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On 12 November 1894, Lawrence Hargrave attached himself to a train of tandem box-kites and became the first Australian to fly. But it was his discoveries in aerodynamics and mechanical engineering that forever changed the course of aviation.

The aeronautical pioneer and inventor was born in Greenwich, England, on 29 January 1850. When Hargrave was six, his father sailed to Australia with his two older brothers. Lawrence stayed to complete his schooling and the family was reunited in Sydney when Lawrence was 15.


Lawrence Hargrave
Engineer, explorer, astronomer, inventor, aeronautical pioneer. On 12 November 1894, Lawrence Hargrave attached himself to a train of tandem box-kites and became the first Australian to fly. But it was his discoveries in aerodynamics and mechanical engineering that forever changed the course of aviation. Image: unknown
© National Library of Australia

On 12 November 1894, Lawrence Hargrave attached himself to a train of tandem box-kites and became the first Australian to fly. But it was his discoveries in aerodynamics and mechanical engineering that forever changed the course of aviation.

The aeronautical pioneer and inventor was born in Greenwich, England, on 29 January 1850. When Hargrave was six, his father sailed to Australia with his two older brothers. Lawrence stayed to complete his schooling and the family was reunited in Sydney when Lawrence was 15.


Lawrence Hargrave
Engineer, explorer, astronomer, inventor, aeronautical pioneer. On 12 November 1894, Lawrence Hargrave attached himself to a train of tandem box-kites and became the first Australian to fly. But it was his discoveries in aerodynamics and mechanical engineering that forever changed the course of aviation. Image: unknown
© National Library of Australia

Invited on a sailing trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria, with his parent’s consent, he visited the Torres Strait islands and circumnavigated Australia. On his return he was apprenticed to the engineering workshops of the Australasian Steam Navigation Company, where he learned design and manufacturing skills.

In January 1872, Hargrave joined a prospecting expedition to New Guinea. On the way, his ship struck a reef and many died. On a second journey three years later, as ship’s engineer, he reached New Guinea. Over the next nine months he took detailed notes and drawings of the people, their homes and technological devices. A year later he returned to chart the Fly River and its tributary, the Strickland.

Hargrave became an astronomical observer at the Sydney Observatory, where he observed the transit of Mercury in 1881 and theorised on the effect that volcanic eruptions have on sunsets. After the death of his father, Lawrence came into an inheritance and became a ‘gentleman inventor’. Inspired by the motion of fishes, snakes and birds, he turned his attention to flight. In 1893, he moved to Stanwell Park (NSW) and continued his experiments.

On the day of his historic flight, Hargrave and James Swain, his property caretaker, moored a train of four box kites to two sandbags in the dunes of Stanwell Park beach. Suspended beneath the kites, Hargrave carried instruments to measure wind speed and the angle of his anchor line. He rose 15 metres in a wind speed of 34 kilometres per hour.

Hargrave went on to discover that a curved wing surface gave twice the lift of a flat one, and his development of rotary engines would power aircraft for the next 25 years. Softly spoken and unassertive, Lawrence Hargrave never mixed well with others; yet his contributions to aviation earned him a place on the (old) Australian $20 note and recognition worldwide.