Henry Sutton: pioneer of Australia's electric age

4 min

We are currently experiencing a comprehensive shift in how we source, use and store energy. But this dynamic age owes a debt to 19th century Australian innovators like Henry Sutton, who helped develop the world’s first storage battery.

The energy market and grid are evolving to accommodate the slate of new and exciting renewable energy projects that generators are investing in and bringing to market. Solar and battery developments are putting power back in the hands of consumers and businesses around the country. It is not hard to imagine a not too distant future of energy efficiency and self-sufficiency with regard to sourcing, using and storing energy for our homes and workplaces. We’ll even be able to trade excess energy with others in our community that we are connected with. 

In the late 1800s however, at the dawn of the electric age, the innovations in electricity were only beginning. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were rolling out, and being lauded for, previously unimaginable wonders and inventions. In addition to the genius of their respective achievements, these pioneers benefitted greatly from their geographical position in the ‘centre of the technical universe’ at that time – Europe and the United States.

But Australia had its own notable innovator and visionary, Ballarat’s own Henry Sutton. According to the ABC, the Victorian inventor developed a range of cutting-edge designs and innovations that laid the foundations for some of the common technologies that are prevalent today. Perhaps his most famous invention was the telephane - a device used to transmit a faint image along telegraph wires from the Melbourne Cup to Ballarat in 1885. He even designed and constructed one of Australia’s first automobiles in 1899.

In addition to teaching electricity and applied magnetism at the Ballarat School of Mines between 1883-1887, two of his most significant contributions to the energy industry included:

  • In 1880, he designed and built a light globe just a little over two weeks after Thomas Edison
  • The following year, he built the world’s first storage battery that could be recharged

Whilst he was highly regarded and respected by his more famous peers, Henry Sutton remains largely unknown in Australia and around the world. Unlike Edison for example, he didn’t apply for patents for the majority of his ground-breaking inventions, choosing not to profit from them by releasing them into the public domain instead.

Henry Sutton’s work and legacy is a great example of the fantastic innovators in science and technology that Australia has produced in the last two centuries (and continues to produce). And in typical Australian fashion he admirably shunned the limelight in favour of focusing on the work, believing science was for the people.

If you would like to take a visual journey back through the major industry milestones of the past 100+ years in Australia, check out our animation on the history of electricity!

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