Dome levels 4 and 5 will be closed to the public from Monday 13 May to Friday 24 May. Visit our refreshed World of the Book exhibition from Saturday 25 May.

Home > Stories > Scrappy prototypes & enterprising inventors

Scrappy prototypes & enterprising inventors

A 19th century man and woman stand behind a large piece of farm equipment
23 March 2021

Great art sheds light on the human condition and science reveals universal truths, but nothing exposes society’s priorities like a patent.

Patents are the commercial arm of innovation, protecting an inventor’s IP and giving them the exclusive right to sell their invention. The State Library’s collection of Victorian patents covers the period from 1854 (when the Patent Act was passed) to 1904.

Looking at some patents in the Library’s collection it’s remarkable how scrappy some prototypes were, and also how enterprising their inventors were at converting good ideas into commercial gold.

James Harrison, a Geelong printer, noticed that when he cleaned the movable type on a printing machine, ice crystals formed when he blew on the raised letters. From this clear-eyed observation (which in most people would have gone no further) he developed the world’s first commercial ice-making machine. He patented it in 1856, to great success, and went on to found the Victorian Ice Works company in 1859.

The Ballarat-based Sunshine Harvester business, which hit paydirt in late-19th-century Victoria by mechanising the laborious job of harvesting crops, was patented by Hugh McKay in 1885. But the first version was crudely built from leftover machine parts and scraps of metal Hugh found on the family farm – a far cry from a polished prototype!

Although agrarian innovations and startup culture look different on the surface, they're kissing cousins. Good ideas can come from anywhere, and prototypes need only be rough and ready to find a market if they offer viable solutions to real problems, as proven by the patents in the Library's collection.

More to explore

Image credit: Harvey's patent reaper and binder, photographer (attributed) Fred Kruger, 1831-1888.