Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand

David Unaipon: 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand

... many of his ideas were picked up by other scientists and are still in use today.

David Unaipon (born David Ngunaitponi) (1872–1967) is credited with being the first published Aboriginal author. He was an inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller. His image is reproduced on the Australian $50 note.

Unaipon was a Ngarrindjeri man of the Warrawaldi clan, the fourth of nine children, born at Raukkan Mission in South Australia. He died shortly before the 1967 referendum ‘yes’ vote that resulted in Aboriginal people being counted in the national census as citizens.

Growing up on a mission, his father James Unaipon became the first Aboriginal Christian preacher, which had a strong influence on him throughout his life. Despite embracing the religions of the missionaries, he remained true to his traditional culture.

At 13, he was taken to Adelaide to live with the white family of Charles Burny Young, who gave him a classical education and encouraged his interests in literature, philosophy, science and music. He studied astronomy and made connections to the myths and legends that existed about the stars within his own culture. He mapped the flight pattern of the boomerang, which fed into his later inventions and explorations of aerodynamics.

Unaipon returned to Raukkan five years later, continuing to read books and journals that were sent to the mission. He began to study mechanics and conducted experiments in perpetual motion, ballistics and polarised light.

Between 1909 and 1944, Unaipon made patent applications for 10 inventions — including a modified handpiece for shearing, a centrifugal motor and mechanical propulsion device. While these patents lapsed due to a lack of funds, many of his ideas were picked up by other scientists and are still in use today.

In 1924 he travelled for a year on foot through southern Australia — researching and writing a manuscript titled Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. After a number of difficult negotiations and missed communications, the copyright for this work was sold to anthropologist and Chief Medical Officer of South Australia, William Ramsay Smith, who edited the work and published it under his own name in London in 1930 under the title Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals.

No acknowledgement of Unaipon’s work on the manuscript was noted. The book was finally published in Unaipon's name in 2001, by The Meigunyah Press, using its original title.

In 1988, the national David Unaipon Award for Aboriginal writers was initiated and the annual Unaipon Lecture was established at University of South Australia. The David Unaipon Address was initiated in 2018 at the Kings College in London.

In 1995, the Reserve Bank of Australia issued a new design for the $50 note and David Unaipon was honoured on one side. In 2018, the Bank reissued the note to include shields from Unaipon’s Ngarrindjeri nation and the practices of miwi (traditional navel cord exchange) that Unaipon wrote about in his Legendary Tales. It also features the black swan, Unaipon’s ngaitji or totem.