Lawrence Hargrave was 15 years old when he arrived in Sydney on the La Hogue in November 1865. His father, John Fletcher Hargrave, had emigrated a few years earlier and set up a home in Rushcutters Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. John was a barrister, and later a judge, and he expected his son to follow in his footsteps. But, distracted by dreams of the high seas, Lawrence failed his matriculation examination, meaning that he was unable to study law at Sydney University. Lawrence had a contingency plan, however: if he couldn’t follow his father’s dreams for him, he would follow his own. He was invited to apprentice with the Australasian Steam Navigation Company and, with law off the agenda, his father granted him permission.
After completing his apprenticeship, Lawrence worked as an engineer on many voyages and travelled extensively. He had quite a few adventures – once he narrowly escaped catastrophe when his ship was wrecked at sea. He also started to work on some of his own inventions, such as a pair of boat-shaped shoes with flaps to provide traction in the water. Although his invention didn’t quite catch on, he did manage to put on a performance that looked like he was walking on water!
Lawrence had become fascinated with inventing things – and particularly designing new methods of transportation and propulsion. He investigated the possibilities of wave and wind power, and developed the ‘trochoided plane theory’, in which he linked the side-to-side movement of swimming fish and slithering snakes to a possible propulsion method for flying machines. He also looked to the flapping of a bird’s wings for inspiration as a method of flight.
In 1894, after many prototypes and attempts, Lawrence successfully lifted himself off the ground under a train of four box kites (a box with diagonal crossed struts and stretched fabrics at either end to create two sails). The kite line was moored using a spring balance and two sandbags. Lawrence’s experiment was widely reported and inspired other inventors. The Weather Bureau of the United States used Lawrence’s designs as a starting point to create their own box kites for meteorological observations – a very significant development in predicting the weather!
Hargrave’s work, like that of many other pioneers, was not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime. Significantly, he never applied for patents for any of his inventions or research, as he believed that the sharing of scientific research was the key to the development of technology.