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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Duigan, John Robertson (1882–1951)

by F. J. Kendall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Robertson Duigan (1882-1951), pioneer aviator and electrical engineer, was born on 31 May 1882 at Terang, Victoria, elder son of John Charles Duigan, bank manager and grazier, and his wife, Jane, née Robertson, both native-born. He was educated at Brighton Grammar School and matriculated in 1899. In 1902 he went to England, enrolling in the City and Guilds of London Technical College, Finsbury, and obtaining a certificate in electrical engineering in 1904. Next year he qualified in motor engineering and driving at Battersea Polytechnical College and then worked for the Wakefield and District Light Railway, Yorkshire. Returning to Melbourne in 1908, he worked with G. Weymouth Pty Ltd, electrical engineers, but later that year went to live on a family property, Spring Plains station, Mia Mia.

Duigan's experiments in aviation dated from 1908 when he constructed an unsuccessful kite and then began building a Wright-type glider that was completed and flown on a tether wire in 1909. It was capable of lifting two people off the ground. Before September 1909 he began construction of a powered aircraft of his own design. Apart from the engine, which was built by J. E. Tilly in Melbourne, the whole of the aircraft was made by Duigan at Spring Plains. His younger brother Reginald helped to assemble the aircraft and John first 'flew' in it hopping about twenty feet (6 m) on 16 July 1910. But by early October he was flying nearly 200 yards (183 m). These were the first flights in Australia of a locally designed and built aircraft.

In 1909 the Commonwealth government had offered a £5000 prize to the inventor or designer of a flying machine suitable for military purposes. Believing his machine to be ineligible for entry because it was not capable of 'poising', Duigan did not submit an entry by the due date of March 1910. Later he found that 'poising' had been defined simply as the capability of turning within a half-mile circle and he submitted a late entry in August. The Commonwealth refused to accept this entry although the Defence Department requested a demonstration of the machine which took place in May 1911. The aircraft was never flown again and was presented to the Science Museum of Victoria by Duigan in 1920.

Duigan returned to England in 1911 and obtained a flying licence from the International Aeronautical Federation in April 1912. He bought an Avro aeroplane and spent some months in developmental work on it at the A. V. Roe works in Huntingdon before selling it. Reginald joined him in England and before returning to Australia they bought an engine, which was used in an aircraft they built at their father's Ivanhoe home. It was flown at Keilor in February 1913 and was extensively damaged in a crash; though later repaired it was not flown again. Duigan's offer to sell it to the Commonwealth government in February 1915 for use at the Central Flying School at Point Cook was not accepted. Its ultimate fate is not known. On 26 November 1913 Duigan married Kathleen Rebecca Corney, a nursing sister, at St Paul's Anglican Church, Caulfield.

On 14 March 1916 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in No.2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, and was appointed to command the squadron's 2nd Flight in August. He embarked in October and, after training in England, was promoted captain and confirmed as a flight commander in August 1917. Proceeding to France, Duigan went into action with No.3 Squadron. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action on 9 May 1918 when his aircraft was attacked by four German planes over Villers-Bretonneux: although severely wounded he shot down one of the enemy and landed safely. His appointment with the A.F.C ended on 15 July 1919 and he resumed work in Melbourne as an electrical engineer. In 1928 he moved to Yarrawonga where he conducted a motor engineering business until 1941. He returned to Melbourne that year and for the rest of World War II was employed in the quality control branch of the Royal Australian Air Force. He then lived in retirement at Ringwood where, survived by his wife, he died of cancer on 11 June 1951. He was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Duigan occupies a special place in Australia's aviation history as he was the first Australian to design, build and fly an aeroplane in Australia but he appears not to have been involved in the development of aviation in a policy or technical sense. A memorial to him was unveiled on the Mia Mia-Lancefield road, near the site of the first flight, on 28 May 1960.

Select Bibliography

  • London Gazette, 13 Sept 1918
  • Aero (London), 3 Aug 1910, 8 Mar 1911
  • Flight (London), 10 June 1911, 6 Apr 1912
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), Oct 1960
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 45 (1974)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 15 Oct 1910, 6 May 1911, 18 May 1912, 22 Feb 1913
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Jan, 1 June 1911, 19 Feb 1912
  • Colac Herald, 6 May 1960
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 May 1960
  • Science Museum of Victoria, official files (Melbourne)
  • Hargrave memorial lecture, 1962 (Royal Aeronautical Society, Victorian Branch)
  • war diary, No.3 Squadron, A.F.C. (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

F. J. Kendall, 'Duigan, John Robertson (1882–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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