Lawrence Hargrave
floated some ideas

When Orville and Wilbur Wright were still in short pants, an Englishman living in Australia was dreaming about how man could fly.

History shows the Wrights are credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated aeroplane. They made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with their Wright Flyer on 17 December 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.

THE WRIGHT STUFF – Wilbur and Orville

Lawrence Hargrave was born in Greenwich, England, on 29 January 1
850. He came to Australia at age 16 to join his father who had become a judge in NSW.

He failed his high school matriculation and signed up as an apprentice in an engineering workshop learning design and practical skills that were to be of great use to him later. After about five years he set off exploring after accepting a place on the Ellesmere. The ship circumnavigated Australia. starting around the Gulf of Carpentaria.

In 1872 he sailed on the Maria on a voyage to New Guinea, but the ship was wrecked. In 1875, he sailed as an engineer on William John Macleay’s expedition to the Gulf of Papua. From October 1875 to January 1876 he explored the hinterland of Port Moresby under Octavius Stone, and in April 1876 went on another expedition, under Luigi D’Albertis, for 400 mi (640 km) up the Fly River on the SS Ellengowan. In 1877 he visited the developing pearling industry for Parbury Lamb and Co.

He was elected to the Royal Society of NSW in 1877, then spent five years at the Sydney Astronomical Observatory.

With the financial support of his father, he was able to develop interests in land, leasing property at Coalcliff for coalmining. This provided him with the means to become a “gentleman inventor.”

He spent about 30 years overall studying aspects of aeronautics, then a fledgling science but one which was to change the world as it was known by having people flying around high above solid earth.

Hargrave invented many devices, but never applied for a patent for any of them. He wasn’t wealthy and probably needed money but he believed strongly in scientific communication as a key to furthering progress.

He wrote in 1893: “Workers must root out the idea [that] by keeping the results of their labours to themselves a fortune will be assured to them. Patent fees are much wasted money. The flying machine of the future will not be born fully fledged and capable of a flight for 1,000 miles or so. Like everything else it must be evolved gradually. The first difficulty is to get a thing that will fly at all. When this is made, a full description should be published as an aid to others. Excellence of design and workmanship will always defy competition.”

Three of Hargrave’s many inventions were significant to the development of aviation:  curved aerofoils, particularly designs with a thicker leading edge; the box kite (1893), which greatly improved the lift to drag ratio of early gliders; and the rotary engine that powered many early flying machines, up to about 1920.

In other words, he helped set the world on the path to flight.

Hargrave began by studying birds; how they used their wings and muscles to achieve flight. He began with a flapper, like that of Leonardo Davinci, but it didn’t get off the ground. A report noted “it was heavier than air and failed to fly, though it would run like a New Zealand kiwi.”

Replicating the muscle movement and the three motions of birds he had observed could not be done. Hargrave turned to worms for inspiration, observing how the earthworm lifted its body forward laterally and horizontally. He made an artificial worm and was able to successfully replicate the movement of live ones. He kept working on these concepts to see how they could be applied to flight.

Success came in August 1884 when he made the first inanimate object that flew under its own power. It was a small monoplane with a propeller at the front. The Wright brothers were still in their teens at this time.

In a paper he read to the Royal Society on 6 August  1884, he gave particulars of his discoveries: “I have strung together my thoughts, experiments and deductions that refer in any way to tiletrochoidal plane, pointing out where I see Nature working with it, and how it can be used by man for the transmission of force; and I think that if other members have heard of or made similar observations they will bring them forward, so that my mistakes may be corrected by comparison with the ideas of others, and also that the truth may be elicited about a matter that does not seem to get its fair share of investigation.

“The trochoidal action of five muscles and legs seemed so plain that I could not help being led to theorise on the action of wings in flight. I say theorise simply because I have not a flying machine to show you, but the chain of evidence seems so complete that I have no doubt it will soon be accomplished, without the aid of the screw or gas bag. These are my views, and if you think there is any novel truth embodied in them, this society is welcome to any of the laboratory models that aided me in finding it out.”

Another “Eureka moment” was coming.

Hargrave began his experiments with kites in 1893. His wanted to build a kite so efficient that it would fly into the wind. His efforts then may have been relatively unsuccessful, but he did get off the ground.

Getting ready at
Stanwell Park

On 12 November 1894 Hargrave rose into the air at Stanwell Park beach under a string of four box kites of his own design and construction. It was a short flight, only 5 m (16 ft) up and his string of kites was tethered to the ground for the sake of safety.

The experiment would have international ramifications. Hargrave’s box kite configuration had an influence on the development of flight in Europe and America.

Full recognition to Hargrave was a long time coming as he continued his studies of flight and power.

In 1889 Hargrave produced a rotary engine. He noted: “The idea was conceived that a three-cylinder screw engine could be made by turning the boss of a propeller into an engine, thus allowing the cylinders to revolve around the crankshaft, the shank and craft pin being stationary and the thrust coming from the face of the valve.”

He made a small model that weighed only 7.5 ounces, producing 456 revolutions a minute.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had heard of Hargrave’s work. Wilbur wrote to Hargrave in 1900, asking whether he and his brother could use Hargrave’s patents.

Hargrave replied that he didn’t have any patents, only models, and despatched some of them to the Wright brothers, saying only that his work was “for all and at the disposal of all”.

As they say in the classics, the rest is history.

The Wrights did acknowledge Hargrave’s work after their record-breaking flight in 1903, saying his developments had made it possible for them to fly in a full-size powered aeroplane.

Hargrave’s cellular-kite designs provided solid demonstrations of the superiority of cambered, or curved, wing surfaces, and contributed to the understanding of stability in flying machines. His engine made powered flight possible.


Hargrave’s work attracted interest from other inventors. Alexander Graham Bell. credited with inventing and patenting the first practical telephone, travelled to Australia to meet Hargrave. Bell also did ground-breaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils, and aeronautics.

Many of Lawrence’s Hargrave’s models and diagrams eventually were returned to Australia and held by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (the Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney.



The Hargrave family had quite an influence in the colony of NSW.

Richard Hargrave, uncle of Lawrence, was a prominent pastoralist and politician in NSW.

He was born on 1 February 1817 at Greenwich, England. His father Joshua was a hardware merchant. Richard arrived in Sydney in 1838 on board the Argyle and found work on Combelong Station at Monaro for Messrs Hughes and Hosking. A year later he became a partner of the Callendoon Station and the Goondiwindi Stations on the Macintyre River in northern NSW. He founded Beeboo and Whylm on the Severn River. Today, Inverell and Glen Innes are the main towns along the McIntyre and Severn Rivers system.

He and his partners lost everything in the financial collapse of the New South Wales economy and the failure of the Bank of Australia in 1843.

His merchant father refinanced him so he could buy 21,000 acres (85 sq km) just out of Armidale, naming it “Hillgrove Station,” as well as other properties in New England.

Richard married Mary Williams (sister of John Williams, Crown Solicitor), on 16 February 1847 in Sydney and settled on Hillgrove Station. They had six sons and a daughter.

Richard Hargrave entered politics and was the Member for New England from 17 April 1856 to 19 December 1857 in the first New South Wales Legislative Assembly.

His great great grandson, Richard (Rick) Colless, a former mayor of Inverell, spoke of his Hargrave ancestors in his maiden speech to the NSW Legislative Council in 2000.

He said that four years after arriving in Australia Richard Hargrave was engaged to move 5,00 head of cattle from Delegate close to the NSW-Victoria border to the new runs on the McIntyre and Severn Rivers near the Queensland border.

“In 143, only one year after they arrived in the northern districts the fledgling colony suffered a financial disaster, with Richard Hargrave losing everything except then clothes he was wearing, his horse and his saddle,” Mr Colless said.

“Richard Hargrave was fortunate that his father refinanced him, and he was able to take up a grant of 21,000 acres known as Hillgrove Station, east of Armidale and a 50-acre block adjacent to where the City of Armidale now stands. At this time there was but a single shepherd’s hut in the vicinity.”


Mr Colless said Richard and Mary lived on Hillgrove Station for about 40 years, even though they had property interests elsewhere, including Broadmeadows Station and Kangaroos Creek on the Clarence River and held leases for Bostobrick and Tyringham. They also owned Hernani in New England.

Richard Hargrave, the first Member for New England in the NSW Legislative Assembly, held many committee positions in government before retiring to the Armidale property that he named Harewood. Selling it in 1899. Richard and Mary moved into a cottage near the railway station in Armidale. The street was later named Hargrave Street. Richard and Mary died in 1905.

Richard Hargrave’s older brother John Fletcher Hargrave arrived in NSW in 1856 and he, too, entered politics, serving in the Legislative Council from 1859 to 1861. He served as Solicitor-General and Attorney-General until 1865 and was also a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

Lawrence Hargrave was a son of John Fletcher Hargrave and thus a nephew of Richard.

John Fletcher Hargrave (1815-1885) was born on 28 December 1815 at Greenwich, England, son of Joshua Hargrave, hardware merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Lee. On 20 September 1843 he married his cousin Ann Hargrave of Leeds. In 1849, despite strong testimonials, he failed to gain office as a police magistrate. in 1851 with a legacy from his father he retired from the Bar. According to the Dictionary of Biography (J. M. Bennett) J. F. Hargrave “dabbled in railway and other public matters until his wife committed him to the new asylum at Colney Hatch, Middlesex. Gradually recovering, he was advised to leave England.

In 1856 J. F. Hargrave, leaving his wife and three younger children, sailed for NSW with his eldest son Ralph and brother Edward, to join another brother Richard, arriving in February 1857.

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 take him to Australia.

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.

John F. Hargrave was admitted to the NSW Bar and became a foundation judge of the District Court.

The Dictionary of Biography: “Hargrave resigned from the bench in February 1859 to become Premier Charles Cowper’s solicitor-general and from March to October represented in turn East Camden and Illawarra in the Legislative Assembly. From November until June 1865 he was a member of the Legislative Council. He was solicitor-general under William Forster (Premier) and Attorney-General and government representative in the council under John Robertson  (Premier) and twice again under Cowper. Using politics for his own advancement Hargrave secured silk in 1863, though he had practised little in the colony, and a place on the Supreme Court bench on 22 June 1865. His swearing-in was boycotted by the Bar.”

Hargrave’s greatest contribution is said to have been promoting legal education.

He died on 23 February 1885 from an “effusion on the brain” having lapsed into mental illness.  He was survived by his wife, a daughter and three sons, of whom the second, Lawrence, became the noted aeronautical inventor.

From an obituary

Sources: Trove newspaper archives; Australian Dictionary of Biography (Amirah Inglis, J. M. Bennett); The Lawrence Hargrave Society; Hansard; Powerhouse Museum (Ian Debenham OAM), NSW Legislative Council.

FOOTNOTE: The Hargraves are not to be confused with another famous Australian, Edward Hammond Hargraves, to whom the Australian gold rush of the 1800s has been attributed. That’s another story.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *