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Famous Namesake
Next week it will be the 143rd birthday of David Unaipon, who was born September 28 1872 – Unaipon is an Anglicised form of the name Ngunaitponi. David was a writer, mythologist, inventor, motivational speaker, lecturer, religious leader, and political activist; in his lifetime he was hailed as a genius. Yet he was given no schooling after the age of 13, and was often denied service because of the colour of his skin.

Born on a South Australian mission, his high intelligence was obvious even as a child. Frustrated by the scarcity of career paths open to him, and almost complete lack of educational ones, after work he would devour books on literature, science and philosophy until the early hours of the morning. He became obsessed with the idea of inventing a perpetual motion machine (a hot topic of the day), and this led to his first patented invention: an innovative design for shearing machines which is the basis for modern mechanical shears.

In all, David took out 19 provisional patents on his inventions, but could not afford to fully patent them: he made no money from his inventions, and received no credit apart from one newspaper article. His other inventions include a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel, and a mechanical propulsion device. One of his ideas was a basic design for a helicopter in 1914, based on the spinning motion of a boomerang; this earned him the title of “Australia’s Leonardo”. A recognised authority on ballistics, he also had a great interest in lasers which he foresaw might one day have military applications – this was some years before Einstein’s pioneering work on lasers.

David worked as a lay preacher and missionary, but was also keen to educate white people on Indigenous mythology and culture. David compiled his versions of Aboriginal legends, influenced by his study of classical and Egyptian mythology, and written in a style reminiscent of John Milton. They were published in a series of booklets and articles, and eventually commissioned as Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals in 1930: David was paid $150 for his work, but received no credit. He was the first Indigenous Australian writer to be published.

Urbane and cultured, dignified in bearing, formal of manner, and fastidious in speech, David defied the stereotypes then held about Aboriginal Australians, and confounded expectations. Even when sympathetic, the newspapers spoke of him in ways which now make us squirm.

He was not just a genius: he was a “black genius” or “Australia’s cleverest darkie”. One journalist calls him “a remarkably intelligent specimen of primitive man”, and writes that people can barely believe he is a “full blooded Aborigine”. “An outstanding representative of the primitive race”, and “remarkably able … even amongst superior whites”, it was made clear that he was an exception to every rule, and one fine shining hour for a people who were inevitably dying out.

David lived to the age of 94, packing many lifetimes into his generous span of years; he continued working on his inventions into old age, and right to the end remained determined to discover the secret of perpetual motion.

He had lobbied the government on Aboriginal rights, been the first Aboriginal person to attend a royal levee, and received a Coronation Medal. The David Unaipon Literary Award is given to an unpublished Indigenous author each year, and the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education And Research at the University of South Australia is named after him. You may also have David in your wallet – he is on the $50 note.

An extraordinary Australian with an original mind, he was neither mute nor inglorious, yet his story is one of undeveloped potential. Howard Florey was sent to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and he changed the world: what might David Unaipon have done if given similar opportunities and advantages?

Name Information
David is derived from the Hebrew name Dawid, from the Semitic root dwd, meaning “to love”. It is usually translated as “beloved” or “my darling”. There were a number of Semitic deities with names from the same source, and it is possible the name David was originally given in honour of these gods, or came to be understood as “beloved of God”.

The name has come into common use because of the character from the Bible. In the Old Testament, David was an armour-bearer to Saul, the first king of Israel. David was a talented musician, and whenever Saul was feeling particularly wretched, David would play the lyre to him until he felt better. David was a great warrior, and Saul made him commander over his armies: eventually he became so popular that after Saul’s death David was anointed king.

A popular story from the Bible is about David’s youth. Saul’s armies were facing those of the Philistines, and their opponents sent their largest warrior to fight someone in single combat – a huge giant named Goliath (around six foot nine, or just over 2 metres tall). Everyone was afraid to take on the big boy, until David stepped forward and accepted the challenge. He brought Goliath down with a slingshot, then cut off his head using the giant’s own sword. In modern parlance, a David and Goliath battle is one where the underdog wins, and we all love a story where the “little guy” is victorious over someone more powerful.

King David is a central figure in Judaism, a symbol of Jewish kingship. According to the Hebrew canon, a descendant of King David will one day sit on the throne of Israel, heralding an era of global peace. Christianity views David as a divinely appointed king, and the ancestor of Jesus Christ. In Islam, David (Dāwūd) is revered as one of the great prophets.

David has been a popular figure in art and literature, most notably Michelangelo’s statue of him as a young man, the epitome of masculine strength and beauty. In the Bible, David is described as a handsome youth with beautiful eyes, and ruddy in colour. This has often been taken to mean David was red-haired (Jewish tradition makes David a redhead), but the word used refers to the same coppery-brown skin tone assigned to Adam. There is another connection between these two characters: Adam is the first name in the Bible, while David is the last.

David has been used as an English name since the Middle Ages; in medieval Europe, David was seen as the ideal chivalrous hero, and a model for kingship. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales, and his icons include the leek, a Welsh national symbol. A Welsh short form of his name, Taffy, was used to refer to a Welshman (often insultingly) for many years, just as a Paddy meant an Irishman. King Edward VIII went by David, which was his final middle name, given in honour of the national saint.

The name David also has a strong history in Scotland, as David I was a powerful medieval Scottish king who supported his niece, the Empress Matilda, in her claim to the English throne. A defender of the Scottish church’s independence from the English church, contemporary historians describe him as pious and just. He is regarded as a saint in Roman Catholicism.

David is a solid classic which has never left the Top 100. It was #28 in the 1900s, and peaked at #1 through most of the 1960s, making it the most popular boy’s name for that decade. Currently it is #91 nationally, #92 in New South Wales, #76 in Queensland (where it was one of the fastest rising names of last year), #98 in Tasmania, and #83 in the Australian Capital Territory.

Thanks to the fame of King David, David is a popular name around the world, including in eastern and western Europe, Scandinavia, and Latin America. It is most popular in Croatia, at #4. It is popular in all English-speaking countries, and most popular in the United States, at #18. It is still a popular name in Israel, and seems a patriotic choice as the national flag has a Star of David on it.

David is an attractive classic name with a beautiful meaning. An ancient name with a heroic royal namesake, it has never gone out of style and remains popular. Widely recognised around the world, it travels well and can work cross-culturally. A beloved name for thousands of years, it would not be surprising if this name was perfect for your darling son.

David received a creditable approval rating of 70%. People saw the name David as a timeless classic which would never go out of style (27%), clean and wholesome (19%), and handsome or attractive (16%). However, 21% thought it was too common and boring. Only person thought David seemed too mature to give to a little boy, and just one thought it was too biblical.

(The photo of David Unaipon is the same one used for the bank note).