Lawrence Hargrave

Address by Lawrence John Hargrave at the Lawrence Hargrave Centenary Luncheon, 

Sunday 5 July 2015, at Stanwell Park Surf Club.


Lawrence Hargrave (born January 1850 – died 6 July 1915) was an engineer, explorer, astronomer, inventor and aeronautical pioneer. Throughout my life I have felt greatly honoured to be connected to Lawrence Hargrave, (Lawrence Hargrave’s 1st cousin was my great grandfather ) the great aeronautical pioneer whose life we are honouring this afternoon. And the centenary of whose death is tomorrow the 6 July.

Hargrave was born in Greenwich, England, the second son of John Fletcher Hargrave (later attorney-general of NSW. He immigrated to Australia with his family, arriving in Sydney in November 1865. He accepted a place on the Ellesmere and circumnavigated Australia.

In 1872, as an engineer, he sailed on a voyage to New Guinea but the ship was wrecked. In 1875 he again sailed on an expedition to the Gulf of Papua. In 1876 he explored the hinterland of Port Moresby and later that year went on another expedition for over 600 km up the Fly River. In 1877 he returned to Sydney, joined the Royal Society of New South Wales and in 1878 became an assistant astronomical observer at Sydney Observatory. He held this position for about five years and then gave the rest of his life to research work.

Hargrave had been interested in experiments of all kinds from an early age, particularly those with aircraft. He gave particular attention to the flight of birds. He chose to live and experiment with his flying machines in Stanwell Park, a place which offers excellent wind and hang conditions and nowadays is the most famous hang gliding and paragliding venue in Australia.

In his career, Hargrave invented many devices, however never applied for a patent on any of them, such was his passionate belief in scientific communication as a key to furthering progress.

Among many, three of Hargrave's inventions were particularly significant:

  • Study of curved aerofoils, particularly designs with a thicker leading edge.
  • The box kite (1893), which greatly improved the lift to drag ratio of early gliders.
  • Work on the rotary engine, which powered many early aircraft up until about 1920.

He made endless experiments and numerous models, and communicated his conclusions in a series of papers to the Royal Society of New South Wales.

In 1893 Hargrave moved to Stanwell Park where he lived at Hillcrest House.

In that year Hargrave began the investigations which led him to his great invention, the box kite.

He was consumed with the prospect of himself flying in one of his machines and, after a number of trials on the 12 November 1894 here at Stanwell Park Beach, Hargrave became the first person ever to be lifted off the ground by a heavier than air machine in a vertical take-off, successfully lifting himself off the ground under a train of four of his box kites to a height of 16 feet or 4.8 metres - witnessed by Lawrence’s first cousin – my great grandfather. Hargrave shared his ideas freely and did not believe in patents. It was his ground breaking research and experimentation as well as his generosity in sharing his work unconditionally that contributed to enabling the Wright Brothers of Kittyhawk to develop and fly their aircraft. The Box Kite principle was applied to gliders, and in 1906 Alberto Santos-Dumont used the box-kite principle in his aeroplane to make his first flight. Until 1909 the box-kite aeroplane was the usual type in Europe.

Hargrave's work inspired Alexander Graham Bell to begin his own experiments with a series of tetrahedral kite designs. However, Hargrave's work, like that of many another pioneer, was not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime. Hargrave also conducted experiments with a hydroplane, the application of the gyroscopic principle to a ‘one-wheeled car’, and with ‘wave propelled vessels’.

Hargrave 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.

Hargrave's only son Geoffrey was killed during World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli. Not long after his son’s death, Lawrence was operated on for appendicitis but suffered peritonitis afterwards and died on 6 July 1915 (100 years tomorrow). He was interred in Waverley Cemetery on the cliffs overlooking the open ocean.

Lawrence Hargrave had the optimism that is essential for an inventor, and the perseverance that will not allow itself to be dampened by failures. Modest, unassuming and unselfish, he always refused to patent his inventions, and was only anxious that he might succeed in adding to the sum of human knowledge. Many men smiled and even scoffed his efforts and few had faith that anything would come of them.

An honourable exception was Professor Richard Threlfall who, in his address as President of the Royal Society of New South Wales in May 1895, spoke of his "strong conviction of the importance of the work which Mr Hargrave has done towards solving the problem of artificial flight". Threlfall called Hargrave the "inventor of human flight", and the debt owed by the Wright brothers to Hargrave. The step he made in man's conquest of the air was an important one with far-reaching consequences, and he should be remembered as an important experimenter and inventor, who "probably did as much to bring about the accomplishment of dynamic flight as any other single individual."

From 1966 to 1994 the Australian 20 dollar note featured Hargrave on the reverse.

Qantas named its fifth Airbus A380 aircraft (registration VH-OQE) after Lawrence Hargrave.

Former NASA astronaut Dr Gregory Chamitoff is currently the Lawrence Hargrave Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Sydney.

A strong community support is growing that the new airport in western Sydney should be named Lawrence Hargrave Airport and when his name is announced we can all say that we were here at Stanwell Park Beach to celebrate the achievements of a great man whose influence in the world of aeronautics has been remarkable.

Lawrence Hargrave died in body 100 years ago tomorrow, however his Spirit will never die, indeed each time we see a plane soar in the sky his contribution to that scientific marvel is being sung. And in the words of the song, “The Wind Beneath my Wings” – ‘Did you know that you’re my hero and everything I would like to be. I could fly higher than an eagle ‘cause you are the wind beneath my wings’.

May we all enjoy the rest of the afternoon and may it be a time to remember - worthy of the great man whose achievements we celebrate in his centenary year.


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