This week, on the 12th November, marked the 120 anniversary since Lawrence Hargrave flew in his box kite flying machine at Stanwell Park.  Although he only went about 5m, the fact that he flew straight, stable and with vertical lift proved that flight and flying machines were possible (not including balloons which had been going up for a while by then).

Our man, Lawrence c1910 (SLNSW P1)
Our man, Lawrence c1910 (SLNSW P1)

Hargrave was born in Greenwich, England in 1850, coming to Sydney in 1865 to join his father and oldest brother.  He was expected to go into law, but adventure and failing his matriculation exams got in the way of that.  In 1867 he was apprenticed to the Australian Steam and Navigation Company where he learnt the basics of design and engineering, two skills that would be invaluable to his later career.

After another stint at exploring and adventure in New Guinea, Hargrave worked for 5 years at the Sydney Observatory, where study of air currents lead to a lifelong interest in flight.

In 1883, using the sale of some land at Coalcliff for a coal mine and an annual lease of another site for the same purpose, he retired from full time work and concentrated on design and invention.  His first obsession was with flapping wing designs, based on his observations of birds.  Hargrave made scale and full sized models of powered first with clockwork engines and later with rubber bands.  His models made numerous successful flights.  A full scale flying machine, large enough to take a pilot was built in 1887, but he never tested it, using it instead as a guide.

From 1888 he spent five years working on engine design.  Experimenting in steam and petrol engines, in 1889 he invented the radial rotary engine, considered his most significant contribution to aeronautical engineering.  The engine was powerful enough to lift and propel a plane, however as it could only be applied to propeller driven models, Hargrave put it aside as he was still focused on his flapping wing design (one of which flew 112m).  The engine design was later modified by French engineers and became the standard design for early military aircraft during WWI.

A model of one of Hargrave's flapping wing machines (SLNSW PXd 704)
A model of one of Hargrave’s flapping wing machines (SLNSW PXd 704)

In 1893 he inherited a house and land from his brother’s estate at Stanwell Park, where he enclosed part of the veranda and built his workshop.  It was here that he intensified his work and became aware of the advantages of curved surfaces for lifting and he turned his attention to kites.

Although some of these ideas had already been proposed in England as early as 1809, and by others in Europe and America, it was Hargraves modifications, his concept of an aerofoil (a thicker surface at the front of the wing then the rear) and his development of box-kites and their inherent stability that showed their true potential.  And they lifted him from the ground in 1894.

Working on his box kites at Woollahra (SLNSW P1/710)
Working on his box kites at Woollahra (SLNSW P1/710)

While Hargraves ideas were cutting edge and workable, his isolation from the aeronautical community in Europe and America and the lack of fine engineering expertise in Australia always held him back.  He built over 200 models of his designs, which he made freely available to anyone.  He also published all his work, believing in the spread of knowledge rather than the copyrighting and patenting of it (100yrs before Creative Commons).  His models were given to the technology museum in Munich, Germany, the only museum who would freely allow them to be examined.  Sadly 176 of these were destroyed in air raids during WWII, but 25 were returned to Australia and are now at the Powerhouse.

In 1992 one of these designs from 1902 was rebuilt using the original blueprints by Sydney Uni engineers.  With a lighter, modern engine replacing Hargraves heavier version, the full scale model flew.