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Lawrence Hargrave (1850–1915)

by Amirah Inglis

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Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915), aeronautical pioneer and inventor, was born on 29 January 1850 at Greenwich, England, second son of John Fletcher Hargrave and his wife and cousin Ann, née Hargrave. In 1856 J. F. Hargrave, leaving his wife and three younger children, sailed for New South Wales with his eldest son Ralph and brother Edward, to join another brother Richard, a member of the Legislative Assembly for New England. Ann Hargrave, with her children Lawrence, Alice and Gilbert, moved to Keston, Kent. Lawrence went to Queen Elizabeth's School at Kirkby Lonsdale, Westmoreland. When he was 15, his father sent Ralph back to England to fetch him.

They reached Sydney in the La Hogue on 5 November 1865; Lawrence moved into Rushcutters Bay House which his father had had built. Destined for the law, he was put to a tutor, but when he was offered a trip on the schooner Ellesmere to the Gulf of Carpentaria, his father consented. They called at Somerset on the tip of Cape York and islands in the Torres Strait, sailed into the Albert River and circumnavigated the Australian continent.

Hargrave failed his matriculation examination and in 1867 was apprenticed in the engineering workshops of the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. where he worked for five years, learning design and other practical skills which would be invaluable to him later. His appetite for exploration, whetted by the Ellesmere expedition, responded to the colonizing and gold-feverish atmosphere of the 1870s. He joined John Dunmore Lang's New Guinea Prospecting Association and was among those who sailed for New Guinea on 25 January 1872 in the unseaworthy brig Maria; she struck Bramble reef and sank with great loss of life. Three years later Hargrave joined (Sir) William Macleay's Chevert expedition, leaving it after six months to join the more interesting Octavius Stone in the Ellengowan: in the three months he spent exploring the area around Hanuabada with Rev. W. G. Lawes, Hargrave took detailed notes and drawings of Papuan people, homes and technological devices with which he was much taken. He returned to Sydney at the end of February 1876, but was soon off again; joining Luigi D'Albertis, the Italian naturalist, he sailed from Somerset in the Neva.

He made a chart of the Fly River and its tributary the Strickland and, as the ship's engineer, a post he had also filled in the previous two expeditions, Hargrave showed the resourcefulness, mechanical skill and powers of observation which were to remain characteristic of him. But he found personal relations difficult. Unassertive, softly spoken and gentle by temperament, and shocked by D'Albertis's looting of sacred objects, food and artefacts, Hargrave said nothing to him. Only in his letters, diary and journal did he display his disapproval and distaste. Leaving the Neva without recompense or recognition, he attempted unsuccessfully to correct D'Albertis's chart of the Fly and always considered that he had been shabbily treated. He was, however, elected a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales in July 1877.

Back in Sydney, Hargrave worked in the foundries of Chapman & Co., then spent five years from 1 January 1879 as extra observer (astronomical) at Sydney Observatory, working with H. C. Russell. He observed the transit of Mercury in 1881, made observations of the Krakatoa explosion which led him to a theory linking it with the brilliant sunsets seen at the time, assisted Russell to measure double stars, and designed and built adding machines to facilitate their calculations.

Thanks to Judge Hargrave's prudent and extensive land purchases, his sons were well provided for. Lawrence, with part of his land at Coalcliff leased out for coal-mining, found himself with a comfortable income before he was 30 and by 1883 his income from land and coal was about £1000 a year. That year, he gave up paid employment and became a gentleman-inventor.

His observation of waves and of the motion of fish, snakes and birds had led Hargrave to consider flight. His theoretical approach was based on the necessity to 'follow in the footsteps of nature'. He expounded the theory in a long paper, 'Trochoided plane', to the local Royal Society on 6 August 1884, the first of a series of reports on experiments in the construction of machines for flying that he carried out both at Rushcutters Bay and later at Hillcrest House, Stanwell Park, the house he inherited from his brother Ralph and to which he moved in 1893. Hargrave's early experiments were with the means of propulsion; his goal, the flapping motion of birds' wings, 'hamstrung his aeronautical work throughout his life'. Experiments on the shape of the supporting surfaces followed and on their soaring behaviour in different winds. His early models were monoplanes, powered by clockwork or rubber bands. From June 1887, when he began to work on the problem of a machine heavy enough to carry a man's weight, he constructed several types of engines, powered by petrol and compressed air. In 1889 he built the compressed air engine powered by an arrangement of three rotating cylinders which was one of the great inventions of his career.

From 1893 Hargrave began the investigations which led him to his second great invention, the box kite. He had begun experiments into the behaviour of curved surfaces for the wings of his flying machines in 1892, inspired by the work of the American engineer Octave Chanute, but had given them up. Now, further research convinced him that cellular or box kites had greater stability and lift than monoplanes. Corresponding with aeronautical experimenters in Europe and the United States of America, Hargrave was fired with the prospect of himself flying in one of his machines and, after a number of trials, on 12 November 1894, lifted himself from the beach at Stanwell Park in a four kite construction, attached to the ground by piano wire. When the first European aircraft were built, they too used Hargrave-type box kites for their supporting surface.

Hargrave had continued to seek an engine that would be light and powerful enough to get his flying machines into the air, keep them there and propel them in a horizontal direction. From February to August 1892 he had doggedly built seventeen steam engines—all unsuccessful. Defeated, both by the lack of engineering skill in Sydney, by a shortage of money and by the solitary nature of his work, he never built a satisfactory engine; nor were his soaring machine or flying boat experiments any more successful. At the end of 1903, when he again turned to work on an engine for his flapping wings, he heard the news of the Wright brothers' flight. Hargrave continued to work on engines and to experiment with the curvature of supporting surfaces in order to produce absolute stability. He became first vice-president of the New South Wales section of the Aerial League of Australia in 1909. But his important work was done.

From the early 1900s Hargrave was writing to institutions in Australia and overseas, offering them his models. Motivated by a desire to have his work recognized and by an understanding of its historical importance, he responded bitterly to the rejection of his gift by Australian institutions which could not, they said, afford to display the models as Hargrave demanded. At the end of 1909, the models were accepted by the Bavarian government for display in the Deutsches Museum at Munich.

A man of determined public views, Hargrave wrote many letters to the daily press proclaiming the principles of free competition and survival of the fittest, Darwinian theories of the evolution of species which he believed applied to all aspects of human society. But his strongest arguments were directed against the patenting system. He published all his theoretical work and divulged the results of all his experiments in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales with the deliberate intention of foiling a 'master patent thereby throwing back our work for years'. In 1909 he presented to the Royal Society his elaborately constructed, circumstantial and obsessively held Lope de Vega theory, many years in the forming, that two Spanish ships, the Santa Ysabel and Santa Barbara, had found their way into Sydney Harbour, stayed several years and left in 1600, only to be wrecked on their voyage home.

Hargrave's social Darwinism and his literal engineer's mind refused to entertain the use of flying machines for war. When hostilities began in 1914, he returned the Bavarian award which he had received in recognition of his pioneering aeronautical work and, even before Australia declared war, reported himself for service; he was then almost 65.

On 7 September 1878 Hargrave had married with Presbyterian forms Margaret Preston, daughter of David Johnston, a Sydney shipping clerk; the marriage seems to have been devoid of romance in its beginning and short on pleasure or comradeship. Six children were born, one of whom died in infancy; and their only son Geoffrey was killed in action at Gallipoli in May 1915. Hargrave died on 14 July at Darlinghurst from peritonitis following an operation for appendicitis and was buried in Waverley cemetery. Survived by his wife and four daughters, he left an estate valued for probate at £20,489. Margaret took her youngest daughter and her husband's papers, diaries and journals to England, where she settled.

During his life, Hargrave felt isolated from his surroundings and unrecognized. 'You cannot understand' he wrote to George Augustine Taylor in 1909, 'the bedrock feelings of Sydney people to one who has lived among them for 42 years and yet is not of them'. Today, his surviving models have returned to Sydney (the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), his name is commemorated in many places and his 'dark, austerely bearded features' framed by his box-kites, are engraved on every $20 note.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Lindsay, Bohemians of the Bulletin (Syd, 1965)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, A Century of Scientific Progress (Syd, 1968)
  • W. H. Shaw and O. Ruhen, Lawrence Hargrave (Syd, 1977)
  • E. Grainger, Hargrave and Son (Brisb, 1978)
  • A. Inglis, ‘Trials of an inventor in New South Wales: the case of Lawrence Hargrave’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 1 (Dec, 1966), no 1, and for bibliog
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 64 (1978)
  • Hargrave papers (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, and National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Amirah Inglis, 'Hargrave, Lawrence (1850–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Lawrence Hargrave, c.1910

Lawrence Hargrave, c.1910

State Library of New South Wales, 447492

Life Summary [details]


29 January, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


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

Cause of Death


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