David Unaipon was an aboriginal Australian who is famous for his inventions most prominently an improved mechanical sheep shearing hand tool. He applied for patents for as many as nineteen inventions and conceptualized the helicopter 22 years before it became a reality. Here are 10 interesting facts about the life and achievements of the man called the Australian Leonardo da Vinci.

 

#1 He was an Ngarrindjeri

Born on 28 September 1872 at the Point McLeay Mission, in the Coorong region of South Australia, David Unaipon was an Ngarrindjeri (‘the people who belong to this land’). Ngarrindjeri people were South Australian Aborigines who numbered around 6000 at the time of white settlement in 1836. David was the fourth of nine children of James and Nymbulda Ngunaitponi. James was the first person to convert to Christianity in his tribe.

Ngarrindjeri Nation Flag
Ngarrindjeri Nation Flag

 

#2 He was a prominent member of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association

David Unaipon started attending school from the age of seven and was a bright student. In 1885, at the age of 13, he left school and became a servant of C.B. Young, an influential landholder in Adelaide. Young encouraged David’s academic interests. From 1890, Unaipon tried various professions before becoming a member of Aborigines’ Friends’ Association. He travelled widely to promote the cause of Aboriginal rights. In 1902, he married Katherine Carter, a Tangane woman.

Young David Unaipon
The young David Unaipon living and studying in the home of CB Young, Adelaide c. 1885

 

#3 David Unaipon is famous for his innovation to the shearing tool

As an inventor, one of David Unaipon’s goals was to achieve perpetual motion, a motion that continues indefinitely without external energy source, considered impossible. While conducting experiments to attain perpetual motion, Unaipon made a discovery which led to him inventing an improved mechanical hand tool for shearing sheep that converted curvilinear motion into the straight line movement. This forms the basis of modern mechanical shears.

Diagram of Unaipon's shearing machine
Diagram of Unaipon’s shearing machine

 

#4 He didn’t earn much from any of his numerous inventions

In 1909, Unaipon patented his shearing tool. But despite his modification being adopted widely and making enormous sums for the industry in Australia, his interests were not protected and it was others who gained financially from his invention. The patent eventually lapsed and Unaipon made no money from it. In fact he was unable to gain financially from any of his inventions.

David Unaipon
David Unaipon

 

#5 He made significant contributions to science

Boomerang
Boomerang gave Unaipon the idea of his helicopter design

Apart from modifications in the sheep shearing tool, David Unaipon made several other inventions including a motor run by centrifugal force, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. In total, Unaipon applied for patents for as many as nineteen inventions but unfortunately they all lapsed. He was also a recognised authority on ballistics.

#6 Unaipon conceptualized the helicopter two decades before it became a reality

David Unaipon made the basic design for a helicopter by 1914, 22 years before the first operational helicopter in 1936. He got the idea from how a boomerang moved through the air and applied that principle in his helicopter design. Due to this and his other scientific work including research into the polarization of light, David Unaipon became known as the Australian Leonardo da Vinci.

#7 David Unaipon was the first published Australian Aboriginal writer

David Unaipon was the first Aboriginal writer to be published. He wrote several articles for the Sydney Daily Telegraph with the first being published in August 1924 under the heading ‘Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs’. He wrote numerous articles for several magazines and newspapers with his favorite subjects being the rights of Aborigines and traditional stories. He also published three short booklets of Aboriginal stories in 1927, 1928 and 1929.

 

#8 His literary work was plagiarized and he never received credit for it in his lifetime

Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines
Cover of Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines

In 1920s, a Sydney publishing house, Angus and Robertson, commissioned Unaipon to compile a book on Aboriginal legends. The resulting book was credited to Scottish anthropologist William Ramsay Smith with no mention of Unaipon. It was in 1998 that it was found that the book was almost unaltered from Unaipon’s original manuscript and that he was paid just 150 pounds for his efforts. The book has now been republished in its original form under Unaipon’s name and is titled Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.

#9 He faced discrimination and was denied accommodation due to his race

Unaipon argued in favor of equal rights for black and white Australians and spread awareness about Aboriginal culture. Though he was a popular speaker, he was often denied accommodation and refreshment because of his race. He was also deeply religious and believed in an equivalence of traditional Aboriginal and Christian spirituality. According to him embracing Christianity was the simplest way of integrating indigenous and white society.

David Unaipon Australian $50 note
Australian $50 note featuring David Unaipon

 

#10 In 1995, David Unaipon’s picture was put on Australia’s $50 note

In 1953, Unaipon was awarded a Coronation Medal. He died on 7 February 1967 at the age of ninety five. In 1985, he was posthumously awarded the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers. In 1988, the University of Queensland started the David Unaipon Award which is given annually to help Aboriginal writers to get their books published. In recognition to his contributions, David Unaipon features on Australian fifty dollar notes since 1995.

11 COMMENTS

    • I understand he also invented a way to capture the Earth’s magnetic field but it has been “hidden” as it would bankrupt all electric power producers in the WORLD! Fred in the USA

  1. discrimination? tell me ho hasn’t been since 1770. Specially considering indigenous men enlisted and fought in WWI/WWII/Korea/Vietnam and endured discrimination upon returning to Australia.

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