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David Unaipon – inventor

PatentDavid Unaipon was born at Point McLeay Mission on 28 Sep 1872, the son of the evangelist, James Ngunaitponi, and Nymbulda. David showed an early interest in education which resulted in him acquiring many skills including the talent for public speaking which he used to advantage to promote his message that Aboriginal people should be allowed to join the mainstream of society rather than be locked up on reserves. His prominence in public life as a spokesman for Aboriginal people led to him being 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. Within South Australia he proposed that an independent board replace Chief Protector of Aborigines.
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.
David became the first Aboriginal writer to be published. In the 1920s he was commissioned by the University of Adelaide to collect traditional Aboriginal stories from around South Australia. Most of the stories come from his own Ngarrindjeri people, but some are from other South Australian peoples. $50 noteThese were compiled into the publication, Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals London, 1930 which failed to attribute his authorship. His most known books are Aboriginal Legends (1927), Native Legends (1929) and Leaves of memory (1953). He also wrote his autobiography called, My Life Story in 1951. Other articles, poetry and legends were published throughout his life. His work on legends is reflected in the art work that accompanies his image on the 1992 $50 Australian banknote.
David Unaipon married Katherine Carter nee Sumner, a Tangani woman from the Coorong in January 1902. They had one son. He died 7 February 1967 at the Tailem Bend Hospital and was buried in the Point McLeay Cemetery.

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