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Historical Figures In Engineering: Lawrence Hargrave

  • by: Jennifer Robinson
  • On: 11, Jun 2019
2 min read

The field of aviation owes much to Lawrence Hargrave, a pioneering engineer who invented the rotary engine, the cambered aerofoil, and the box-kite, which inspired the Wright Brothers. Without his work, we wouldn’t have had the first powered planes.

Who Was Lawrence Hargrave And How Did He Change Aviation?

Born in England in 1850, Hargrave was just fifteen when he emigrated to Australia. In 1867 he began an engineering apprenticeship at the Australasian Steam Navigation Company. He would work there for five years, learning skills that would later prove invaluable to his experiments with flights.

He would go on to work as an engineer on several exploration expeditions. While travelling, he made detailed notes and observations of indigenous people, their language, and their culture.

In 1877 he returned to Sydney, where he became an extra observer at the Sydney Observatory, working on charting the transit of Mercury, and observing the impact of the eruption of Krakatoa on the atmosphere.

After receiving a large inheritance, he left the observatory to begin working on experiments into animal motion as a method of propulsion. He closely studied the flight of birds and insects, and began modelling aircraft based on their bodies.

He built a number of ornithopters testing his theories on locomotion through the air. An ornithopter is an aircraft that moves through the air by flapping wings, like a bird.

Da Vinci sketched one as far back as the 16th Century, and have actually built one, but Hargrave improved upon the concept with increased stability.

Hargrave's Rotary Engine and Box-Kite

In 1889, Hargrave invented the rotary engine, utilising compressed air which would have in theory allowed for powered flight. However, he was unable to build an engine that could achieve powered flight due to the weight of the materials. The rotary engine would of course go on to be instrumental in aviation, allowing for fighter planes to be utilised in World War One. While the technology was largely redundant by the end of the 1920s, it provided a basis for future flight systems that would be crucial in the development of the aviation industry.

Hargrave didn’t patent any of his inventions, choosing instead to disseminate the information around the world to help the emerging field of aviation engineering. Because of this, he become well-known and respected throughout the industry, corresponding with many of the leading figures in the field of aviation at the time.

Hargrave began experimenting with box kites, and on November 12th 1894 achieved tethered ‘flight’ 16 feet in the air over Stanwell Park Beach. The stability of the box kite allowed improvements to be made to gliders, and the first successful aircraft in Europe owes much to Hargrave’s box kite design. The box kite design was quickly utilised by the United States’ Weather Bureau for meteorological observations.

Many of his models, diaries, and letters, now reside in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. His portrait was proudly displayed on the Australian $20 note between 1966 to 1994.  

Learn how plane design is changing, or read about another historical figure in aviation engineering: Abbas-Ibn-Firnas.

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