David Unaipon (1872 – 1967): A Trailblazing Ngarrindjeri Man of Inventions and Literature
David Unaipon, a remarkable Ngarrindjeri man, left an indelible mark on Australian history as a preacher, inventor, and writer. Born on September 28, 1872, in the Raukkan community, South Australia, he was the son of James Unaipon and Nymbulda Ngunaitponi. The name ‘Unaipon’ was an Anglicisation of Ngunaitponi, reflecting his proud Aboriginal heritage.
His early education was at the Point McLeay Mission School, later renamed Raukkan, where he gained knowledge and insights that would shape his extraordinary life. In 1902, he married Katherine Carter, who became his steadfast partner through his endeavours.
Unaipon’s inventive mind led him to create numerous innovations that showcased his ingenuity. In 1909, he designed an improved hand tool for sheep shearing, revolutionizing the wool industry. However, it was his helicopter design, patented in 1914, that truly set him apart. Inspired by the flight principles of the boomerang, Unaipon’s helicopter concept demonstrated his deep connection to traditional technologies and his willingness to bridge the gap between ancient wisdom and modern innovation.
Beyond his contributions to science, Unaipon made a significant impact in the world of literature. He is celebrated as the first Aboriginal author for his work titled “Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.” This collection of captivating stories and legends provided a window into the rich cultural heritage of his people. Unfortunately, the book was not published during his lifetime and only saw the light of day in 2001, long after his passing.
Unaipon’s prowess and dedication to his heritage were honoured on Australia’s $50 banknote. Since its issuance in 1995, the note has featured his portrait alongside drawings of his inventive creations and an excerpt from his legendary book. In the redesign of 2018, shields from Unaipon’s Ngarrindjeri nation adorned the banknote, symbolizing his clan groups, lands, waters, and the traditional technologies that inspired his inventions.
Throughout his life, David Unaipon held a profound spiritual and cultural connection to all living things, known as “Miwi” among the Ngarrindjeri people. This sixth sense, believed to reside in the pit of the stomach, was a crucial aspect of their identity. The banknote pays homage to this belief with the inclusion of two naval cords painted by Yarraldi Aboriginal artist Muriel Van Der Byl.
David Unaipon’s legacy was not only acknowledged within Australia but also beyond its borders. In 1953, he was awarded the Coronation Medal for his exceptional contributions, and in 1985, he received the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award posthumously for his achievements as an Aboriginal writer.
On February 7, 1967, David Unaipon died in Tailem Bend, South Australia, leaving behind a trail of inspiration and accomplishments that continue to shine brightly in the hearts and minds of the people he touched. His life story serves as a testament to the power of determination, creativity, and the preservation of cultural heritage, reminding us of the significant contributions made by Australia’s Indigenous people to the nation’s identity and progress.