Tasmanian Creativity

W John Glover, 'Cataract on the South Esk River near Launceston, Van Diemen's Land', 1831 (ALMFA, SLT)

From the earliest days following European settlement, people of Tasmanian origin or association have had a remarkable history of creativity in the arts, science, law, technology and many other fields of endeavour.

Much of the history of the arts in Australia started in Tasmania and the state has continued to make a major contribution. In the performing arts, opera began in Hobart in 1842 when the first season was staged at the Theatre Royal; demonstrating cultural breadth, Tasmania was also the venue for Australia's first circus performance in 1847. Evan Henry Thomas was the first to publish a drama, David Burn was Australia's first acknowledged playwright and Thomas Richards was Australia's first dramatic critic and pioneer of the short story as well.

In the visual arts, the first art exhibitions were held in Tasmania in 1837 and 1845, while that most Australian of art forms, landscape painting, started in Tasmania when the father of Australian landscape painting, John Glover, arrived in 1831 and embarked upon the most productive phase of his life.

Photography was another medium which flourished. In 1844 in Hobart GB Goodman took the first daguerreotype of an Australian scene, and JW Newland's photograph of Murray Street, Hobart is the earliest Australian outdoor photograph. Among other contributions, Tasmanian photographers gave the first Australian demonstrations of stereoscopic photography and three-colour photography. In 1912, JW Beattie processed photographs taken at the South Pole by Roald Amundsen. Modern wilderness photography was pioneered by Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis.

Tasmanian creativity has also been evident in craft and design. Tasmanian works were admired at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and were exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1889. That tradition continued, a prominent example being the Tasmanian Wood Design Collection, arguably the world's finest collection of its kind, which has been acclaimed on tour in North America, Asia and Europe.

Tasmania has a remarkable history of creativity in science, technology and intellectual endeavour generally. In 1829 Australia's first scientific society, the Van Diemen's Land Scientific Society, was founded by Dr John Henderson. A few years later Sir John Franklin founded the Tasmanian Society, also concerned with science, and in 1844 Sir John Eardley-Wilmot set up the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land. The Royal Society was then and is today one of the world's most prestigious scientific societies, and the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land was the first to be established anywhere outside the United Kingdom.

Tasmanians have been responsible for a diverse range of inventions and innovations. They include the automatic record changer; a process for making newsprint commercially from hardwoods; the humidicrib; a substantial improvement to the zinc electrolysis process; a portable collapsible cabin for Antarctic living; a new type of master key cutter; Defender snail pellets; the world's first digital jukebox; a self-propelled and self-monitoring irrigator; the laminated tennis racquet; a mushroom-composting machine; the Alexander Technique to improve health; an electromagnetic sheet metal bending machine; a magnesium binder for cement; portable sheep yards; underground mining techniques and the composite beam method for the construction of road bridges.

Tasmanians have also been responsible for technological innovations and scientific advances which have been instrumental in developing whole industries, including aquaculture, essential oils production, lightning protection systems, rapidly deployable life raft systems and the manufacture of optical munitions, underground mining equipment and large high-speed wave-piercing passenger ships.

Other Tasmanian innovations include significant public health initiatives. Launceston constructed Australia's first underground sewerage system, Hobart was Australia's first capital city to add fluoride to its water supply and Tasmania was the first Australian state to develop a school of dental therapy, introduce compulsory mass chest X-rays to combat tuberculosis, and introduce screening programmes for the early detection of cancers in the uterus. The Menzies Research Institute made internationally recognised advances in epidemiological and population health studies, including the discovery of one of the main causes of sudden infant death syndrome.

Australia's federation and constitution were also products of Tasmanian creativity. John West was instrumental in starting the federation movement, founding the predecessor of the Australasian League in Launceston, and publishing influential essays in the Launceston Examiner and the Sydney Morning Herald in which he made a powerful case for the 'Federal Union of the Colonies'. Another Tasmanian, Andrew Inglis Clark, made such a substantial contribution to the drafting of the Australian constitution that he is widely acknowledged as its primary architect.

Tasmania enacted a number of innovative law reform measures, including the world's first system of rotating ballot papers, whereby the order of candidates' names is rotated to share favoured positions; legislation empowering courts to impose community service orders in lieu of sentences of imprisonment; and in 1837, more than a century before its time, the first of a series of measures which gave an unmarried woman the right to claim maintenance from a man with whom she had cohabited.

A number of factors have contributed to Tasmania's history of creativity. Although its physical environment has had some influence especially in the arts Tasmanian creativity has primarily been a product of its genius as a society. In the arts, creative activity has been nurtured by a sympathetic and supportive social environment and a strong cultural infrastructure. This emerged early, as evidenced by Australia's oldest bookshop, oldest theatre, first art society, oldest continuous dramatic society and first folk museum. Similar qualities account for the vigour of Tasmania's intellectual and scientific tradition. In the nineteenth century, Tasmanians shared the prevailing view of the intrinsic value of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but were also concerned to record and tell the world about their strange new antipodean environment, and gain knowledge which would help promote agriculture and industry. Other contributing factors are extensive networking and good lines of communication between people working in different disciplines, which encourage the development of innovative projects transcending traditional boundaries, and a social structure in which individuals' creative ideas have a better chance of being taken up than elsewhere.

Finally there is the considerable contribution made by institutions of learning and education, including the University of Tasmania, the Royal Society, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Through their coverage of the arts, life sciences, physical sciences, history and much else, these institutions have had a significant impact upon intellectual and cultural life, and materially reinforced the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary linkages which are characteristic of Tasmanian society.

Further reading: QVMAG, Tasmanian inventions and innovations, Launceston, 1987; C Long, Tasmanian photographers, Hobart, 1995; H & J Kolenberg, Tasmanian vision, Hobart, 1988; B Parkes (ed), Design island, Darlinghurst, 2004; G Winter, 'The foundation years of the Royal Society of Tasmania', PPRST 127, 1993; A Moyal (ed), Scientists in nineteenth century Australia, Melbourne, 1975.

Guy Green