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Lawrence Hargrave (1850–1915)

"Sydney will one day be noted, not for its famous harbour, but as being the home of Hargrave, the man who invented the flying machine," Lawrence Hargrave, the man of whom these words were spoken by Professor Threlfall, formerly of the Sydney University, died yesterday at his home in Wunulla-road, Woollahra Point He was 65 years of age.

The late Mr Hargraves, whose experiments carried on at Stanwell Park and in Sydney did so much to advance the science of aviation, was born in England, but he spent the greater part of his life–48 years of it–in this country. He was the son of the late Mr Justice Hargrave. The death of his own son, Geoffrey Hargrave, who was killed at the Dardanelles a few weeks ago, was a great blow to him, and undoubtedly hastened the end. Geoffrey Hargrave, like his father, was an engineer by profession and his death in action has cut short a very promising career. The late Mr Lawrence Hargrave, who was a cousin of the Rev Joshua Hargrave, now of Blaxland, and formerly of St David's, Surry Hills, leaves a widow and four daughters–Mrs William Gray, of London; Mrs Waller, wife of Dr Waller, of Bakewell, Derbyshire; Miss Margaret F. and Miss Olive Hargrave.

The name of Lawrence Hargrave will be remembered in this country–the more as time goes on. He worked for some years as an assistant astronomical observer at Sydney Observatory under the late Mr H. C. Russell, and it may have been because he had to do with the things above the earth that his thoughts turned to flying machines. However that was, he gave up his work at the Observatory and thereafter devoted most of his life to the study of aeronautics, and certain it is that the present day success in mechanical flight are due largely to the work of this man in Australia. Thirty years ago Lawrence Hargrave was studying the flight of birds and making working models, embodying the principles of their motions. The success of the models convinced him of the possibility of mechanical flight and in a paper which he read to the the Royal Society on August 6, 1884, he gave particulars of his discoveries in simple and modest terms.

'I have strung together my thoughts, experiments and deductions that refer in any way to tiletrochoidal plane," he said, "pointng out where I see Nature working with it, and how it can be used by man for the transmission of force; and I think that if other members have heard of or made similar observations they will bring them forward, so that my mistakes may be corrected by comparison with the ideas of others, and also that the truth may be elicited about a matter that does not seem to get its fair share of investigation. The trochoidal action of five muscles and legs seemed so plain that I could not help being led to theorise on the action of wings in flight. I say theorise simply because I have not a flying machine to show you, but the chain of evidence seems so complete that I have no doubt it will soon be accomplished, without the aid of the screw or gas bag. These are my views, and if you think there is any novel truth embodied in them, this society is welcome to any of the laboratory models that aided me in finding it out."

Eleven years later–in 1895–Hargrave conducted a remarkable experiment at Stanwell Park on the South Coast utilising his invention of the cellular, or box, kites, the fore-runner of the modern aeroplane, to lift him from the ground. 'It is thought," he said in another address to the members of the Royal Society, "that this experiment marks an epoch in the series of aeronautical contrivances recorded in our journal." And the principle was adopted by practically every military nation in the world for signalling purposes.

It was Hargrave who lifted human flight from the realm of dreamland into realisation; it was upon his discoveries that other men built, who have become famous in the world of aeronautics–the Wright Brothers and Farman, for instance. For 30 years he worked steadily on the problems of aerial engineering, constructing models, improving on them, and ever reaching higher stages. It is said of him that for one of his boilers he required 190ft of copper tubing, and, finding the pipe on sale in Sydney too thick for his purpose, he shaved the 190ft to the thinness desired–and had to invent a lathe to do it. And all the time, whilst his work was unappreciated in this country–by many, indeed, his efforts even had ridicule heaped upon them-aeronauts in other lands were working on his ideas. "It appeals regrettable," he said to the Royal Society, in June, 1898, "that Australians should leave to Americans and others the tardy adoption of views circulated by this society." It was but one more illustration of the truth of the saying that a prophet is without honour in his own country.

It is a regrettable thing–it is, indeed something of a disgrace–that when some years ago, Mr Hargrave expressed his willingness to hand over all his models to the Government that they might be housed somewhere where they would be available for inspection by other inventors and the public generally, the Government could not see its way to accept them–there was no room anywhere. They were offered to Governments, they were offered to institutions–there was no room available. The same indifference was shown in England. So Mr Hargrave presented them to Germany, and to-day they may be seen in the Deutsche Museum at Munich–and it is believed that the Taube aeroplane, which has been so prominent in the great war, is fashioned on one of these Australian models!

Apart from his great life-work, the late Mr Hargrave was a close student of early Australian history, and in particular he was an authority on Spanish and Portugese voyages to southern waters. In his earlier days–in the time of Admiral Moresby–he took part in an exploration journey in New Guinea together with some other men from Sydney.

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Citation details

'Hargrave, Lawrence (1850–1915)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 January, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


14 July, 1915 (aged 65)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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