In 1888, the sight of 184,000 gleaming white, newly shorn sheep on the dry plains of the Darling River near Louth in New South Wales represented a technological leap and a glimpse of the future.
- Frederick Wolseley’s design remains the most widespread method of shearing sheep
- Wolseley invented and built the shears and the engineering required to power it
- The modern day wool industry is keenly exploring new technologies such as robots to harvest wool
Dunlop Station had become the first property in the world to shear an entire flock using machines.
“It was a major step change in the way that the wool industry operated,” said Angelique Hutchison, a curator at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, which charts the history of Australia’s wool industry.
Until then, for thousands of years, wool had been clipped by hand, using sharp knives or shears.
By the end of the 19th century, Australia’s burgeoning sheep flock was in urgent need of a more effective shearing method.
Inventing electric shearing
This quest had challenged some of the country’s most inventive minds for three decades.
Among them was Irish-born nobleman, pastoralist, inventor and industrialist, Frederick York Wolseley.
“The mechanical handpiece via Wolseley took 25 years to come to fruition, from the time he started until it became a market success. So that says commitment,” said Ian Itter, a retired engineer who has spent decades uncovering and documenting Wolseley’s vast legacy now present in woolsheds around the world.
“We owe a great deal to that man,” said the 82-year-old.
Wolseley invented and built both the shears, known as a handpiece and the engineering required to power it.
Testament to the brilliance of this technology, it’s still the most widely used method to shear sheep 130 years since its invention.
For an inventor, the path from conception to reality is never easy, as Fred Wolseley was constantly reminded.
His eventual success stemmed from his inventiveness, his sheer persistence and the substantial financial backing, courtesy mostly of his brother, Garnet Wolseley, head of the British Army.
“The relationship was one of Fred continually asking for money and his brother Lord Wolseley writing back and saying ‘you’re the death of me’ and all that kind of thing,” said John Wolseley, the inventor’s great-great nephew and prominent Australian artist.
In recent years, he has become increasingly interested in the breadth of Fred’s inventions, everything from water wheels to sheep shearing equipment and woolsheds across Australia and New Zealand.
“With Fred year after year, he’s going off to another woolshed, he’s building another woolshed, he’s then tinkering away with all manner of the most extraordinary crazy inventions, and I find this very fascinating,” said John Wolseley.
Fred Wolseley also recruited the best engineering brains to his firm, most notably a young Englishman Herbert (later Lord) Austin.
Austin is hailed as a mechanical genius. He engineered crucial improvements on how to safely deliver power from a powerful engine into a drive shaft and the complex gearing needed to transfer it into the shearing handpiece.
After helping to transform the wool industry, Herbert Austin returned to England in 1896 to make cars.
His vehicles, including the ‘Baby Austin’, would become world famous, so too the ‘Wolseley’, the vehicle he named in honour of his mentor Frederick Wolesley.
Austin became one of the world’s most prominent industrialists, producing armaments for the Allied cause in both World Wars.
Today, few people realise that the automotive and arms industry owes a great deal to the wool industry, where Austin had his start.
Changing the wool industry forever
The machines he helped build boosted Australia’s wealth by making shearing faster and more efficient than traditional blades.
“Then the wool industry really became the mainstay of the Australian economy for the following 60 or 70 years,” said Angelique Hutchison.
Fred Wolseley married late in life, had no children, and died in 1899.
Today’s shearing machines, though greatly refined, are essentially the same as Wolseley’s.
The wool industry facing a severe shearer shortage and rising labour costs is again endeavouring to find a better way to harvest wool.
“We need to move technology into the shearing shed, I think is the bottom line,” said Dr Michelle Humphries of Australian Wool Innovation, the woolgrower-funded body whose aim is to boost and better the wool industry.
Mechanisation controlled by artificial intelligence in the form of robots holds the most promise, but it’s also the most challenging.
Recent studies have shown that on average a shearer makes 2,000 movements while shearing a sheep.
“Anything in the robotics space is going to have a very long lead time,” added Dr Humphries.
So, for the foreseeable future, the shearer toiling away in the nation’s woolsheds will remain an iconic Australian image; and Fred Wolseley’s wondrous shearing machines an indelible part of it.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.