Hold the Phone: What Drawn Alexander Graham Bell to Ballarat?

Sutton’s colleagues, a humble Ballarat scientist fascinated by electricity, put him on a par with heavyweights Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. numerous, including technology that allowed printing photos in newspapers and an electric battery so amazing for its time that it was declared impossible by top scientists. As early as the 1890s, he was sending photographic images by fax. Sutton’s work was so influential, it even attracted the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, to Ballarat in 1910. In the words of a historian of the time, “In the realm of science, Ballarat has become world famous through the inventions of Mr. Henry Sutton.” The story of Victoria’s own genius inventor is as amazing as it is often forgotten. THE TALENTED Henry Sutton was a child prodigy from childhood. Born in a tent on the Ballar on goldfields with 10 siblings, he was believed to have read every book in the library of the local Mechanics’ Institute by age 14. In his teens, Sutton is said to have created a small mechanical flying machine that resembled a clockwork and was inspired by the wing movements of insects. He studied at the Ballarat School of Mines, where he became a teacher in his twenties, where he pioneered the field of energy storage batteries in the 1880s. His success led to invitations to join several international electricity companies. At the age of 36, he traveled to London to pursue patenting a new printing technology he called Suttontype, which allowed photos to be replicated and printed in publications such as newspapers. This was perhaps his first major failure. The technology was not well received and, despite being introduced to famed Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla in London, Sutton returned to Australia shortly after. BEAUTIFUL MACHINES Undeterred, Sutton embarked on a life’s work that spawned countless inventions and scientific discoveries. His design of a vacuum pump was so effective that it was adopted by Thomas Edison’s company to aid in the manufacture of light bulbs. Inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, Sutton conceived dozens of his own telephone designs and improvements. by his family with an internal telephone line, years before telephones were available to the public in Australia. Some of his inventions, which had not become commercial, never saw the light of day. By the 1880s, Sutton had developed a process for color photography. In the 1890s, he was able to send photos via facsimile, a process he discussed and demonstrated with Tesla during his time in the United Kingdom, and building on technology developed as early as 1843. He invented the world’s first front-wheel drive car and in 1903 was one of the founders of the Automobile Club of Victoria. Numerous other inventions were designed, but never built. In the 1880s, eager to see Ballarat’s Melbourne Cup, Sutton designed a working television. It is not known whether the invention would ever have worked. When Sutton’s mother, who had schooled him until he was ten, was incapacitated by a stroke, Sutton invented a new hydraulic lift mechanism to help her climb the stairs. The technology was so attractive that it was exported for use in elevators in the US. According to a 2018 biography by Sutton, his work was so famous that it drew the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, to Ballarat in 1910. The couple is said to have spent time discussing their various discoveries and experiments. But Sutton’s brilliance was cut short by his sudden death in July 1912 at his home in Malvern at the age of 56. He was buried in a modest grave in Brighton Cemetery, where his memorial still stands. Sutton is a road in Canberra and an annual inaugural lecture at the Telecommunications Association. But the great achievements of Sutton’s life and the legacy of his incredible inventions often fall through the cracks of Australian history. Despite his extraordinary work and the way his discoveries have influenced modern life, Sutton’s name is rarely pronounced in schools and has disappeared from the public consciousness.

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