Young inventors and intellectual property

As the winners of the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards are announced, we take a look at other young inventors of the 20th century.

Since 1981, the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards have shone a light on some of Australia's brightest young innovators and inventors.

This year's winners include a number of potentially world-changing inventions such as Macinley Buston's Solar System, which can deliver clean water and solar power for third-world communities, and Hugh McKay's Possideo Manus, an inexpensive 3D-printed prosthetic that will allow children in impoverished areas to continue working on family farms.

Prior to the award announcements, the 26 finalists attended a series of workshops in Melbourne – including one describing the basics of intellectual property law in Australia. Young inventors are not new to the world of patents; some of history's most significant inventions were thought up by inventors before they turned 18.

Becky Schroeder: Glo-sheets

Frustrated with not being able to do her homework in the car while her mom was shopping, Becky Schroeder was ten years old when she invented Glo-sheets, a phosphorescent writing surface that allows for writing in the dark. Glowing lines on the sheet are bright enough to shine through a piece of paper, making it easier to keep writing in a straight line. Becky was granted a patent for Glo-sheets in 1975 when she was 12. Almost immediately, people were interested in using Glo-sheets, including doctors and NASA.

Frank Epperson: Popsicles

Popsicles were invented by Frank Epperson when he was 11, but he didn't apply for a patent until  almost 20 years later.Popsicles were invented by Frank Epperson when he was 11, but he didn't apply for a patent until almost 20 years later.

One of summertime's most refreshing treats was invented by accident. When he was 11, Frank Epperson mixed some soda powder and water with a stick and accidentally left it outside. The temperature dropped overnight, and in the morning, Frank found the stick stuck inside his frozen soda. After realising it tasted delicious, Frank started selling his invention, which he called Eppsicles, in his neighbourhood. He didn't apply for a patent until 1924, 19 years later.

Philo T. Farnsworth: Television

When he was 14, Philo T. Farnsworth got the idea for transmitting pictures through airwaves while staring at the long lines in his family's potato field. He drew up his idea in a diagram and showed it to his science teacher. Later, after dropping out of school, Farnsworth further developed his idea into the television.

Around the same time, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) learned about Farnsworth's invention. The head of RCA sent his top researcher, Vladimir Zworykin, to Farnsworth's laboratories to learn what he could about the invention. This sparked a lengthy legal battle between Farnsworth and RCA, which ended when the U.S. Patent Office awarded Farnsworth with priority of invention in 1934.

These examples from history, and other notable patent disputes, show that it is never to early to learn about intellectual property law in Australia.