David Unaipon (1872-1967)

Writer, public speaker and inventor

David Unaipon, commemorated on the fifty dollar note, made significant contributions to science and literature, and to improvements in the conditions of Aboriginal people.

A Ngarrindjeri man, Unaipon was born at the Point McLeay Mission, on the Lower Murray in South Australia, on 28 September 1872, the fourth of nine children of the evangelist James Ngunaitponi and his wife Nymbulda, both of whom were Yaraldi speakers.

Unaipon received his initial education at the Point McLeay Mission School and as a teenager demonstrated a thirst for knowledge, particularly in philosophy, science and music. An avid reader, he was obsessed with scientific works and inventions and, with no advanced education in mathematics, he researched many engineering problems and devised a number of his own inventions.

In 1909 he patented an improved handpiece for sheep-shearing. Other inventions included a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and mechanical propulsion device; he was unable, however, to get financial backing to develop his ideas. He gained a reputation at the time of being ‘Australia’s Leonardo’ for his promotion of scientific ideas. As early as 1914, Unaipon anticipated the helicopter, applying the principle of the boomerang. His search for the secret of perpetual motion lasted throughout his life.

Unaipon, who married Katherine Carter (nee Sumner), a Tangani woman from The Coorong in January 1902, was prominent in public life as a spokesman for Aboriginal people. He was often called upon to participate in royal commissions and inquiries into Aboriginal issues. In 1928-29 he assisted the Bleakley inquiry into Aboriginal welfare. In 1934, he urged the Commonwealth to assume responsibility for Aboriginal affairs and proposed that an independent board replace South Australia’s Chief Protector of Aborigines.

As an employee of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association for many years, he travelled widely and became well known through south-eastern Australia. While on his travels, Unaipon lectured on his ideas, preached sermons and spoke about Aboriginal legends and customs. He also spoke of the need for ‘sympathetic co-operation’ between whites and blacks, and for equal rights for both black and white Australians.

Unaipon became the first Aboriginal writer to be published. His earliest published works include an article entitled “Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs” in the Sydney Daily Telegraph (2 August 1924), “The Story of the Mungingee” in The Home magazine (February 1925), and a fifteen page booklet entitled Native Legends (published in 1929). His articles in the Sydney Daily Telegraph were said to have been written in a prose that showed the influence of Milton, whose poetry he memorised, and Bunyan. His writings were included in Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals (London, 1930). Other articles, poetry and legends were published throughout his life. The hand-written manuscript of his small book on Aboriginal Legends, which is reflected in the $50 note, survives in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Unaipon was awarded a Coronation Medal in 1953. He died on 7 February 1967 and was buried in Point McLeay cemetery. In 1985, he posthumously won the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers. He was also honoured in 1988 by the establishment of an annual national David Unaipon Award for unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, and an annual Unaipon lecture in Adelaide.

In 1996 the University of South Australia named the Unaipon School within the Indigenous College of Education and Research in honour of David Unaipon and his father James Unaipon, the first Aboriginal teacher in South Australia.

© Reserve Bank of Australia, 2001-2004

Other references:

Source: Reserve Bank of Australia,Currency Notes/ Notes In Circulation

Theme: Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders – Australian history and race relations.