Adelaide had the first motor vehicle driver's licence issued in Australia in 1906. Above: A car signals the future in this 1918 after-work scene of King William Street, Adelaide, looking north from South Terrace.                                                                                                                             
Image courtesy of State Library of South Australia.

generate by the colony's settlers
wanting to make the most of their opportunities


FOR ITS SIZE (ADELAIDE STILL ONLY HAD A POPULATION OF AROUND 300,000 IN THE 1930s) and relatively short history of European settlement, South Australia has achieved an impressive list of firsts for Australia and, in several key instances, the world.

Granting women the right to stand for election to parliament in 1894 is the prime example of its world firsts.

South Australia as a settlement was a first in itself: the first Australian colony to be established without convict labour ­– one of the points of pride that motivated other firsts.

The reason for the point of difference was the dominance of middle class Dissenters among the South Australia’s founders. These members of Dissenting nonconformist churches (Methodist, Baptist, Congregational etc) wanted freedom of belief and opportunity that stood in their way in Britain where the ruling upper class establishment and its established Church of England.

Although they drew on the ideas for systematic settlement of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, quoted by Karl Marx as a model for capitalism, and strains of Chartist sentiment may have influenced some, South Australia’s founders didn’t have a unifying ideology of socialism and democracy.

But South Australia was founded in the 1830s when the first of Britain's Reform bills only gave limited democracy to the middle class. An element of resentment at that pushed South Australia to leap ahead of the rest of the British empire by giving all itsadult males the right to vote for the House of Assembly in 1856.

But an anxiety to make the most of their escape to freedom and opportunity was common. The Dissenters – as did the German Lutherans who arrived early – had the typical refugees’ drive to succeed.

Although the founders’ next generation divided into conservatives and liberals, that anxiety to preserve their rights and freedom of opportunity, together with proving that they could have an colonial establishment with its elite trappings, pushed the drive that created firsts.

Opening the door to rights and freedoms gave the space for unintended consequences such as women winning the world-first double of the right to vote and to stand for election in 1894. (But no woman was elected to parliament until the second half of the 20th Century.)

In a colony with limited and unreliable resources, South Australians also were to propelled to invent firsts as a means of survival.



1830s-60s: South Australia's democratic innovations in the 1856 constitution put it ahead of UK, British empire and most of world

1830s: First Australian police force, Lutheran church service and Chamber of Commerce

The firsts set by South Australia in its earliest years of the 1830s include the apparent contradiction that Australia's first convict-free settlement also had its first police force in 1838. Also in 1838, the first Lutheran service was conducted at Port Adelaide by Pastor August Kavel, leading the first group of German refugees of that faith.
Reflecting the colony's early commercial enterprise, the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce – Australasia's first – started. It continues today as Business SA

1840s: Australia's first elected council and metal mine; Ridley's stripper invented

The City of Adelaide became the first elected town council in Australia in 1840. Another Australian first in 1841 was the metal mine opened at Glen Osmond. John Ridley's stripper harvester (1843) impacted agriculture beyond Australia. South Australia's rights record led Australia with Aboriginal evidence accepted in courts from 1844. The German influence saw the southern hemisphere's first Lutheran college/seminary (1845) and Australia's first non-English newspaper (1848).

1850s: South Australia leads British empire in democratic reforms; cutting state aid

Democratic reforms were the the hallmark of South Australia's firsts in the 1850s. In 1851, a new partly-elected Legislative Council asserted a beloved principle of the colony's Dissenter founders by cutting all state aid to churches, especially the established Church of England. In 1856, the colony's new constitution was one of the world's most democratic, including voting rights for all males (including Aboriginal), no plural voting, and no property qualifications for lower-house members. 

1860s: Mary MacKillop's St Joseph's nuns the first Australian order; propertied women vote

The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the first entirely Australian order of nuns, were founded by Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Tenison Woods at Penola in 1866. Other Australian firsts for the decade included the first croquet club (1867) at Kapunda and the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures (1867). In an inkling of future democratic rights in South Australia, women who owned property were given the right to vote in local government elections (1867).



1870s-1900: World-first right for women to stand for election and world-first Labor government amid big advances in democracy

1870s: First telegraph link to London; trade unions legalised: first girls' high school

In 1872, Adelaide was the first Australian capital city connected by telegraph with London. Four years later, South Australia was the first part of the British Empire, excluding Britain, to legalise trade unions. More Australian technology firsts came In 1878 with Adelaide's horse-drawn trams system and a major long-distance telephone call made from Semaphore to Port Augusta. The Advanced School for Girls, opened in 1879, was Australia's first secondary school for girls.

1880s: Australian-first Salvos, sewage, cement, agricultural college and women at university

Among the Australian firsts for South Australia and Adelaide in the 1880s were a Salvation Army meeting, being connected to water-borne sewage, the university admitting women for dgreees, a hockey game played by Royal Navy teams in the parklands, cement produced at Brighton by William Lewis, an agricultural college opened at Roseworthy, income and land tax levied, and a trunk telephone line connected between Adelaide and Port Adelaide.


1890s: Women get vote and world-first right to stand for election; the first juvenile court

Democratic breakthroughs dominated South Australia's first in the 1890s. In 1894, the colony achieved the world-first double of giving women the right to vote and to stand for election. A few years earlier, the first Labor MPs in Australia were elected to the South Australian parliament. Other Australian firsts include: a juvenile court, cremation legalised, Adelaide University's Conservatorium of Music and the first demonstartion of wireless telegraphy by future Nobel laureate William Bragg.

1900s: World-first Labor government; first speaker and senate president federally

Reflecting South Australia's key role in moves towards the federation of Australia, it contributed the first speaker (Frederick Holder) and senate president (RIchard Baker) to the first federal parliament in 1901. In 1906, the world-first Labor government was elected in South Australia. The first Australian driver's licence was issued in Adelaide in 1906. The first Australian crematorium opened at West Terrace Cemetery (1903). Renark's community-run hotel was the first in the British empire. 


1910s-1940s: Ross and Keith Smith's England-Australia flight in 1919 a high point in several South Australian firsts for aviation

1910s: Ross and Keith Smith extend Bill Wittber's first flight to England-Australia leap

Adelaide's impressive array of aviation firsts was started by Bill Wittber who in 1910 made the first Australian aircraft flight – a 40-yards hop – in a Bolivar paddock. This small leap became a huge one when Ross and Keith Smith, with Norwood-born navigator Walter Shiers on board, made the first flight from England to Australia in less than 30 hours in 1919. Other firsts for the decade were women police, a babies hospital and Susan Benny becoming a member of Brighton Council.

1920s: David Unaipon's the first published Aboriginal author; first female church minister

David Unaipon’s booklet Native Legends, in 1929, was first Australian publication by an Aboriginal author. In 1927, Winifred Kiek was the first woman ordained into the Christian ministry in Australia. In a breakthrough vital to the flying doctor service and the school of the air, the first practicable pedal wireless sets in Australia were made by Alfred Traeger of Adelaide (1928). Australia's first public archives were created for South Australia's public library, museum and art gallery (1920).              


1930s: Australia's first trolley bus and leading the nation with start of Housing Trust

Australia’s first motor trolley bus began running from Payneham to Paradise in 1932. South Australian led the nation in public housing when its Housing Trust was set up under premier Tom Playford in 1936. In another of the state's many contributions to technology, the first talking fire alarm in the world was installed at Woodville in 1938.

1940s: Shock treatment for patients developed at Parkside hospital in an Australian first

Parkside in 1941 was the first mental health hospital in Australia to use electro-convulsive shock treatment. Electro-convulsive shock treatment came early in World War II when the  timing devices needed for ECT machines was reserved for bombing mechanisms. Adelaide University physics department struck on substituting timers with the dial mechanism from a rotary telephone. ECT machines were tested on rabbits before being used on patients with schizophrenia or depression.



1950s-90s: Photocopying started in Adelaide; Roma Mitchell trail
blazer for female achievements; first Aboriginal land handback

Photocopying developed by Ken Metcalfe and Bob Wright at 1952 Defence laboratory in Adelaide

Xerography (photocopying), using liquid developer, was advanced by Ken Metcalfe and Bob Wright of the Defence Standards Laboratory in Adelaide in 1952.  Xerography is a form of copying invented by American Chester Carlson in 1937. Carlson based his method on the property of some materials to increase their ability to conduct electricity when exposed to light (known as photo-conductivity).The xerographic process exposes a photosensitive surface to light reflected through or from the image to be copied. Next the surface is dusted with a dry powder developer that adheres to the charged areas creating a copy of the image. The copy is then transferred to paper and fixed with heat. Carlson's process reproduced black and white images well, but not images, such as photographs, with any shading. Metcalfe and Wright of the Defence Standards Laboratory (formerly the Munitions Supply Laboratory) in Adelaide studied xerography to adapt it for industrial and military use. In 1952, they began to use liquid developers which, because they contained more pigment particles than the dry developers, allowed copying of images containing continuous tones. Metcalfe and Wright's invention allowed the development of colour copying by overprinting consecutive image.

1960s: Roma Mitchell first Australian female judge; discrimination on race grounds outlawed

Roma Mitchell became the first female judge in Australia in 1965. She would later become state governor of South Australia, the first women to hold that position. Among the legislative reforms of the 1960s was the Prohibition of Discrimination Act against racial discrimination; the first such act in Australia. In 1964, the first commercial natural gas well in Australia was completed at Gidgealpa in the state's far north..

1970s: English-speaking world-first rape in marriage law; first mall, Aboriginal governor

Rape in marriage was made a criminal offence in South Australia in 1976, a first in the English-speaking world. In other Australian firsts, the Aboriginal flag was flown for the first time (1971) and Aboriginal Douglas Nicholls because state governor (1976). Rundle Mall opened as pedestrian mall (1976), container deposit legislation introduced (1977), Maslim declared a nudist bathing beach (1975); homosexuality decriminalised (1975) and abortion legalised in certain circumstances (1970). 


1980s: Historic land handback to far north's Anangu Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara people

South Australian premier David Tonkin returned 102,650 square kilometres of land (10.2% of the state's land area) in the far north to the Anangu Pitjantjara Yankunytjatjara people in 1981. The land rights act, initiated by premier Don Dunstan and completed by David Tonkin, introduced new concepts of land holding and owners in control for the benefit of Indigenous peoples. It was an important milestone in the struggle for land rights not only for Anangu but for Indigenous communities worldwide.

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