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Thomas Quinlivan (1842–1920)

by M. L. Hallett

This article was published:

Thomas Quinlivan (1842?-1920), farmer and inventor, was born in Clare, Ireland, elder son of Daniel Quinlivan, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Shelton. He arrived in Melbourne in 1850 with his parents and brother. In the following years he may have been on the Victorian goldfields with his family. He probably had little formal schooling. In 1857 his father purchased 160 acres (65 ha) at Coghills Creek, north-west of Ballarat.

On 4 March 1862 Thomas married Ellen Cavanagh (d.1906) at the Catholic Church, Buninyong; they had twelve children. On his father's death in 1867 he inherited eighty acres (32 ha) at Coghills Creek, which he augmented and farmed until 1913, and his father's steam threshing plant with which he developed an extensive business in contract threshing, thereby gaining wide experience of steam engines and farm implements. In 1873 he obtained another 354 acres (143 ha) at Moorabool West, where he installed a steam sawmill.

Quinlivan had an inventive mind. In 1873 he took out his first patent, for improvements in reaping and binding machines. Others followed. An improvement for threshing machines was awarded a gold medal at the Bendigo show in 1878. In 1888 he took up an agency to sell the Walter Wood reaper and binder.

In 1897 Quinlivan was engaged by the Melbourne agricultural machinery maker, W. C. Peacock & Bro., to sell a new disc plough. He also agreed to assign to the firm any improvements he might make to the implement and soon passed on his design for a better raising and lowering mechanism. When he developed a steering gear which, he believed, was not covered by the agreement, he lost a Supreme Court case and incurred costs of over £600, a significant financial burden.

In 1908 Quinlivan patented his most ambitious and significant invention: a design for a four-wheel-drive steam traction engine. It proposed a mechanism with a longitudinal drive shaft carrying a cross shaft in the front assembly passing through a ball and socket universal joint of special design. This allowed the front axle to be turned in any direction even while power was being transmitted to the wheels. Other features were unusual. The steam engine was to be mounted under the boiler rather than above. All four wheels were to be enclosed and used as water tanks, thereby increasing the amount of water that could be carried while distributing the weight evenly across the machine. Steering was to be power assisted. Quinlivan's demonstration working model is now in the Museum of Victoria.

In October 1909 he took out a patent covering the application of his four-wheel-drive mechanism to motor cars and similar vehicles. His demonstration model is also held by the Museum of Victoria.

In 1909 the Victorian government financed one Quinlivan traction engine for development of crown land in coastal areas. Completed in 1910 with an eight-horsepower, twin-cylinder steam engine, by May 1911 it was in use in Maffra's sugar-beet industry. Quinlivan privately published a pamphlet, The 'Quinlivan' Agricultural Locomotive and Traction Engine, in 1910.

Quinlivan's traction engine was not the first with four-wheel drive; one was produced in the United States of America in the 1880s. However, his was more sophisticated and practical. Neither was Quinlivan's patent for a four-wheel-drive system the first in Australia. Adelaide engineer Felix Caldwell obtained one in 1907. But Quinlivan's traction engine was the first machine with four-wheel-drive constructed in Australia; a motor-car using Caldwell's design was not completed until 1913. However, because Quinlivan's design was primarily related to obsolescent steam traction engines, it probably had little enduring influence.

In December 1909 Quinlivan patented a spark arrestor for smoke stacks of steam engines, for the use of which the Railways Department paid a small sum. In his later years he put money and labour into developing his family's Gippsland holdings, purchased at the turn of the century. When returns were disappointing, he was forced to sell and in 1918 return to live with a daughter at Bungaree.

Quinlivan died on 24 April 1920 at Bungaree and was buried with Catholic rites in Learmonth cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £67. An obituary described him as a fine, sturdy type of pioneer, a cheery optimistic character respected by all who knew him.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Agriculture, Victoria, Report of the Department of Agriculture for the Years 1907-10 (Melb, 1910)
  • F. Wheelhouse, Digging Stick to Rotary Hoe (Adel, 1972)
  • P. Davis, Australians on the Road (Adel, 1979)
  • T. Gilltrap, Romance of Australian Transport (Adel, 1981)
  • Victorian Law Reports, 6, 1881, p 370
  • Australasian Ironmonger, 13, 1898, p 133
  • Government Gazette (Victoria), 1909, p 2759
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 24 Oct 1878
  • Ballarat Courier, 14 Oct 1880
  • Leader (Melbourne), 1 Oct 1910, 6 May 1911
  • Evening Echo, 26 Apr 1920
  • Supreme Court, civil case files, action no 953, 1897, series 267, box 1335 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Australian patent specifications, nos 12781/08, 13198/08, 16107/09, 16603/09, 2098/11 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Victorian patent specifications, nos 1826, 2401, 2997, 3820, 5684 (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

M. L. Hallett, 'Quinlivan, Thomas (1842–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Clare, Ireland


24 April, 1920 (aged ~ 78)
Bungaree, Victoria, Australia

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