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Science and Innovation

While a scapegrace convict who painted exquisite natural history illustrations and an aeronautical inventor who made significant contributions to the development of powered flight may appear at first glance to have little in common, their work was underpinned by the practice of close observation of fish, animals and birds. For one of these men, William Buelow Gould, this practice resulted in a series of meticulously rendered images of fish and other marine life that are so technically correct that one of them has been recorded as the earliest representation of that species. For the other, Lawrence Hargrave, it informed his experiments in developing a flying machine. The records created by William Buelow Gould and Lawrence Hargrave are, to date, the only documentary heritage items relating to Australian science to be inscribed on the Australian Register.

William Buelow Gould’s Sketchbook of Fishes, held in the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts in Hobart, is the work of an unlikely scientific observer. Not to be confused with another Gould whose work made a lasting impression on Australian natural science – John Gould, the celebrated naturalist and entrepreneur of natural history illustration – William Buelow Gould (1801-1853) had worked as a porcelain painter for Spode Pottery. Theft was a sideline to his usual occupation, and he had a previous record before he was again arrested in November 1826 for ‘stealing colours’ and sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

Sent to Van Diemen’s Land, Gould continued in his pattern of misbehaviour, stealing, getting drunk, and passing a forged note, which led to his sentencing to three years’ servitude at Macquarie Harbour. When some convicts mutinied on the journey there and stole the ship, Gould for once found himself on the side of authority. He was marooned with the officers, and was one of a party that went overland to seek help. This was the beginning of Gould’s upward trajectory in Tasmania. Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur ameliorated his sentence and, instead of going to Macquarie Harbour, Gould was assigned to the Colonial Surgeon, Dr James Scott. He picked up his brushes again to paint botanical specimens that were notable for their technical perfection.

This period of respectable occupation did not last: in 1832, after a series of offences, Gould was again sentenced and sent to Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. There he was fortunate enough to be assigned to another medical man, the resident medical officer, Dr William de Little, for whom he produced the Sketchbook of Fishes. Gould also painted other natural history subjects and topographical sketches of Macquarie Harbour. He was sent to Port Arthur when Macquarie Harbour closed in 1833, and was finally freed on 25 June 1835. This highly skilled creator of exquisite natural history watercolours, however, found it impossible to maintain a respectable lifestyle. Although he married and had a family, and continued to paint, Gould became a habitual drunkard and died in poverty in 1853 in Hobart.1

‘If there be one man, more than another, who deserves to succeed in flying through the air, that man is Mr Lawrence Hargrave, of Sydney, New South Wales’, wrote aviation pioneer Octave Chanute in 1893. Hargrave himself was convinced of this: ‘I know that success is dead sure to come,’ he had written earlier to Chanute.

The Lawrence Hargrave Papers in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum testify to his enquiring mind and capacity for invention based on close observation of the natural world. The young English-born Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915) had participated in one of the most celebrated nineteenth-century explorations of Papua New Guinea, and then became Assistant Government Astronomer at Sydney Observatory. It was the possibility of human flight, however, that increasingly captured his attention and led to the experiments that brought Hargrave enduring fame in the history of aeronautics.

Elected to the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1877, Hargrave read a paper to the Society in 1884 describing how flapping could propel a ship or a flying machine, and revealing that he had studied the movements of leeches, eels, sunfish, porpoises, snapper, alligators, lizards, slugs, caterpillars, jellyfish, skylarks, hawks, partridges, ducks, pelicans and albatrosses. Hargrave also made working models of the birds, fish and earthworms he studied, measuring their movements as they flew, swam or wriggled, demonstrating their means of propulsion. However, his lack of theoretical knowledge hampered his attempts to devise a workable airscrew or propeller, and while one of his flat-wing model aircraft with flappers had flown just over 112 metres in late 1884, it had to be launched from a height.

This led to Hargrave’s invention of the box or cellular kite. By stringing together a number of kites on the same line, he developed the multi-celled box-kite, which had great stability and lifting capacity. On 12 November 1894 on the beach near his home at Stanwell Park, Hargrave was lifted 4.87 metres by four box-kites. These kites had flat surfaces but Hargrave, having observed seagulls soaring and gliding without flapping their wings, began to consider the potential of curved wing surfaces. By studying the wind’s action on a dead gull’s wing, he worked out a system for constructing box-kites with curved surfaces with the convex side upward, determining that they had greater lift than flat surfaces.

It is this aspect of Hargrave’s work that most directly influenced early aviation. Alberto Santos Dumont’s aircraft, ‘14bis’, which carried out the first powered, controlled flight in Europe in 1906, was effectively a large box-kite with an engine. Box-kite aircraft were adopted by the early English fliers, and box-kite biplanes were also used in Europe.

The problem of lifting weight into the air continued to engage Hargrave’s attention. From 1887 onwards he worked on a machine heavy enough to carry a man’s weight. He designed a variety of engines – pure jet, turbine, jet propeller, rotary and semi-rotary, spring recoil, single-cylinder crosshead and horizontally opposed engines – 52 in all, of which 33 were actually built. The most noteworthy of these was one he designed in 1889, the three-cylinder, radial rotary air-screw engine, the ancestor of the radial rotary internal combustion engines used in most European aircraft in the first two decades of powered flight.

Hargrave retired from full-time aeronautical work in 1906, three years after Wilbur and Orville Wright had achieved the first powered flight, but continued to experiment part-time in aeronautics and other areas of invention.

Lawrence Hargrave died in 1915, six weeks after his only son and co-designer, Geoffrey, was killed at Gallipoli. He died of peritonitis, but some close to him maintained that he had lost the will to live: ‘The bullet that killed his son killed Lawrence Hargrave.’

The Deutsches Museum in Munich had purchased Hargrave’s models in 1910, and he had been castigated as ‘unpatriotic’ when Germany achieved superior air power a few years later. The Lawrence Hargrave Papers, however, remained in Australia at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.


Henry Allport, ‘Gould, William Buelow (1801–1853)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

Roslyn Brice, ‘Lawrence Hargrave’, in 100 Famous Australian Lives, Paul Hamlyn, Dee Why West, NSW, 1969, pp. 172-179.

Amirah Inglis, ‘Hargrave, Lawrence (1850–1915)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1983,

Cow or coffer fish

Cow or coffer fish

Image courtesy of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Hobart

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