History Detective

$50 Note David Unaipon Australia's Da Vinci Case 23

Episode Summary

Ever wondered who was featured on the Australian Money, well today's episode looks at the life of David Unaipon the Aboriginal man who is featured on the $50 note.

Episode Notes

David Unaipon is the only Aboriginal Australian to be featured on the Australian money, he was an incredible speaker and inventor.

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All theme music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this series is called All Cashed Up where I explore the historical people and places that have made it onto the Australian money. Today, I am moving on to the colloquially named pineapple- the $50 note- and the man known as Australia’s own Leonardo Da Vinci, David Unaipon.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this podcast is being recorded today, the Yugambeh people.

In 1872, David Unaipon was born on the Port McLeay Mission in South Australia. A mission is a place where Christian people go to teach people about Christianity and of course to try and convert them. I should say that Unaipon was not their actual family name, they anglicised their surname from Ngunaitponi, to make it easier for white people to pronounce. David’s father was in fact the mission’s first Aboriginal convert. And David attended the mission school from the age of 7 until he was 13. And you know why he left school? Because as a 13-year-old Aboriginal boy, he was to become a servant to a white family in Adelaide. Seriously. To his good fortune, the family he worked for fostered his keen interest in learning and encouraged him to learn about philosophy, literature, science and music.

He returned to the mission at the age of 18 and learnt boot making and became the mission organ player, but he was a little frustrated with the lack of job opportunities for educated Aboriginal men on the missions and returned to Adelaide and took a job as a storeman for a boot maker. 

All this time, David continued to devour books and he especially liked scientific works. He also began to study mechanics and started to conduct experiments in things like perpetual motion, ballistics and polarised light.

I mentioned earlier that David Unaipon was called Australia’s Leonardo Da Vinci, this was because of his prolific talent for inventing. In his lifetime he patented 19 inventions. He even predicted the invention of the helicopter. In a 1914 article in the Sun titled “Black Genius”. Uniapon is quoted as saying, “An aeroplane can be manufactured that will rise straight into the air from the ground by the application of the boomerang principle. The boomerang is shaped to rise in the air according to the velocity with which it is propelled, and so can an aeroplane. This class of flying machine can be carried on board ship, the immense advantages of which are obvious.”

But the thing that made him famous, a picture of which was on the 1995 version of the $50 note, but has disappeared from the most recent version, was the invention of a new type of sheep shears. 

Now before I get into the design, I think it important to understand just how important sheep were to Australia’s colonial economy. If you cast your mind back to the $20 dollar note and the story of Australia’s unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda, that song is about a man who stole a sheep. Australia’s climate was ideal creating fine quality wool. In just four decades after the introduction of the first Merino sheep, Australia had become the world’s biggest producer of wool. Sheep still play a huge part in Australia’s agricultural economy. 

This is why David Unaipon’s new sheep shearing design were such an important invention that they were pictured on the 1995 version of the $50 note. This style of shears is still the design for mechanical sheep shears today. I don’t want to spend too much time describing a sheep shearing mechanism, but the blades kind look like a pair of electric hair clippers. If you are super curious, just search Google images. 

Unfortunately, he made only a provisional patent and he was never able to receive any financial reward for this brilliant invention.

David Unaipon was also known for being the first Aboriginal writer published in newspapers. He became a bit of a spokesperson for all things Aboriginal. In a time that was steeped in bogus racial hierarchy theories such as Social Darwinism, he would often give speeches or write about the rights of Aboriginal people.

On his travels around Australia, he met with many different Aboriginal tribes and compiled a book of Aboriginal mythology and legends. He almost had a book deal with Angus and Robinson and then unfortunately an anthropologist called William Ramsay Smith, brought the rights to the book and published it under his own name giving no credit to David Unaipon. Plagiarism wasn’t the only stealing that William Ramsay Smith did. You may remember in my second episode on Mungo Man and the ethics of archaeology, Dr Ramsay Smith also stole Aboriginal human remains by way of grave robbery. He then sent these human remains back to the UK. 

On the current version of the $50 note there is some tiny, tiny writing called microtext. This is security feature to make it more difficult to counterfeit the note. The text includes excerpts from his writings and the very top quote reads. “As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first - but I hope, not the last - to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.”

In 1953, when he was 80 years old, he received a Coronation medal. The coronation medals were awarded in celebration of Queen Elizabeth ascending to the throne. 

David Unaipon, spent his later years back on the Port McLeay Mission where he began his life. He spent his days continuing to work on his inventions and trying to discover the secret of perpetual motion. He lived to a grand old age of 95, and he died just a few months before the 1967 referendum changed the constitution to count Aboriginal Australians as citizens.

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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Next time on History Detective, we will flip and reverse the $50 note discover the extraordinary achievements of Edith Cowan.

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