The spirit of progress

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EJ Brady’s father, Edward, left famine-struck Ireland in 1849 in search of something new. He travelled first to America, where he was swept up by romantic tales of frontier life. After working a spell on the Mississippi, he joined the army and headed west, hoping ‘to see and admire unoccupied American spaces’. 1 When his term was complete, a boyhood fascination with the voyages of Captain Cook lured him aboard a whaling ship bound from San Francisco. Sailing the Pacific from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, Edward arrived back on US soil four years later, just in time to join the Union Army in battle against the rebellious south. Injured but intact, Edward contemplated a somewhat quieter life and journeyed to Australia to meet up with family in Sydney. He soon joined the mounted police and headed inland in pursuit of bushrangers.

From his father, EJ Brady claimed to have inherited ‘a longing to travel and a desire to be as far away from crowded places as I could get’. Perhaps he also gained a taste for the quirky and unconventional; for the young Brady, a knowledge of ‘Real Life and Real Things’ involved a thorough grounding in the habits of whales and Indians. 2 Brady published an account of his father’s life in America and Australia under the title Two frontiers. More than just a biography, the book is a nostalgic journeying through the ‘land of adventure’ that framed Brady’s childhood. It is also a tribute to the ‘frontier folk’ of both nations who were, he argued, ‘much alike’: ‘Similar dramas were being presented in two theatres of untamed spaces’. 3

Brady’s admiration for the character and achievements of the pioneering generation suffuses much of his work. They were men and women ‘with their feet upon the open highway of bold endeavour’. Sustained by ‘patience and the courageous spirit of a homely, hospitable people’ they set about ‘blazing the trail, clearing the track, paving the way’. 4 Modern Australians could not ‘afford to forget’ the qualities of ‘self-reliance and initiative’ born of frontier necessity. 5 Theirs was a simple faith, a belief in themselves, the land, and the future. The solution to Australia’s problems lay in the continued cultivation of this spirit, Brady argued, ‘nations, like individuals, never progress without faith in themselves’. 6 And yet, while pioneer spirit was precious and resilient, pioneer life itself was fading into history. Lonely campfires were giving way to the electric brilliance of cities. The ‘cinematograph of time’ rolled on.

In the 1940s, Brady collaborated with Leslie Rubinstein, a financier and amateur economist, to produce a book entitled Dreams and realities. The book was divided into two parts, contrasting the Australia that ‘has been’ with the Australia that ‘will be’. 7 In the first half, Brady told the story of Tom Tobin and his family, settlers in the rugged East Gippsland wilderness. Tom Tobin was ‘a strong man’ with ‘large hopes and little money’, who beheld in his densely-wooded selection a ‘land of promise’, a guarantee of security. 8 But this was no story of pioneer conquest; it was a tragedy, a failure. After long years of struggle, Tobin’s ‘Land of Promise still stood like a great grey fortress defiant of attack’. Sick and broken, he quit the land and took work on the roads. The property stood idle, known to locals as ‘Tobin’s folly’. 9

The second half of Dreams and realities presented an alternative to the ‘old system of pioneering’. Instead of an ‘unequal combat’ that pitted individual, isolated settlers against the brutalities of nature, Rubinstein offered the vision of community settlement: a planned, co-operative system, based upon scientific methods and employing modern technology. 10 It was a scheme that promised to make rural life ‘pleasant, convenient and profitable’ in an Australia where ‘the word “remoteness” will lose its meaning’. 11 ‘With the baffled pioneers as a curtain-raiser’, this new drama of settlement would ‘begin with bulldozers roaring into the forest’. The ‘Spirit of Progress’ would at last be ‘unchained’. 12

In the early decades of the twentieth century, it became increasingly clear that new conquests would not be won by courage alone. ‘The day of the hardy pioneer who blundered along earnestly but somewhat aimlessly is past’, declared the Sydney Morning Herald in 1913. 13 It was to science, the Argus agreed, that Australians would look ‘for guidance in their efforts to conquer the wilderness’. 14 Opening a conference in 1916 to discuss the establishment of a ‘National Laboratory’ to foster Australian development, Prime Minister Hughes declared that science could make ‘the desert bloom like a rose, it could make rural life pleasant as well as profitable’. The policy of ‘muddling through’ was no longer sufficient, he argued, for ‘to hope for success in modern industry without the aid of science was like attempting to navigate the trackless ocean without a compass’. 15 Beyond the narrow trails blazed by earnest pioneers, the light of science would guide the nation towards its destiny. ‘All onward and upward movement is alone made possible by the knowledge of facts’, another editorial noted, ‘the scientist is the scout in the onward march of progress’. 16

From the early days of European exploration and invasion, science had plundered the continent for its novelties. But as the new century dawned the challenge was not to catalogue, but control. Australia itself was object of study, its potential to be measured, its problems understood. ‘Little now remains for the geographical explorer to do’, commented Brady in Australia Unlimited, ‘but for the scientific investigator there is an almost limitless field’. 17 The task of science was framed in terms of space and geography. The ‘field of scientific endeavour… is continent wide’, explained the first Director of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry, FM Gellatly. 18 ‘Science never rests; never stands still’, he noted elsewhere, ‘every hill of knowledge that is climbed merely opens up new vistas for research’. 19 The pace of scientific progress contributed to the sense of movement. What the pioneers had begun, the scientists would complete, leading Australians on to better land and better lives. Brady saw the continent yielding to a ‘silent conquering army’ of farmers, armed with ‘library and laboratory’. ‘Led by the shining spirit of William Farrer’, he imagined this ‘Army of Invasion… preparing its assaults upon the outstanding citadels of nature’. 20

War in the Pacific wrought a flurry of map-making, as military planners realised how little was known of Australia’s exposed northern climes. 21 This cartographic enthusiasm carried on into the postwar years, fuelled by renewed hopes of progress. In 1949, the newly established Department of National Development set about the compilation of the Atlas of Australian Resources, aimed at providing ‘an authoritative, co-ordinated collection of scientific knowledge about the continent’. The atlas contained economic as well as topographic data, a vision of ‘the past, the present and the future’. In amongst the mountains and rivers, its colourful maps revealed ‘new avenues for development’ and ‘scope for future exploitation’. 22

As geophysical survey methods improved, scientists were able to map an ever-greater range of economic opportunities. 23 The Bureau of Mineral Resources fanned the flames of ‘uranium fever’ in the early 1950s by releasing a series of maps showing ‘possible deposits of uranium’ in the Northern Territory. 24 Airborne scintillometers had been used to survey the region for ‘radioactive anomalies’ which private prospectors were then invited to investigate. Experts advised eager uranium hunters to provision themselves with a truck, a geiger counter, an ultra-violet lamp, camping equipment, food, and those staples of pioneer life, ‘patience and energy’. 25

HG Raggatt, Secretary of the Department of National Development, suggested in the 1957 ‘Australia Unlimited’ supplement that the discovery of uranium and other minerals had brought the country to ‘the threshold of a new pioneering era’ that was ‘just as thrilling and bigger with promise’ than the gold rushes of the 1850s. 26 Uranium, the wonder metal of the Atomic Age, reinvigorated the pioneer legend with new tales of outback derring-do. 27 The story of John White, ‘the man who found Rum Jungle’, was a favourite amongst surveys of Australia’s uranium hopes. 28 After a lifetime of struggle and hardship, White had won a victory for himself and his nation. The virtues of the pioneer had withstood the challenge; the harsh environment had ‘burnt his skin to a black shade of brown’, but it had ‘never creased his soul nor interfered with his dogged perseverance’. 29 Similar tales were told of Norman McConachy, a ‘bushman true’, one of the discoverers of the Mary Kathleen uranium mine. Despite his success, McConachy, like White, remained ‘in spirit very close to the back country that fashioned his outlook’. 30

But the prospectors’ intuition was supplemented by science. Jack White, like the scores of new chums who took to the bush, used a geiger counter in his search for another Rum Jungle. 31 Ion Idriess, a sometime prospector, hailed this ‘revolutionary invention’. ‘Walking over the country listening in to a gadget for the clicks that tell of gamma rays seems to be Atomic Age prospecting with a vengeance’, Idriess wrote, ‘a far cry from pick and shovel and dish’. 32 The quest for uranium called the pioneer spirit to labour at the frontiers of science. Comforting stereotypes mingled with modern technology in the framing of the nation’s future. After the prospectors came the miners, ‘men, brown and hard’, ‘new pioneers’ working to ‘advance Australia’s development’. The establishment of a uranium refinery at Rum Jungle was, one article commented, ‘a triumph of ingenuity and determination over distance and conditions of considerable severity’. 33 If Australia was to prosper in this new age, the Australasian Manufacturer argued, it would need to summon ‘all the tenacity, the grit, the skill, the speed, the courage, and the vision’ that had served the nation in times past. 34

Uranium offered not just wealth, but security. The ‘new pioneers’ who laboured at Rum Jungle, Radium Hill, or Mary Kathleen, were not only furthering their nation’s economic prospects, they were contributing to the defence of the ‘free world’. 35 Through their hard work, the US and Britain would be assured of fuel enough to power a nuclear arsenal. 36 As ever, the pioneer spirit stood ready to play its part in the battle for freedom and security. In 1955, as the Australian government announced plans for the establishment of a permanent nuclear testing range at Maralinga, the Minister for Supply, Howard Beale, proclaimed ‘it is a challenge to Australian men to show that the pioneering spirit of their forefathers who developed our country is still the driving force of achievement’. 37


  1. Edwin James Brady, Two frontiers, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1944, p. 67.
  2. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts’, Southerly, vol. 13, no. 4, 1952, p. 196.
  3. Brady, Two frontiers, pp. 236-7; see also pp. 126, 297-9.
  4. Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 14, no. 1, 1953, pp. 22-3.
  5. ibid., p. 23; Brady, Two frontiers, pp. 298-9.
  6. Brady, ‘Faith in Australia’, p. 1.
  7. Edwin James Brady, and Leslie Rubinstein, Dreams and realities, York Press, Melbourne, 1944, foreword.
  8. ibid., p. 112.
  9. ibid., p. 109-11.
  10. ibid., p. 133-4.
  11. ibid., p. 215.
  12. ibid., p. 221.
  13. SMH, 3 June 1913, p. 8,
  14. Argus, 7 January 1913, p. 6.
  15. Argus, 6 January, p. 8.
  16. SMH, 14 January 1911, p. 12.
  17. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 53.
  18. Francis Mephan Gellatly, ‘The task ahead’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 5, September 1919, p. 287.
  19. Francis Mephan Gellatly, ‘The Institute and the States’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 3, July 1919, p. 130.
  20. Brady, Australia Unlimited, pp. 286-7.
  21. David Paver Mellor, The role of science and industry, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Series 4 (civil), vol. 5, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958, pp. 544-9.
  22. ‘Putting Australia on the map’, National Development, no. 5, September 1953, pp. 36-8.
  23. ‘Australia’s flying prospectors’, National Development, vol. 1, no. 1, October 1952, pp. 23-7.
  24. Herald, 14 October 1953, p. 3; ‘Uranium prospecting maps to be released for public inspection’, Chemical Engineering and Mining Review, vol. 46, 10 October 1953, p. 10.
  25. Herald, 14 October 1953, p. 3.
  26. H G Raggatt, ‘Bright new era in mineral development’, in ‘Australia unlimited’ supplement, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1957, p. 10.
  27. For example, see Ross Annabell, The uranium hunters, Rigby, Adelaide, 1971.
  28. Douglas Lockwood, ‘The man who found Rum Jungle’, Walkabout, vol. 23, no. 11, 1 July 1957, pp. 14-15. See also: Annabell, The uranium hunters, pp. 25-7; Moorehead, Rum Jungle, pp. 83-4; Ross Annabell, ‘Rum Jungle’, Exports of Australia, vol. 8, no. 6, April-May 1954, p. 15; ‘Rum Jungle uranium project opened’, Chemical Engineering and Mining Review, vol. 47, 11 October 1954, pp. 4-6; Uranium for the Atomic Age’, National Development, no. 1, October 1952, p. 11.
  29. Lockwood, ‘The man who found Rum Jungle’, p. 15.
  30. George Farwell, ‘Northern Australia: the everlasting promise’, Walkabout, vol. 25, no. 11, November 1959, pp. 18-19. See also George Farwell, ‘“Mary K”: model town in the spinifex’, Walkabout, vol. 24, no. 5, 1 May 1958, pp. 13-14.
  31. Moorehead, Rum Jungle, p. 86;
  32. Ion L Idriess, Fortunes in minerals – including uranium, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1951, p. 255.
  33. TAG Hungerford, ‘Uranium refinery plant opens at Rum Jungle’, National Development, no. 9, September 1954, p. 2-9.
  34. ‘Atomic power for industry: Australia enters developmental field’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 39, no. 2012, 23 October 1954, p. 20.
  35. See, for example, comments by the Governor General at the opening of the Radium Hill uranium mine, ‘A future for atomic power’, Australasian Engineer, 7 January 1955, p. 95..
  36. For details of Australia’s uranium deals see Alice Cawte, Atomic Australia: 1944-1990, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1992, ch. 5.
  37. Quoted in Robert Milliken, No conceivable injury: the story of Britain and Australia’s atomic cover-up, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986, p. 93.

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