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Henry Sutton

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Henry with his world first portable radio set - 1910.
Henry with his world first portable radio set - 1910.


Henry was born 3 September 1856 at Ballarat, Victoria, the son of Richard Henry Sutton and his wife Mary, Renée Johnson. Richard had founded a music firm in a tent located on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854.

1867: Henry was home schooled by his mother until the age of 11, he was then left to his own devices and with his voracious appetite for knowledge, he studied unaided, until becoming involved with higher educational facilities in and around Ballarat.

1870: Henry had read every book on science in the Ballarat Mechanics Institute by age 14. Even at this age, Henry invented a type of electric motor that could also be used as a dynamo which was a prototype of the first electric motors to be used in factories all over the world. Henry did not patent his dynamo. Henry's dynamo had the same features as the one exhibited at the French Academy of Sciences in 1871 which was invented by Zenobe-Theophile Gramme.

1870: Designed and built an ornithopter ( helicopter) driven by a clock work which could fly in a circumference of 12 feet from left to right and upwards at any desired angle. The ornithopter was fixed on a lever having a universal joint so that it could move in any direction. Henry is credited with being the first person in Australia to have experimented with flight.

1870: Conducted further experiments in heavier than air materials for flight.

1874: Won a silver medal for design and 30 other prizes for drawing at the Ballarat School of Design while a student there.

1875: Designed and built a torpedo 8 ft long that could travel 10 to 25 yards under water, Henry took a patent out in New South Wales on an explosive engine. Lack of funds prevented the idea from moving forward.

1876: At age 20 Henry had read a brief account of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in Scientific American, Bell's telephone patent was issued on the 7 March 1876 and within 6 months Henry Sutton had designed and built at least 20 different types of telephones. Henry wired up Sutton's Music Store and the Warehouse with telephone lines. This was at least 2 years before Australia's first official telephone system was installed in Melbourne which was in about 1878, the first telephone exchange was in 1880 and by 1884 7,757 calls had been made. Henry did not patent his telephones he believed that the fruits of science should be available to all, later 16 of his designs were patented by others less noble.

1878: At the request of F.W. Brearey the secretary of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, Henry wrote 2 papers on artificial flight which were published in the Annual Report of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain. The theory for these 2 papers were conceived by Henry at age 10, simply by observing birds and insects.

1880: Henry Sutton was working independently and without any knowledge of Thomas Edison's work on similar lines on Carbon Lamps (incandescent globes). Henry designs and builds the electric light bulb independent of Edison but due to his isolation from the rest of the world Edison beat him to it. Edison on the 21 Dec 1879 and Sutton on the 6 Jan 1880 only 16 days apart. It was recorded by the Victorian Government Astronomer R.L.J. Ellery that Henry had invented the light globe at the same time as Edison but due to Henry's isolation from the world stage Edison got the credit.

?Henry invents a method for using gas and water pipes to transmit telegraph signals.

?Invented a colour printing process and a intaglio photo printing, a photographic process to make printing blocks. This was before the days of Miessenbach and Henry was the first to use a screen to break up the image of a photograph or picture even before Miessenbach obtained the credit for it. Henry did make attempts to get his process on the London market but just previously Miessenbach unfortunately had already gotten the printing firms in his favour and they used his process. Henry's method then went to America and was utilized there without any advantage to himself.

1881: Designed and built a superior Storage Battery his paper on this invention was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and in the Royal Society of Victoria Transactions and Proceedings in 1881. It was described in his paper as having a negative electrode of copper and a positive electrode of lead amalgamated with mercury, in a solution of copper sulphate.

1881: On the 13 Dec 1881 Henry's paper on the mercury air pump was read at the Royal Society of Victoria and was published in the Societies 1882 Transactions and Proceedings. The paper was also published by The English Mechanic and in the World of Science on the 21 July 1882. The vacuum pump created a perfect vacuum and The Swan Edison Company newly formed in England thought so much of Henry's design they used his principles for creating a vacuum in their electric light bulbs.

1883: From 1883-1887 Henry was employed as a Lecturer in applied Electricity at the Ballarat School of Mines SMB (now the University of Ballarat). While lecturing at the school Henry was frustrated at the delays in obtaining scientific instruments from England. This led him to organize a production facility for scientific instruments in Australia. That facility led to the emergence of Victoria's scientific instrument industry. During Henry's time as a lecturer at the SMB he set up a telephone system around the SMB. It was probably the world's first academic institute to be wired up with telephones. Henry was a prominent member of the Camera Club and many other SMB clubs. While a lecturer at the Ballarat School of Mines, Henry also invented a cheap and effective method of cleansing bottles or containers in a rapid and practical manner. He also invented a mercury vacuum pump worked by water jet for use in chemistry classes.

1883: Henry becomes a member of the Royal Society of Victoria. Henry becomes an associate member of the Victorian Institute of Electrical Engineers.

1883: Experimented with mineral flotation long before Carlton and United's head brewer Charles Potter pioneered a technique for separating Broken Hill's zinc lead ores in 1899.

1884: Commences studies in the Astronomical and Microscopical, Henry had a large telescope to which he adapted a device which allowed it to be turned in any direction.

1885: Henry's used his knowledge of optics to create the invention of the Telephane, a the forerunner to television 3 years before John Logie Baird was born!  Around 1871 at the age of 15 Henry first invented a method so that any big event in Melbourne could be seen in Ballarat by medium of the telegraph. Henry was so sure of this that he wrote the particulars to Mr R.L.J. Ellery who was the Government Astronomer of Victoria so the invention could be in the hands of someone capable of stating his claim of being the first in this direction. Some years later in 1885 Mr R.L.J. Ellery was witness to the transmission of the images of the Telephane. In 1885 Henry transmitted through the Telephane the Melbourne Cup race to Ballarat, it was stated that it worked quite well. Henry a few years later in 1890 went to England and France and demonstrated the Telephane to the scientific community. Henry's paper on the Telephane was published in England, France and America and Scientific America republished his paper again in 1910. Henry did not patent the Telephane but Baird did use Henry's principles to invent television some 43 years later. The Telephane is considered to be Henry's magnum opus by some people.

?Designed and helped build Australia's first hydraulic elevator lift with the Austral Otis Lift Company, the lift was installed in Sutton's Music Store in Ballarat which became an instant draw card and novelty with the public.

?Made improvements to lantern lenses.

1886: On the 26 October 1886 Henry took out a patent on improvements in electric circuits for telephonic purposes

1887: Invents and patents on the 20 October 1887 an improved method of Photo-lithography to enable photographs to be printed in newspapers.

1889: Henry invents a telegraph facsimile which was a relatively simple means to transmit photographic printing plates similar to Alexander Bain's and Giovanni Caselli's systems. Henry's machine's sole difference consisted in producing another printing plate at the receiving end, rather than just a piece of paper chemically treated with potassium-iodide.

1890: Henry left Australia and traveled the world for 4 years in pursuit of knowledge and to meet other inventors and scientists such as Bell and Edison, Henry traveled to England, Europe and America. On the 3 February 1890 just before Henry left Ballarat to travel overseas the city and citizens of Ballarat presented Henry with a farewell Charter it was signed by the Mayor of Ballarat City Mr William Little and the Mayor of Ballarat Town Mr Edward Murphy. Henry left Australia for London in February 1890 on the ship fittingly called “ Ballarat.”

In 1890, Henry's paper on the Telephane system was published in the French science Journal La Lumiere Electrique and in 1890 Henry demonstrated his Telephane system to the Royal Society of London. He then went onto France and demonstrated it there. See the attached historical documents below.

? A room is named after Henry Sutton at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute it is called The Sutton Room.

During 1897, Sutton began Designing and building Combustion Engines and carburettors, he undertook many experiments on air cooled engines to run on low grade fuel. Henry applied for a patent titled “improvements in and relating to internal combustion engines” in 1898.

1897: Henry took out a number of patents relating to bicycles he also designed and built a motorized 2 cylinder 3 wheeler tricycle for pacing racing motorcycles. The motorized tricycle which could travel a long distance traveled from Melbourne to Ballarat in September 1897 and created public hysteria and interest when it arrived. Police had to control the crowd to prevent a riot. Henry along with his son Arthur went on to design and build a number of motorcycles.

1899: Designed and built in Melbourne one of Australia's first cars it was called The Sutton Autocar which was an Antipodean invention which could go 30 kilometers an hour this car may have been the first front wheel drive car in the world. Henry's car was reported in the English press at the time and featured in the English magazine Autocar which the car was named after. Two prototypes of the Autocar were built and the Austral Otis Company was going to go into business with Henry to manufacture Henry's car but the cost of the car was too preventative as it could not compete with the cost of imported cars.

1899: Henry was invited by M. Clocheary a member of the French Government to become a member of the Societe Internationale in France.


1900: Henry designs and builds another car in Ballarat which today has been fully restored and is privately owned and is now on display at the White House Museum in Westbury Tasmania.

1901: Henry participates in the Dunlop Melbourne to Warrnambool Reliability Race with one of his cars.

1903: Henry was a co-founder of the now Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV). At a meeting at the Port Phillip Club on the 9 December 1903, 55 motorists which included car owners and motorcyclists agreed to form the Automobile Club of Victoria now known as the Royal Auto mobile Club of Victoria. Henry at the meeting wrote the motion at the meeting and it was voted on and so the club was born.Henry who was part of the provisional committee drew up the drew up the constitution the constitution and rules were approved by about 70 members at 2 meetings in January 1904 .The Automobile Club of Victoria gained royal charter in 1916. Henry served on the council of the RACV from 1903-1908, in 1903 there were 55 founding members and in 2009 there are over 1.9 million members.

1906: Henry was part of organizing the first Victorian car races at Aspendale which started in 1904. Henry's son Arthur raced motorcycles at these races, in 1906 Arthur Sutton won the first VMCC 100mile motorcycle race. On the 12 July 1906 The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company's representative Captain Louis Walker exchanged messages across Bass Strait between Point Lonsdale Victoria and Devonport Tasmania. The 12 July 1906 was a sitting day in Melbourne for the House of Representatives of the Australian Parliament. At the invitation of Captain Walker the Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, The Governor General Henry Stafford Northcote, The Governor of Victoria Sir Reginald Talbot, most of the members and the ministry attended the wireless demonstration by Walker. Henry Sutton and many other guests also attended this demonstration of Marconi's Wireless System and a special train was organized to take all the guests to Queenscliff. As the Australian Government announced in May 1905 that it was considering a wireless telegraphy system for Australia after the demonstration the Australian Government decided to build an Australian Wireless system around Australia. This eventually lead to Henry Sutton working with the Australian Naval Director William Rooke Creswell. Between 1906 and 1912 Henry worked on inventing a wireless system for the Australian Government and the new Australian Navy.

1908: Henry works on inventing a wireless system for The Australian Navy with the co-operation of the Australian Naval Director W. R. Creswell. In September 1908 The American White Fleet came to Australia it was a huge event in Australia's history. Henry had patented what became the most effective long distance receiver for wireless telegraph messages. The Commonwealth Government used this receiver and the visiting US Navy sought him out in 1908 after they picked up his telegraphic messages in the Pacific Ocean.

On the 4 September 1908 the day before the Fleet left The Australian Government organized with the RACV to take Officers from the fleet on a car trip up to Blacks Spur and Healesville. As a council member of the RACV Henry helped drive in his car some of the officers. Creswell was in town and I can't imagine that both he and Henry did not miss the opportunity to visit the American ships and their wireless system and I'm sure Creswell and Henry would have made sure the officer in his car was the wireless officer or someone like that. Henry resigned as a council member of the RACV in 1908 which was around the time after the American fleet visit Henry devoted his whole attention to the wireless system he was working on. If you look at the date of the first letter from the PMG the 15 October 1908 that says that somehow this is when the PMG found out about what Henry was doing with the Navy and were not happy that they did not know about it.

1909: The Post Master General of Victoria Sir John Quick grants Henry Sutton an Experimental Radio License his license no was no 2 it was issued on the 7 Oct 1909 it was capable of a 250 mile range. Henry Sutton was working on a top secret communication devices for the Australian Government. His work had attracted the attention of the British, French, USA and Japanese governments. But as a native born son his first loyalty was to Australia and to improving Australian Science and technology.

1910: Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Walker (Casey) Baldwin who traveled with  Bell on his world tour visits Henry Sutton in Australia and travels to Ballarat in July/August 1910 to view his telephone system and many inventions. Bell was truly astonished by Henry's achievements. Henry watched Tesla transmit the first picture by wire while in London, Tesla actually used Suttons telephane process.

Henry builds the worlds first Portable Radio with a range of 500 yards (457m). It is conjected the head photo in this article is of the actual radio.

1912: The Melbourne Age newspaper on the 30 July 1912 upon his death to be his greatest invention. Henry died of heart failure and chronic nephritis on 28 July 1912. He was buried in Brighton cemetery,

2004:  On the 20 January 2004 a street in the Canberra suburb of Dunlop is named in Henry Sutton's honour, the street is called “Henry Sutton Circuit”.

2009: Australia's history refers to Henry Sutton as the great grandfather of technology and was Australia's Edison yet he has become Australia's forgotten genius despite the fact that he was well known and respected all over the world for his contributions to science and his many inventions. Henry's isolation from the rest of the world and his refusal to patent most of his inventions has left him virtually unknown today but to the many who know about him he is admired and applauded for his achievements and contributions to science and to Australia's inventing history. Henry's pioneering work stands alone even today, he just was not the one that got the credit for his work but on looking back no one can argue the credit he should have been given and the importance of his pioneering work both here in Australia and on the world stage.

2011: The Ballarat Heritage Weekend celebrations on 7/8 May 2011 included a lecture at the Mining Exchange in Lydiard Street on previous unpublished and unknown aspects of Henry's work.


Extract material from Ms Lorayne Branch, Queensland and the Sutton family archives.
W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat, 2nd ed (Ballarat, 1887);
G. Sutton, Richard Henry Sutton, Esq., 1830-1876 (Melb, 1954);
J. Goode, Smoke, Smell and Clatter (Melb, 1969);
R. J. Gibson, Australia and Australians in Civil Aviation, vol 1 (Syd, 1971);
Ballarat School of Mines, Annual Report, 1883-84;
Austin McCallum, 'Sutton, Henry (1856 - 1912)',
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 226-227.

David Syme, The Melbourne Age 30 July 1912 & 25 January 1997.

On a new form of secondary cell for electrical storage. Royal Society of Victoria. Transactions and Proceedings., 18 (1881), 110-114.

Description of vacuum apparatus. Royal Society of Victoria. Transactions and Proceedings., 18 (1881), 122.

"One Man Wonder", Mark Juddery, COSMOS Magazine issue 30, Dec'09/Jan'10, p55. ISSN1832-522X.

Further Reading

The Sutton Telephane

The Sutton Vacuum Invention