Often, the image that comes to mind when one thinks of Indigenous Australia is the boomerang, a simple but clever flight tool refined over thousands of years by the first inhabitants of the land. Not many, however, know that it served as the inspiration behind the first design of the modern-day helicopter developed by Indigenous inventor, David Unaipon.
Born in 1872 on the banks of Lake Alexandria in South Australia, Unaipon belonged to the Portaulun branch of the Ngarrindjeri people. His exceptional intelligence and mechanical skills became evident during his schooling as his interest in the arts and sciences being highly encouraged.
Unaipon designed drawings for the helicopter decades before the first one was constructed in 1936. He was greatly fascinated by the physics of the boomerang and maintained that its peculiar design was the intentional product of years of experimentation by the Indigenous people. Unaipon understood that the arrangement and shape of the arms of a boomerang allowed it to fly in a circular path in the air. He realised that he could apply this same principle, ‘the Boomerang Principle’, in helicopters. This would allow them to generate a vertical lift force immediately, without needing to travel great distances to gain enough horizontal velocity. This is still in use today in modern aircrafts.
Unaipon’s inventions were not restricted to aircraft designs. During his career, he acquired provisional patents for nineteen inventions but was unable to get his inventions fully patented. Indigenous Australians faced severe discrimination and the notion that they were not intelligent enough to make great scientific strides was commonplace.
Unaipon’s various inventions ranged from anti-gravitational devices to centrifugal motors, but his main goal was to create a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is a purely hypothetical mechanism that can do an infinite amount of work without an external energy source. A practical outcome of his efforts was an improved mechanical motion device, fully patented in 1909, that converted rotational motion into tangential reciprocating movement. This was far more efficient than previous models of sheep shears which used circular motion. Unaipon’s invention became widespread in woolsheds across the country and now forms the basis of modern mechanical sheep shears. Despite this, he did not receive much recognition or financial return for his invention apart from a single newspaper article acknowledging his contribution in 1910.
Unaipon’s contributions had a significant impact on the world, but his influence extends past the scientific community. His intelligence and capability greatly helped in deconstructing Indigenous Australian stereotypes. Known as the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of Australia’, Unaipon is an Australian icon who greatly influenced the political and scientific landscape of the modern world.