30 August 1879, p. 84
4. Football By Electric Light‘. (1879, August 6). The Argus, p. 3
5. Nicole Cama, ‘It was ‘a veritable blaze of splendour’: Lightshows of the past’, 5 October 2013
6. Sydney’s Illuminations‘. (1908, August 29). The Muswellbrook Chronicle, p. 2
7. Sydney’s Illuminations‘. (1908, August 29). The Muswellbrook Chronicle, p. 2 and ‘Warships Illuminated‘. (1913, October 6). The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 6
8. Australian Invention‘. (1921, October 8). The World’s News, p. 4
9. Patent no. 18,646/10, application no. 1910018646 via AusPat and US Patent. See also ‘Advertising‘. (1914, June 26). Western Mail, p. 2
10. Solar hot water systems’, 10 February 2011, via CSIROpedia
11, 13. Solar hot water systems’, 10 February 2011, via CSIROpedia
12. Patent no. 102,638 (1936) and 250,840 (1960) via AusPat
14. Daniel Thomas, ‘de Maistre, LeRoy Leveson (Roy) (1894–1968)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1981
15. Hospital Camouflage‘. (1919, April 8). Darling Downs Gazette, p. 3. Fran Strachan, ‘Artists explore pathos and human tragedy of WWI’, 24 April 2015 and ‘Roy De Maistre’ via Bonhams
16. De Mestre took a British patent, no. GB232787. See ’Colour in Music in Australia: De-mystifying de Maistre’. See also Zoe Alderton, ‘Colour, Shape, and Music: The Presence of Thought Forms in Abstract Art’, Literature & Aesthetics 21 (1) June 2011, p. 244 and Sasha Bru, ed., Europa! Auropa?: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), p. 498
17. Polilight forensic lamp’, Australia Innovates, Powerhouse Museum
18, 19, 20. Researchers throw new light on fingerprints‘. (1988, April 2). The Canberra Times, p. 11

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