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B1431 Solar heater model, wood / metal / felt, made by Lawrence Hargrave, Woollahra Point, New South Wales, Australia, 1907-1912. Click to enlarge.

Solar heater by Lawrence Hargrave

Australian aviation pioneer, Lawrence Hargrave, carried out many experiments, including some with model steam engines. It was perhaps in relation to these engines that he explored the idea of using solar energy to raise steam. Or perhaps he was imagining a future where solar energy would be used for a wide range of applications.

Hargrave was a scientist who was fascinated by flight. He conducted important research into animal movement and produced a number of flapping models which …


Object No.


Object Statement

Solar heater model, wood / metal / felt, made by Lawrence Hargrave, Woollahra Point, New South Wales, Australia, 1907-1912

Physical Description

Solar heater on varnished wooden base. The base comprises one horizontal board and an attached board that sits at a 50 degree angle. The base supports a brass rod sitting at a 45 degree angle. Mounted on the end of the rod is a metal cone painted silver on the inside and covered wth felt on the outside. Through the centre of the cone is a metal pipe which is open at the top and closed at the bottom.


On top surface of base in white paint '23386' (the object's registration number from the Deutsches Museum, Munich).



555 mm


495 mm



This solar heater was produced by Lawrence Hargrave at Woollahra Point, New South Wales, Australia around 1907-1912. It is based on the design of Charles Tellier's first non-reflecting solar motor of 1885 which Hargrave describes in the Sunday Times newspaper (dated December 1912) as follows:

"A large right-angled cone was constructed, the top of which was covered with a shiny material - presumably tin - to attract the rays. In the centre of the cone a long vessel was placed containing water. The apparatus was then inclined to such an angle that the sun's rays shone directly upon it. The heat pressing through the covering, was reflected onto the sides of the vessel inside, causing the water in it to boil, thereby producing steam."



The Museum's records state that this solar heater and base was donated by the Deutsches Museum in Munich in 1961. However, in a list prepared by Lawrence Hargrave in 1906 (which he presented to the Royal Society) detailing the models he intended to bestow "to any man or institution willing", Hargrave did not list the solar heater as being one of these. This means that either the solar heater had not yet been produced and was added to another updated list later (giving it a date of 1907-1910), or that it was not made and donated until after the 1910 handover of models (giving it a date of 1911-1912).

The terminus ante quem date of 1912 was arrived at from two references in Hargrave's note papers (1900-1915, vol 6, pt 3). The first, in Lawrence's handwriting, describes his solar heater with a small illustration (he does not, however, state that 1912 was the year in which it was made). The second is a newspaper article (see: production notes) from the "Sunday Times" which is dated December 8, 1912 and talks about the benefits of solar power.

It is unusual that Lawrence Hargrave would decide to experiment with a solar heater more than 25 years after Tellier first designed his non-reflecting solar motor in 1885. It would make more sense in the course of Hargrave's experimentations, that he would produce the heater within a few years of noting Tellier's invention and around the same time that he was working closely on his 'Trochoided Plane' theory and the development of engine power. However, as is the stereotype for inventors, Hargrave did not follow a linear line of inquiry in his quest to achieve man-powered flight.

Perhaps the solar heater was something Hargrave had always intended experimenting with, but did not get a chance to until his later years? Alternatively, it is possible that the "Sunday Times" approached Hargrave for an article, and after bringing to discussion Tellier's solar powered heater, he decided to toy with the idea himself. This is quite plausible, since nowhere in the article does Hargrave mention his own solar heater model.

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.


Credit Line

Gift of the Deutsches Museum, 1961

Acquisition Date

22 January 1961

Cite this Object


Solar heater by Lawrence Hargrave 2022, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 4 October 2022, <>


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