Model ship by Lawrence Hargrave

Made by Hargrave, Lawrence in Australia, Oceania, 1883.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences holds the largest collection of material internationally of the aviation pioneer, Lawrence Hargrave. While no single individual can be attributed to the invention of the aeroplane, Hargrave belonged to an elite body of scientists and researchers (along with Octave Chanute, Otto Lilienthal and Percy Sinclair Pilcher) whose experiments and inventions paved the way for the first powered, controlled flight achieved by the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903.


Ship model constructed of 14 wooden segments each hinged to the next along the longitudinal axis to allow movement in a snake-like or fish-like manner. Each of the blocks is T shaped in cross section. A clockwork motor is located in the bow segment and transmits its motion via a steel wire bent as an elongated helix. This wire transmits its motion to the segments via paired vertical posts fixed into alternate segments. The stern is pointed.


250 mm
135 mm
750 mm


This model was made by Lawrence Hargrave in Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales, Australia in 1883. It is made from wood and metal.

In Hargrave's paper titled "The Trochoided Plane" which he presented to the Royal Society of New South Wales on August 6, 1884, Hargrave describes the construction and purpose of the model. He says:

"It was thought necessary to make something with a general likeness to a fish, and cut it up into a number of sections, and unite the sections again so that they were free to move from side to side on vertical hinges. Each section was provided underneath with a keel, and every alternate section had a vertical guide stuck in its centre; the section corresponding to the head of the fish was enlarged so that it was able to float a coiled spring driving a wheel and pinion; on the end of the pinion shaft was soldered a right helical wire; the diameter of the helix was made equal to the amplitude of the trochoidal waves it was intended the model should use, and the pitch was made equal to the wave length. The forward end of the helix was brought into the centre, as if it had been twisted round a spindle instead of a cylinder; this helical shaft was rove through the guides on the alternate sections of the model. This made the model swim in a strikingly natural manner; by drawing the model tail first through the water, the operation is reversed, and the trochoided planes wind up the spring. This model is remarkable for the diminutive nature of the motive power, the easy trochoiding of the planes, and the small percentage of slip."
Hargrave, Lawrence 1883
Hargrave, Lawrence


This particular model was made by Lawrence Hargrave to demonstrate his trochoidal motion theory. This theory evolved from Hargrave's study into the movement of animals like fish, snakes and jellyfish, as well as the movement of waves and helped to contribute to the development of his flapping wing models (see for example B109).

The second of four children of John Fletcher and Ann, Lawrence Hargrave was born at Greenwich, London on January 29, 1850. In 1856, Lawrence's father, eldest brother Ralph and uncle Edward emigrated to Australia in what appears to be a consensual marital separation between John and Ann. They were bound for Sydney to join a third brother of John and Edward, who was a member of the Legislative Assembly for New England (named Richard), while Ann, Lawrence and her two other children, Alice and Gilbert, stayed in Kent, England.

During his early years, Lawrence was educated at the Queen Elizabeth's School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Westmoreland, before he sailed to Australia in 1865 to join his father, brother and two uncles. John Fletcher, who was a distinguished judge in the New South Wales Supreme Court living at Rushcutters Bay House, anticipated a career for Lawrence in law. Despite organising tuition for him, Lawrence failed to matriculate, but was subsequently accepted to begin an apprenticeship with the Australasian Steam Navigation Company (ASN Co) in 1867. For five years he worked as an apprentice, gaining invaluable skills in woodworking, metalworking and design.

The circumnavigation voyage of Australia aboard the 'Ellesmere' (offered to Lawrence by another passenger en route to Australia from London) obviously stimulated an interest for Lawrence in exploration. From 1871, Lawrence joined the Committee of Management of J.D. Lang's New Guinea Prospecting Association and in 1872 was on board the brig 'Maria', bound for New Guinea in search of gold, when it sunk off Bramble reef, north Queensland, causing great loss of life. After returning to Sydney to work for the ASN Co, and later the engineers P.N. Russell & Co, Lawrence participated in several more exploratory voyages to the Torres Strait and New Guinea, accompanying figures like William Macleay, Octavius Stone and Luigi d'Albertis along the Fly River. These voyages continued until 1876, at which time Lawrence worked at the foundries of Chapman & Co, before choosing to settle down with new wife, Margaret Preston Johnson in September, 1878 with whom he had six children (Helen-Ann (Nellie), Hilda, Margaret, Brenda, Geoffrey and Brenda-Olive).

In January of the following year, Lawrence commenced work as an extra observer (astronomical) at Sydney Observatory under the Government astronomer H.C. Russell. In this role, Lawrence was able to make a number of important observations and inventions, including the transit of Mercury in 1881, the Krakatoa explosion in 1883 and the design and construction of adding machines. The income made from land bestowed to Lawrence by his father in Coalcliff, however, meant that in 1883 Lawrence was able to resign from his position at the Observatory to pursue his fascination and study into artificial flight. This interest came about from his observation of waves and animal motion, including fish, birds and snakes.

Lawrence's earliest experiments, spanning 1884-1892, involved propulsion with monoplane models built from light wood and paper. He first attempted to build a full-size machine capable of carrying a human in 1887 and in 1889 he built his most influential engine - a three cylinder radial rotary engine. Lawrence's later experimental phase, 1892-1909, involved the use of curved surfaces in his models. This research subsequently led to the development of the box kite, the most famous invention associated with his name.

Lawrence always conducted his experiments in his local area (i.e. Rushcutters Bay, Woollahra Point and Stanwell Park). He was against patenting his inventions for fear of stifling the development of aviation in the bigger picture and therefore published his results quickly and widely, particularly through the Royal Society of New South Wales. This Society helped Lawrence to gain an international reputation and brought him into contact with other aviation pioneers like Octave Chanute and Otto Lilienthal. The very first paper he gave was "The Trochoided Plane" (delivered August 6, 1884).

In Lawrence's later years he conducted research into early Australian history, postulating the theory that two Spanish ships found their way into Sydney Harbour in the late 16th century. Apart from this and of course his interests in aeronautics, Lawrence also concerned himself with the contemporary issues of patent laws, free competition, Darwinism, a bridge for Sydney Harbour, pensions, strikes and conscription.

Lawrence Hargrave died of peritonitis at Lister Hospital on July 6, 1915. Lawrence's death came only nine weeks after the death of his youngest son, Geoffrey, at Gallipoli.
Hargrave, Lawrence


Source unknown, 1993
23 March, 1993

Cite this Object

Model ship by Lawrence Hargrave 2017, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 25 November 2017, <>
{{cite web |url= |title=Model ship by Lawrence Hargrave |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=25 November 2017 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
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