Life On The Job

Indigenous Famous Person's Story

David Unaipon (born David Ngunaitponi) 28 September 1872 – 7 February 1967, Writer, Preacher, Inventor

Copyright free
(Copyright free: Public Domain)
From frontpiece of Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines (1924) by David Unaipon



David Unaipon was born at the Point McLeay Mission, South Australia, and attended the mission school until 1885 when he left to become a servant. Encouraged by others to pursue his interest in philosophy, science and music, Unaipon read widely and became well-known for his intellectual capacity and inventions. He spoke regularly at schools and learned societies, and often attended government enquiries.

In the 1920s, he began to study western mythology and began collecting his own people's myths and legends. He wrote for the Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper from 1924, and began publishing compilations of his myths.

David Unaipon was the first Australian Aboriginal writer to have a book published in Australia.

"Hungarrda" was published in 1927 followed by "Kinnie Ger - the Native Cat" in 1928 and his main work, "Native Legends", in 1929. A collection of his legends was published, without acknowlegement, by W. Ramsay Smith as Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals in 1930. He also wrote 'My Life Story'(1951) and 'Leaves of Memory'(1953).
(Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography).

Without permission, the publisher Angus and Robertson sold the copyright of the stories to William Ramsay Smith (q.v.) who published Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals (1930) without acknowledgement. W. R. Smith also published some of Unaipon's stories as Australian Legends (1984), with notes in Japanese.

Scientist & Inventor

Among his patents was a helicopter design based on the principle of a boomerang.

Apart from his social messages, David was absorbed by the concept of perpetual motion. He spent much effort designing machines which led to the media dubbing him the "black Leonardo".

In 1909 he patented an improved handpiece for sheep-shearing (pictured: Patent specification. Mechanical motion. Sheep shears. No. 15,624, 1909. D. Unaipon, SA). His other inventions included a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and mechanical propulsion device.

He never succeeded in getting any financial support to develop his ideas. As early as 1914, Unaipon had anticipated the concept of a helicopter by applying the principle of the boomerang.

Patent for sheep shearing
Handpiece for Sheep-Shearing (Source: Adelaide Proformat)


Unaipon began his education at the age of seven at the Point McLeay Mission School and soon became known for his intelligence, with the former secretary of the Aborigines' Friends' Association stating in 1887: "I only wish the majority of white boys were as bright, intelligent, well-instructed and well-mannered, as the little fellow I am now taking charge of."
(Source: Wikipedia)

Unaipon left school at 13 to work as a servant for C.B. Young in Adelaide where Young actively encouraged Unaipon's interest in literature, philosophy, science and music.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Employment & Training:

In 1890, he returned to Point Mcleay where he apprenticed to a bootmaker and was appointed as the mission organist.

In the late 1890s he travelled to Adelaide but found that his colour was a bar to employment in his trade and instead took a job as storeman for an Adelaide bootmaker before returning to work as book-keeper in the Point McLeay store.

On 4 January 1902 he married Katherine Carter (née Sumner), a Tangane woman. He was later employed by the Aborigines' Friends' Association as a deputationer, in which role he travelled and preached widely in seeking support for the Point McLeay Mission. Unaipon retired from preaching in 1959 but continued working on his inventions into the 1960s.

David Unaipon with George Taplin
(Source: Wikipedia)


"It was as an inventor that Unaipon first achieved fame. He patented his modified shearing handpiece in 1909. Because of his wide reading of scientific journals, he was often the first person in Australia to make public reference to recent scientific and technological research. His publicising of such predictions as polarised light and helicopter flight led to labels like 'the black genius' and 'Australia's Leonardo', and he did indeed work privately on the development of such innovations. He patented numerous inventions between 1909 and 1944 including a centrifugal motor, a mechanical propulsion device, and a multiracial wheel."


Unaipon spent 50 years collecting subscriptions for the Aborigines' Friends' Association. He also lectured and published Aboriginal legends.

Unaipon assisted the Bleakley inquiry into Aboriginal welfare 1928-29.

In 1953 he received the Coronation medal
. (Source: Dinkum Aussies)

Most Referenced Works:

1 Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines David Unaipon , 2001 selected work prose

2 Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines David Unaipon , W. Ramsay Smith , Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (illustrator),

3 Native Legends David Unaipon , 1929

4 Aboriginal Legends. No. 1, Kinie Ger, the Native Cat David Unaipon , 1929

5 Totemism: The Companionship of Earthly Creatures. David Unaipon , 1929

(Source: Austlit)

In the 1990s, Unaipon's manuscript of Aboriginal legends was edited and published as Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines (2001), adopting his original title and finally acknowledging his authorship.

An annual award, The David Unaipon Literary Award, for an unpublished manuscript by and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer honours him. He is also depicted on the Australian $50 note.

David Unaipon was chosen as one of 150 great South Australians by a panel of The Advertiser senior writers to celebrate the 150th Anniversay of The Advertiser newspaper, 12 April 2008.
(Source: Austlit)

David Unaipon March
Music by Louis Morton 1910
(Source: National Library of Australia)


bullet.gif (981 bytes) Reserve Bank of Australia - David Unaipon

bullet.gif (981 bytes)Australian Dictionary of Biography

Australian Dictionary of Biography
bullet.gif (981 bytes)ABC's New Inventors - Tribute to David Unaipon

New Inventors
bullet.gif (981 bytes)ABC: RN: Awaye! On the shore of a strange land: David Unaipon

Audio file of David's Life - 54 minutes

bullet.gif (981 bytes)Wikipedia

bullet.gif (981 bytes)WebJournals

bullet.gif (981 bytes)Australian War Memorial - Forging the Nation

bullet.gif (981 bytes)State Library - South Australia

State Library SA
bullet.gif (981 bytes)AustLit

bullet.gif (981 bytes)State Library - NSW

State Library NSW
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Adelaide Proformat

Adelaide Proformat
bullet.gif (981 bytes)ABC - Didj U Know Stories

Did U Know

bullet.gif (981 bytes)My Place: Fishing

Activity 2: This site explores the inventions and writings of David Unaipon
and provides lots of activities for students.

My Place

Did You Know?

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – The David Unaipon Award

This award is proudly supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and University of Queensland Press

Past Winners:
2019 No Award Given
2018 Making of Ruby Champion, Kirstie Parker
2017 Mirrored Pieces by Lisa Fuller
2016 Dancing Home, Paul Collis
2015 The First Octoroon or Report of an Experimental Child, Andrew Booth
2014 It’s Not Just Black and White, Lesley & Tammy Williams
2013 Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neerven
2012 Story, Siv Parker
2011 Mazin’ Grace, Dylan Coleman
2010 Purple Threads, Jeanine Leane
2009 The Boundary by Nicole Watson
2008 Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara
2007 Skin Painting by Elizabeth Eileen Hodgson
2006 Me, Antman and Fleabag by Gayle Kennedy
2005 Anonymous Premonition by Yvette Holt
2004 Dust on Waterglass by Tara June Winch (published as Swallow the Air)
2003 Whispers of This Wik Woman by Fiona Doyle
2002 Home by Larissa Behrendt
2001 The Mish by Robert Lowe
2000 Bitin’ Back by Vivienne Cleven
1999 Of Muse, Meandering and Midnight by Samuel Wagan Watson
1998 Is That You Ruthie? by Ruth Hegarty
1997 When Darkness Falls by John Bodey
1996 Black Angels Red Blood by Steven McCarthy
1995 Warrigal's Way by Warrigal Anderson
1994 The Sausage Tree by Valda Gee and Rosalie Medcraft
1993 Bridge of Triangles by John Muk Muk Burke
1992 Sweet Water, Stolen Land by Philip McLaren
1991 Broken Dreams by Bill Dodd
1990 Caprice: A Stockman's Daughter by Doris Pilkington Garimara
1989 Holocaust Island by Graeme Dixon



High SchoolSecondary

bullet.gif (981 bytes)Online: Innovation is the Australian way

LiteracyAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Literacy

ICT Capability Australian Curriculum General Capability: ICT Capability

 Ethical UnderstandingAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Ethical Understanding

Intercultural UnderstandingAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Intercultural Understanding

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culturesAustralian Curriculum: Cross Curriculum Priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures


1. Read the following article. Reading

Australian Geographic

2. Change the title of the article: "Colonial heritage, geographical isolation and resourcefulness are a few possible reasons why Aussies are top inventors" to include our Indigenous inventors.

3. Rewrite the paragraphs labelled "Local inventions" to include David Unaipon.

4. Rewrite the first paragraph under the heading "Inventions the spirit of Australia" showing your knowledge and understanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture. Include David Unaipon and his inventions.

5. Blog the issue - "Why is it that such articles often fail to promote to the world Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inventors and inventions?"



Material sourced from 
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Dinkum Aussies

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