How the Box Kite Became the Space Shuttle

By J.F. McKenna

The space shuttle is home from its final mission. Somewhere, Lawrence Hargrave is smiling.

If the name doesn’t trigger immediate recognition, Hargrave is the fellow who built the box kite. Truth be told, it was the box kite that took us to the moon, built the International Space Station and brought today’s last Shuttle crew home.

Technology cannot exist without a visionary past. When we are honest enough to admit it, brilliance is cumulative. The so-called giants of industry—from Henry Ford to Bill Gates— stand as tall as they do because of others’ contributions as well as their own.

Look beyond history’s capricious and arbitrary treatment of genius and progress. There you will find Hargrave and his box kite.

I still detect a raised eyebrow. The muse Clio has indeed left Lawrence Hargrave in one of its darker corners. Yet it was the Australian polymath who figuratively pushed the Wright Brothers’ Flyer into the air in 1903. That gentleman scientist’s name belongs among the litany of modern technology’s saints.

Born in Greenwich, England, 160 years ago, Hargrave headed for the wilds of Australia and its gold in 1872. He and his fellow adventurers wound up shipwrecked off the Queensland coast. The lure of Australia proved strong, and he settled there in 1877. The following year, he was appointed assistant astronomical observer at Sydney Observatory.

In 1883, Hargrave took a gentleman’s retirement. As with other exceptional minds of his age, he decided to focus his full attention on the possibilities of human flight. Interestingly enough, manned flight drew as much interest from the average 19th century person as nanotechnology holds for the typical consumer today.

Unaffected by the world’s lack of imagination, Hargrave perfected his box kite. Like the gyroscope, his simple invention camouflaged revolutionary discoveries from the unobservant of his day. Lawrence Hargrave saw beyond his box kite to an era in which man would fly fast and far.

“In 1892 Hargrave discovered that a curved wing surface appeared to give a greater lift than a flat supporting surface,” reports one Digital Age biography. “Then he turned his attention to research into the behavior of various types of kites. During the course of his experiments he found out that a curved surface had twice the lift as a flat one, and next he discovered that a kite with two separated ‘cells,’ or double planes, had the greatest stability and oaring power.”

On Nov 12, 1894, Lawrence Hargrave “linked four of his kites together, added a sling seat, and flew 16 feet,” notes the biography. “The first successful aircraft incorporated three crucial aeronautical concepts developed by Hargrave: the cellular box-kite wing, the curved wing surface, and the thick leading wing edge (aerofoil).”

His contributions to early aeronautics didn’t stop there, either. In 1889 he fashioned a rotary airplane engine powered by compressed air. Hargrave also tried to solve the power-to-weight ratio problem.

The French, themselves early and enthusiastic aviation pioneers, embraced the Australian inventor’s ideas. Gabriel Voisin even called his commercial aircraft Hargraves. But in America the Wright Brothers, frustrated by patent problems, refused to acknowledge Hargrave’s aeronautical contributions to their handiwork.

As for himself, Lawrence Hargrave proceeded along a noble but less lucrative road. He refused to patent his inventions. In fact, he placed his working models in Munich, Germany’s technology museum only because it agreed to allow public access to his work.

Twelve years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight, Lawrence Hargrave died. Over time, the public memory of him was pushed aside. Only those who truly appreciate the cumulative nature of technology still cherish both his contributions and his philosophy.

The box kite fashioned by Hargrave ensured the technological evolution that has given us the 747 and the reusable U.S. space vehicle. Many of us say the world must not forget the shuttle’s contributions. At the same time, we must also give a nod to Lawrence Hargrave.


J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and a communications consultant. Reach him at .




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