Science & Health

The Australian Da Vinci: How David Unaipon (Almost) Changed Our Nation

David Unaipon has been pictured on the front of Australia’s $50 note since 1995. A hugely intelligent man who nonetheless left school at 13, he lodged 19 patents during his life, revolutionised sheep shearing, devoted much of his time to attempting to achieve perpetual motion, wrote prolifically, and conceptualised the helicopter two decades before it became a reality. This is his story.

A warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this feature includes numerous images of a deceased person.

“The Best-Known Aborigine”

Almost half a century after his death in 1967, Unaipon has achieved some level of posthumous recognition through his appearance on our national currency, and in the annual David Unaipon award for Indigenous literature. Google even featured one of his mechanical designs on a front page doodle on his 140th birthday.

Unaipon was said to be “the best-known Aborigine in Australia” during his lifetime. But having researched his life and his scientific investigations, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that he would have been much better-known and more influential if he had been white.

Born David Ngunaitponi at South Australia’s Point McLeay Mission in 1872, his name was reputed to mean “I go forward”. He undoubtedly went further forward than most of his contemporaries — he remains the only Indigenous Australian on a current Australian banknote. Yet what he tried to achieve remains largely forgotten.

Few Australians can identify him on the $50 note; even fewer would know anything of his life. His descendants aren’t entirely happy about his appearance on our currency either, yet that remains his most visible recognition. What did he do and why don’t we know more about it?

“Bright, Intelligent, Well-Instructed”

Unaipon’s extraordinary ability was evident from when he first began school at the age of seven. One missionary wrote of him: “I only wish the majority of white boys were as bright, intelligent, well-instructed and well-mannered, as the little fellow I am now taking charge of.” In 1885, at the age of 13, he moved to Adelaide to work as a servant. His employer, CB Young, actively encouraged Unaipon to continue his reading and learning.

After working variously as a bootmaker, bookkeeper and storeman, Unaipon was eventually employed by the Aborigines’ Friends Association, which ran the Point McLeay mission, to travel and seek support for its work. A devout Christian (his father was the very first convert at the mission), he saw that belief system as quite compatible with Aboriginal spirituality. But that did not distract him from his continued investigations in science and engineering.

“One Of Nature’s Geniuses”

Unaipon’s ongoing renown rests heavily on his modified design for a sheep-shearing comb. He had come up with the basic idea by 1909, and he placed a provisional patent on his hinge modification, but despite being widely adopted, he never made any money from it, and the patent eventually lapsed — a fate that befell all his subsequent patents as well.

Unaipon’s invention was neatly described in the Adelaide Advertiser in 1910 under the heading ‘An Ingenious Aboriginal’:

The study of mechanics has, it is stated, resulted in the discovery of a new application of force by David Unaipon, an aboriginal, who has spent a good deal of time at the Point McLeay Mission Station. For five years he attempted to solve the hopeless problem of perpetual motion as applied to machinery, and in the course of his various experiments discovered what he describes as a new method of dealing with the law of gravitation, that is by diverting the attraction to a horizontal instead of a perpendicular movement. He described his discovery to Professor Chapman, of the Adelaide University, who advised Unaipon to apply it to machinery. On Monday the aboriginal called at the office and showed how he had adopted the professor’s advice. He has altered the mechanism of a machine sheep shears by a device by which the curvilineal motion of the shears is converted into a straight-line movement. At present these machines cut the wool in a half-circular manner, like the motion of the ordinary hand shears, or a pair of scissors. The new mechanism, which is still kept a secret, has been patented, and the inventor states that the principle can be applied to other machinery.

As a useful innovation in an industry which made enormous sums for Australia, it’s unsurprising that Unaipon’s basic design was taken up, even if he did not profit from it. Importantly, that emerged not from a forced focus on “science with immediate results” — a call we still hear regularly in 2014 — but because of his interest in scientific fundamentals. As the Weekly Times explained in 1914 in a profile that described him fulsomely as “one of Nature’s geniuses”:

For many years past Unaipon has been an omnivorous reader, often, after a day’s work, remaining up till the small hours of the morning deep in the study of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, and other research studies. Perpetual motion has offered to him a fountain of thought which has occupied his mind for years, and his regret is that scientists are not giving more time to the study of this problem, which, he believes, is capable of solution. While he was in search of it he found out the two new motions referred to.

“Australia’s Cleverest Darkie”

Between 1910 and 1915 Unaipon was the subject of much newspaper coverage of this kind. Three elements would be constantly referred to: his sheep shearing innovations, his basic design for a helicopter based on the motion of the traditional boomerang (a functioning helicopter did not appear until 1936), and his interest in the then entirely theoretical field of laser light. The helicopter often attracted the most attention, as this 1914 account Unaipon gave to the Daily Herald suggests:

An aeroplane can be manufactured that will rise straight into the air from the ground by application of the boomerang principle. The boomerang is shaped to rise in the air according to the velocity with which it is propelled, and so can an aeroplane.

What sticks out, reading these newspaper stories a century later, is the unabashed racism that dominates even in what are usually sympathetic accounts.

One example illustrates the point neatly. An interview with Unaipon in 1911 was reproduced in papers across Australia. The content remained largely the same — sometimes trimmed by a line or two to fit the available space — but the headline varied. The Maitland Weekly Mercury and Port Macquarie News chose ‘The Cleverest Aborigine’. The Clarence And Richmond Examiner went with ‘Australian Aborigines: Inventor and Scientist’. The Richmond River Herald instead went for ‘Australia’s Cleverest Darkie’.

That interview also highlights Unaipon’s interest in lasers:

Yet another complex problem that has claimed his attention is the polarisation of light and the concentration of light at a given point. “These would be the greatest weapons in future warfare,” prophesied Unaipon. “We are gradually coming to the age where we might expect to be able to hurl electricity, like nature does, for instance, in the shape of lightning.”

“A Deep Student Of Science”

While it was unfortunate that Unaipon made no money from his shearing invention, it was not unusual. The Brisbane Worker, writing of Unaipon (“a deep student of science”) in 1914, identified the problem succinctly:

David Unaipon had better keep his weather eye open, else those capitalists or patent righters will rob him of his invention as they always rob labour, black and white, of the harvest of its toil.

That pattern of ideas being taken without recognition was repeated with Unaipon’s writing. He regularly penned accounts of Aboriginal myths and beliefs for newspapers, and is often cited as the first Indigenous author to write in English.

In the 1920s, Angus & Robertson commissioned Unaipon to write a book on the topic of Aboriginal legends. While he was reportedly paid 150 pounds, his name did not appear on the published work. Instead, Legendary Tales Of The Australian Aborigines was credited to Scottish author William Ramsay Smith. ((You can view a scan of Unaipon’s full original manuscript on the NSW State Library site.)

Myths defined Unaipon’s life, in both scientific and religious terms. In physics, perpetual motion is generally held to be impossible. But that has not stopped thousands of people seeking the goal. At the time, his ambition was not unusual — save for the context of his circumstances.

Unaipon saw the embrace of Christianity as the most straightforward way to integrate Indigenous and white society (a view that did not endear him to many of his fellow Aboriginals). Much of his life was spent as a guest preacher travelling across Australia. The irony in 2014 is that church attendance is largely irrelevant — less than 10 per cent of Australians regularly attend a church service. Even if that approach had become dominant in Indigenous communities, it might not have achieved Unaipon’s desired result.

“The Aboriginal Scholar”

Despite some recognition in the early part of the century, by the 1930s, Unaipon’s scientific ambitions seemed to be largely ignored, even though he kept tinkering with his perpetual motion concepts and despite the fact that he was now very well-known. His principal public role was to interpret what then remained of traditional Indigenous culture for a sometimes curious but often dismissive white public. Sometimes that involved demonstrating his highly impressive boomerang skills.

Sometimes it involved interpreting “message sticks”, as he did in 1925 for an Adelaide Register reporter:

Note that the numbers are gratuitous additions by the paper. The key message of this diagram was to build fires for smoke signals whenever the angle changed.

His own scientific activities continued intermittently. During his travels as a missionary preacher, Unaipon collected skulls, stone tools and other artefacts and sent them to anthropologist Dr Angus Johnson in Adelaide. With a similar goal of enhancing understanding, Unaipon volunteered himself to be the subject of a full-face mask used as part of a touring exhibition about “man and his ancestors”:

“A Triumph For My People”

Unaipon evidently enjoyed exposing racist views amongst his contemporaries. I love this story from a gossip column in the Adelaide Advertiser of 1930:

David walked into one of the big stores in Adelaide, and as he entered one of the departments he was accosted by the manager in this fashion — ‘Well, Jacky, you wantem buy big fella shirt, eh?’ -‘Will you kindly direct me to the manager’s office?’ was the polished reply in perfect English. It was worth going a long way to see the expression on the face of the manager, who afterwards admitted that he felt a perfect fool.

Yet the patronising tone was never far away when reporters discussed him — even the same columnist described him a year later as a “remarkably intelligent specimen of primitive man”. There’s a similarly revolting assumption evident in this extract from another Adelaide Advertiser column in 1931:

It was surprising the number of readers who stopped me yesterday and asked me if I could vouch that David Unaipon was a full-blooded black. They were simply amazed at the depth of thought and the facility of expression of the man.

The assumption? No “full-blooded” Australian Aboriginal would be bright enough to have achieved what Unaipon had. Only “white blood” could claim intellect. Unaipon had to be treated as an “exception”, as an account from almost a decade earlier in the Sydney Morning Herald made even clearer:

It was not as an aboriginal, as he is ordinarily accepted, but as a man of cultured intellect, dignified in his bearing, and speaking perfect English, that Mr Unaipon addressed the congregation last night

That racist attitude was unquestionably and sadly the norm. Punch in 1914 described him as “a remarkably able man, even amongst superior whites”. More of the same: “With the gradual passing away of the aborigines we are taking more interest in the outstanding representatives of the primitive race,” wrote the Adelaide Register News-Pictorial in 1929.

The gradual passing away of the aborigines.” That was an entirely uncontroversial remark in 1929; it was of no concern to assume every Indigenous Australian would soon die. We wouldn’t assume that in 2014. Would we?

Yet there’s nothing to be proud of in current Indigenous mortality statistics. The life expectancy for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders is 10.6 years lower than non-Indigenous males, and 9.5 years lower than non-Indigenous females, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Even now we haven’t moved on so far, it seems, from 1947, when the Adelaide News could headline an article referencing Unaipon with the horribly offensive phrase “Our Forgotten Men – The Abos”.

The 1929 piece provides a telling insight into Unaipon’s views on science and its potential influence:

There is a story that he once met Norman Lindsay [well-known Australian artist and author of The Magic Pudding]. “What are you going to do?” Lindsay asked. “I’m going to try to solve the problem of perpetual motion,” Unaipon said. Lindsay laughed. “I know what you’re going to say,” Unaipon said. “I know it’s impossible, but what a triumph for my people if I was successful!”

Unaipon understood the value of science and technology, both for its own sake and for how it might transform perceptions of his brethren. Yet in his lifetime, few recognised what he might have contributed.

It’s a mistake to single-mindedly apply the values of 2014 to past eras. It’s also a mistake to pretend we can excuse appalling attitudes purely on that basis. You would hope that someone of Unaipon’s evident ability and intelligence would be given more opportunities in Australia in 2014 than when he was patronised as “Australia’s cleverest darkie” a century ago. You would hope his scientific skills would be given more recognition and more opportunity to flourish. But in a country that gleefully eliminated its science minister last year, you might not hope too hard.


$50 note picture from Shutterstock. Other pictures from the newspaper and library archives at the National Library of Australia’s hugely helpful Trove site.


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