Nat Cromb: what do you think you know about David Unaipon?

the author Nat Cromb

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Natalie Cromb is a Gamilaraay woman from Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Reserve outside Coonabarabran in Warrumbungle country.

28 September 2017

Today is Ngarrindjeri man, David Unaipon’s birthday. He was born this day in 1872 and throughout his life was a noted inventor, writer and lecturer and he lived to be 95 years old. Most know him as the man on our $50 note but what most people don’t know is how so many things we now take for granted came from this brilliant man.

Unaipon invented many mechanical devices during his lifetime, such as the centrifugal motor, the multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device, in addition to new, more efficient design configurations for things such as sheep shearing devices. He even worked on the theoretical development of lasers and had designs for helicopters based on the Boomerang, as well as perpetual motion machines and anti-gravitational devices. For most of his inventions he commenced the patent process – called provisional patents – however, he was rarely able to afford the more formal patent process.

Unaipon was also the first Aboriginal author to be published after he was commissioned in the early 1920s by the University of Adelaide to assemble a book on Aboriginal legends. However, his work was stolen by William Ramsey Smith, Chief Medical Officer of South Australia. It was not until many years later that it was revealed to be Unaipon’s work. He went on to publish three short booklets of Aboriginal stories in 1927, 1928 and 1929.

David Ngunaitponi (Unaipon) in the late 1920s

David Ngunaitponi (Unaipon) in the late 1920s

In this time he wrote on topics covering everything from perpetual motion and helicopter flight to Aboriginal legends and campaigns for Aboriginal rights. Despite his public status as an academic, he was often refused accommodation during his travels due to being an Aboriginal man.

Notwithstanding his position as an academic and a man of science, Unaipon was curiously religious and was considered a preacher as he walked on foot and spoke to the bible.

Unaipon was also deemed by the media to be a ‘spokesperson’ on Aboriginal issues and was referred to as “full blood” amidst the “half-caste” problem. His opinions were given credence on issues such as rights and governmental policy and during this time he lobbied for the Commonwealth to assume conduct over Aboriginal Affairs – not the state protectorates.

In 1926 he appeared before another royal commission into the treatment of Aboriginal people under the State protectorates and presented his radical argument for the establishment for separate Aboriginal States in the Central and Northern Australia. Historians believe that Unaipon’s involvement in the Aboriginal rights movement was what led to his arrest in that year for ‘vagrancy’, despite his status usually making him largely immune to the majority of restrictions and rights limitations experienced by Aboriginal people in general.

Unaipon’s views on religion and gradual change was incorporated into the Commonwealth’s assimilation policy, and his views put him at odds with the New South Wales Australian Aborigines’ League over its decision to call a National Day of Mourning on Australia Day in 1938.

Unaipon retired from preaching for the Macleay Mission in the 1950’s but continued his work on his inventions into the 1960’s. Although he experienced racism and betrayal from those around him, for the most part David Unaipon was respected as the brilliant man of science that he was. For this reason he received a Coronation Medal and now adorns our $50 note. Sadly, as is the case with many Indigenous people throughout history, his inventions would have been more widely known, celebrated and taught about in school had he been white.

Dubbed in the media as the “most well-known Aborigine”, he was always categorised by his race. Despite being amongst the privileged few who were not subject to all of the restrictions that being Indigenous entailed. Had he been white – Unaipon would undoubtedly have been hailed as Australia’s own DaVinci and we would all be learning about him in school and conducting science experiments based on his work.

Instead, his face is on the $50 note, which I think we are supposed to believe is an honour. I think the priorities of Indigenous people differ from that of the government but I would have thought an exhibition on his work, and contribution to engineering and science more broadly, would have been the honour he would have wanted.

Or are historical exhibitions reserved only for genocidal “explorers?” Asking for a friend.

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