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David Unaipon
David Ngunaitponi
David Unaipon.jpg
David Unaipon in the late 1920s
Born 28 September 1872
Died 7 February 1967(1967-02-07) (aged 94)
Nationality Australian
Education Raukkan Mission School
Spouse(s) Katherine Carter (née Sumner)
Parent(s) Nymbulda and James Ngunaitponi

David Unaipon (born David Ngunaitponi; 28 September 1872 – 7 February 1967) was an indigenous Australian preacher, inventor, writer and activist. He was a member of the Ngarrindjeri nation. He was born at Point McLeay, a Lutheran mission located on the mouth of the Murray River southeast of Adelaide. He preached widely throughout South Australia, often travelling on foot. He became the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a written work in English.

Unaipon's portrait is featured on the Australian $50 bank note in commemoration.

Early life

David Unaipon was born on 28 September 1872, at the Point McLeay mission in the Coorong region of South Australia. His father was James Ngunaitponi and his mother's name was probably Nymbulda. James and Nymbulda had nine children, and David was the fourth. He began his education at the age of seven at the Point McLeay Mission School and quickly became known for his intelligence. Unaipon left school at 13 to work as a servant for C. B. Young in Adelaide, where Young encouraged Unaipon's interest in literature, philosophy, science and music. In 1890, he returned to Point Mcleay, where he worked as an apprentice bootmaker. He was also chosen as the mission's organist. In the late 1890s, he travelled again to Adelaide to find work. He discovered, however, that his skin colour stopped him getting work in bootmaking and instead took a job as a bootmaker's storeman.

After returning to Point McLeay, Unaipon worked as a book-keeper in the local store. On 4 January 1902, he married Katherine Carter (née Sumner), a Ngarrindjeri woman of the Tangane tribe.



Unaipon took out provisional patents for 19 inventions, but he could not afford to get any of his inventions fully patented. His most successful invention was a shearing machine (provisional patent 15 624) that converted curvilineal motions into the straight-line movement that is the basis of modern mechanical shears. Unaipon never received any money from it, however. Apart from a newspaper report in 1910 acknowledging him as the inventor, he received no credit.

Unaipon became well-known as an inventor, and a recognised authority on ballistics. Other inventions of his included a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion tool. He drew many of his ideas for mechanical inventions, including a helicopter design based on the principle of the boomerang. He also spent a large amount of time trying to achieve perpetual motion.

Preaching and activism

Unaipon was a Christian for all of his life. After he married, he worked for the Aborigines' Friends' Association as a deputationer, in which he travelled widely throughout South Australia preaching for the Point McLeay Mission. He modelled his teachings on the Bible-based style of the missionaries who had taught him. He believed that the traditional Aboriginal and Christian spiritualities were basically the same.

His travels brought him into contact with many people sympathetic with the cause of Aboriginal rights. Although Unaipon was much in demand as a public speaker, he was also often refused accommodation and hospitality due to his race. He gradually became well-known in public life as a spokesman for Aboriginal Australians. Between 1928 and 1929, he helped as a researcher and witness for the Bleakley Inquiry into Aboriginal welfare. In 1934, he lobbied the federal government to take over responsibility for Aborigines from its constituent states.

Unaipon retired from preaching in 1959 but continued working on his inventions into the 1960s.


Unaipon was the first Australian Aboriginal to publish a written work in English. He wrote many articles in newspapers and magazines, including The Daily Telegraph, in which he retold traditional Dreaming stories and argued for the rights of Aboriginal people. Some of Unaipon's traditional stories were published in book in 1930, called Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals. It was published under the name of anthropologist William Ramsay Smith. They were republished in their original form in 2006, under the author's name, as Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.

Unaipon was obsessed with correct English. When speaking, he tended to use classical English rather than using the common style of his time. His written language followed the style of John Milton and John Bunyan.

Later life and death

Unaipon returned to his Point Mcleay in his old age. He worked more on his inventions and tried to find the secret of perpetual motion. He died in the Tailem Bend Hospital on 7 February 1967, and was buried in the Raukkan (formerly Point McLeay) Mission Cemetery. David was the last full-blooded member of the Waruwaldi tribe.

Several things are named after him in commemoration:

  • The David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of South Australia.
  • Unaipon Avenue in Ngunnawal, a suburb of Canberra.
  • David Unaipon Literary Award, an award presented each year for the best writing by unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors.
  • David Unaipon (2001) Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522849059.

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