January 29, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lawrence Hargrave

Born in England in 1850, Hargrave immigrated with his family to Australia. A teen when he arrived “down under,” Hargrave eagerly
accepted positions on ships and thus helped explore Australia and nearby places.

He failed the test required to graduate from his school and instead became an engineering apprentice; as an engineer he continued to go on explo
ratory expeditions. Later he settled in Sydney and became an assistant astronomical observer at the Sydney Observatory.

When Hargrave's father died and Hargrave came into his inheritance, he resigned from the observatory position and gave the rest of his life to research work. He invented many devices but never applied for a patent on any of them. He did not need the money, but he also very much believed in the idea of scientists publishing their work for all humankind to elaborate on and benefit from.

Hargrave particularly worked on flying machines and made major contributions in knowledge about flight stability and the shape of wings and propeller blades. He also worked on the rotary engine, and his ideas were used by many early aircraft until around 1920.

Hargrave is most associated with box kites; this invention was used to experiment with lift and drag (he himself went on flights, lifted by his kites), and box kites were later used for weather measurements and were used as the basis for gliders and airplanes.

Hargrave was a very good experimenter and made beautiful models. He certainly contributed to the sum of human knowledge (his main goal) but was more widely respected for his contributions after his death than during his life.

Words of Wisdom

Hargrave said, “The flying machine of the future will not be born fully fledged and capable of a flight for 1000 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.”

Wisdom Without Words

Hargrave was once asked to give a lecture, and he admitted that teaching and lecturing were not in his skill set. Indeed, he was known as a man of few words.

Still, Hargrave was too modest—he showed himself very capable of teaching when he spent afternoons working with kids to build and fly box kites. He also donated all of his models to museums, explaining that they were “knowledge without words.”

Celebrate Hargrave

  • Fly a kite.
Maybe even a box kite! Blue Sky Lark has a website with a picture of Hargrave's original design (box kites are also called “cellular kites”) and many other forms elaborated from his ideas.
  • Build a model. Local hobby shops and toy stores usually sell a variety of models to put together and paint. Or go online for help, such as this model airplane site.


  1. I never even heard of Hargrave. Did the Wright brothers know about him?

  2. Apparently everyone working on flight used some of the principles he discovered about wing/propeller shape, and about the stability of box kites in flight (hence biplane structure), and thus everyone working on flight built off of his work. He made significant contributions to human flight, but lots of others whose names we don't know did, too!

  3. Nice to see the life and work of Lawrence Hargrave being covered here. I did a little research on this pioneer too, as part of my on-going hobby/business of documenting the kiting world. I share something of his passion for designing and building kites... (even call the same country Home!) Hargrave was indeed very influential in the early years of aviation.