On November 12th 1894 Lawrence Hargrave went aloft at Stanwell Park beach under a string of four box kites of his own design and construction. His flight was of short duration, his altitude was only 5 metres (16 feet) and his string of kites was tethered to the ground for the sake of safety as Lawrence had little control over his kites. The experiment was to have international ramifications. Hargrave’s box kite configuration had an influence on the development of flight in Europe and America although in the latter case Hargrave’s influence was not recognised for over a century.

Hargrave became interested in the solution of the problems of flight through his search for a means of powering ships using wave motion. Recognising that both water and air were fluids he changed his focus and began to experiment with ornithopters and the means to power them in an endeavour to solve the problems of manned flight. Although he had some success with his rubber band powered ornithopters he realised that, without a suitable engine, manned flight could not be achieved with this type of aircraft. Again he changed his focus and sought a suitable stable platform to further his experiments. Drawing upon available information Hargrave settled upon the kite as having potential. However, to conduct his experiments he required stable wind conditions. Sydney was not suitable as the winds were unsteady but his inherited land holdings at Stanwell Park with steady sea winds of suitable velocity were thought to be ideal. Setting himself up in the house called “Hillcrest” formerly owned by his brother Ralph, Lawrence began his experiments using different materials and shapes to maximise the lift and stability of his kites. In 1893 he settled on the box kite as the most efficient form.

Having become known to Octave Chanute, a French-born American railway construction engineer who was keenly interested in aeronautics, and who gathered contacts world wide and information on experiments, Lawrence joined in by providing Chanute with detailed information about his box kite. Also, Lawrence, as a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales, also published papers on his experiments and progress in the Society’s journal. Through these published papers and Chanute’s writing and publication of a book “Progress in Flying Machines” the work of Lawrence Hargrave became known amongst the international group of aeronautical experimenters.

Using Hargrave’s information about the construction, lifting power and stability of the box kite Chanute built several kites. One of these, the “ladder kite”, was transformed by Chanute into a full- size flying machine he called “Katydid”. He had it tested in the sand dunes outside Gary, Indiana in the United States in 1896. With modification it became the basis of Chanute’s biplane glider. This glider was tested successfully in the dunes with over one hundred flights being carried out. It was considered so safe that curious newspaper journalists who were tasked with reporting the activities of Chanute and his team, were given the opportunity to have a glide. None who took up the offer were involved in an incident.

The Chanute biplane layout was subsequently used by the Wright brothers as the basis for their 1902 glider as they felt it was the most effective layout for the incorporation of their wing warping control system. The brothers carried out testing of their control system on box kites finding it successful.

Information about Hargrave’s box kites had also found its way to Europe and two technically interested French teenagers, Gabriel and Charles Voisin, built their own box kite and flew it near their home at Neuville-sur-Saone. They were impressed by the stability of the kite even in high winds. Life evolved for the two boys and aviation interest was not reawakened for Gabriel Voisin until 1900 when he saw Clement Ader’s unsuccessful aircraft ‘Avion III’ in Paris but it was to be four years before Gabriel became involved in aviation experiments as assistant to Ernest Archdeacon. Preeminent in French aviation promotion and financing, Archdeacon had built a Wright-type glider which was tested by Voisin. Archdeacon then commissioned Voisin to build a glider which failed structurally. In 1905 Voisin built a glider on floats for Archdeacon which incorporated Hargrave cells for the wings and empennage. It was tested behind a powerboat on the River Seine and, according to Voisin, was the inspiration for Alberto Santos Dumont’s aircraft ’14 bis’ which became the first powered aircraft to fly in Europe on the 12th of November 1906. The Hargrave box kite influence is very obvious in the design of Santos Dumont’s aircraft.

Gabriel Voisin and his brother Charles went on to establish the first commercial aircraft manufacturing company; Appareils d’Aviation les Freres Voisin.

The supposed flights of Richard Pearse in New Zealand and Gustave Whitehead in the United States not withstanding, the Wright brothers hold the crown for the first powered controlled flight in the world carried out in December 1903. Although the brothers recognised Hargrave as one of the great aeronautical experimenters they claimed to have owed no debt to him and his box kite. This claim is seen as genuine as they used Chanute’s biplane glider layout for their 1902 glider so that they could incorporate their wing warping idea. That they used box kites to test their idea was to use a kite type that was common in such circles. The Hargrave kite had been copied and used for a variety of reasons in the United States under a variety of names such as the Blue Hills kite or the Millet kite and Hargrave’s name lost its attachment to his own invention. His kite was even patented in the United States by a plagiarist and Hargrave’s prior art was not recognised. It was not a lack of grace on the part of the Wright brothers that they recognised Hargrave generally but not specifically, it was a lack of knowledge of the history of the technical developments that led to t heir successful aeroplane.

Ian Debenham OAM

(Ian was the Curator of the aviation and maritime collections of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) for 30 years before his retirement in 2010. The Hargrave Collection formed an internationally significant component of the Museum’s collection and he got to know it well and researched it extensively.)

Sorry, this website uses features that your browser doesn’t support. Upgrade to a newer version of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or Edge and you’ll be all set.