All our inventive and improvising genius

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Cla Allen waited anxiously for news from home. The world was at war, but he and his colleague Arthur Higgs were far removed in South Africa, preparing to observe the 1940 solar eclipse. ‘I am afraid I still feel I am wasting time here and would very much prefer to be doing something towards “the nation’s war effort”’, a worried Higgs wrote to Richard Woolley, director of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), ‘when I come back I shall be champing at the bit to jump into something useful’. 1 Allen was more cautious. He was keen to be involved in war-related work, but was worried about the effect on his young family. Would he have to move? Would they be able to stay with him? What would become of the observatory itself? Woolley had originally intended to join Higgs and Allen in South Africa, and his non-arrival had set them wondering whether he had decided to join up. 2

Finally, a letter from Woolley arrived explaining that ‘the utilization of scientific workers’ was ‘at last being organised’. The CSO was to go ‘into questions of the design of optical instruments for war purposes’, and the two astronomers were reassured that there would be ‘something definite’ for them to do upon their return. 3 Higgs was pleased to learn that ‘useful’ work would be waiting, while Allen was relieved that he would be able to remain at Stromlo with his family ‘without feeling that I am shirking my duty’. 4 ‘I have been having visions of either joining up or perhaps being sent somewhere else’, he confessed to Woolley. 5 In his diary he recorded a dream in which he was ‘making love to Hitler’s girlfriend—a dangerous game’. 6

Richard van der Reit Woolley had been appointed director of the CSO less than a year earlier. At the age of just 33, he had arrived in Australia direct from Cambridge, determined to breathe new life into the observatory which had languished without a permanent head since Duffield’s death in 1929. 7 Cla Allen enthusiastically noted in his diary that Woolley intended ‘to make the CSO an observatory of which the Empire can be proud’. 8 The fall of France, however, had ended hopes that the observatory’s redevelopment might proceed unhindered. Woolley, the son of a naval officer, quickly made it known that he was ‘extremely anxious to do something to help the war effort’. 9 But what?

A number of organisations were urging the government to mobilise the nation’s scientific resources against the rising menace, but few offered concrete proposals. 10 ‘There has been the inevitably large amount of drawing up lists of so-called scientific workers and laboratories’, David Rivett wrote to a friend in England, ‘it all seems to end in polite thanks and the pigeon-hole’. 11 Under Rivett’s direction, CSIR was undergoing a major reorientation to meet the needs of the looming crisis. But university researchers wanted their own slice of the action. ‘Many of the older men grumble’, Rivett noted, ‘because, perforce, they are not handed out nice little problems in their own particular lines, and prophesy that the Government’s neglect of science will mean the destruction of the Empire’. 12 Keen to give substance to their own familiar rhetoric, scientists stood ready to turn their intellectual powers upon the nation’s salvation, if only they could work out how.

Hugh McKay was also pondering the connection between science and war. In November 1939, he published an article examining the military importance of optical equipment, such as binoculars, periscopes and rangefinders. The glass lens, he argued, was ‘the giant’s eye of modern mechanised warfare, without which armies would be practically blind’. Remarking that Australia was ‘entirely dependent on overseas countries for these vital supplies’, he asked whether the nation should produce ‘its own optical glass’. 13 Several months later munitions planners were forced to consider that very question as Australia pushed ahead with the local production of artillery. Just as guns were starting to roll off the production line it was realised that the gunsights promised from Great Britain were not coming. What was to be done? As McKay had noted, there was no precision optical industry in Australia able to fill the gap. Where could expert advice be found? ‘You want physicists?’, the Director of Ordnance Production, Laurence Hartnett was told, ‘we’ve got half a dozen of them roaring around, dying to do something to help, but no one’s been able to use them’. 14 The nation’s need met the scientists’ desire as the Optical Munitions Panel (OMP) was formed to supervise the development of optical instruments for Australia’s armed forces. 15

Richard Woolley was one of the first to be appointed to the OMP, and by the time of their initial meeting was ‘working fifteen and seventeen hours a day—Sundays included’ on the problem. ‘Enthusiasm like this’, Hartnett remarked, ‘I think is worth an awful lot to Australia’. 16 The minutes of the meeting record that Woolley ‘agreed to set up his place and direct it solely to optical work’. 17 The CSO had found itself an important wartime role, bringing dramatic changes to the small community atop Mount Stromlo. At first the observatory concentrated on optical design, adapting British plans to meet local needs and materials. But from the beginning, Woolley believed it was important to gather the experience and facilities necessary to ‘actually make lenses’. 18 With a functioning optical workshop, the observatory would be able to test its designs, study manufacturing techniques, and train new workers for industry. New staff were needed, along with new skills and new equipment.

‘On Stromlo there have been many changes in personelle [sic] and especially in work and outlook’, a bewildered Cla Allen noted in his diary upon his return in November 1940. 19 ‘I have yet to fit myself into the scheme’, he added after discussions with Woolley, ‘and it is not quite obvious how to do it’. 20 In the difficult years since Duffield’s death, Allen’s research into the solar spectrum had brought the observatory international praise. 21 But what did that count for now?

While Allen was trying to find his way, recent additions to the observatory’s staff were leading the process of reorganisation. Woolley had been lucky to gain the services of Francis Lord, a Czech refugee who had studied optics in Paris. Lord was one of the few people in Australia to have experience in the manufacture of precision optics, and he advised Woolley on what was ‘required from the actual workshop point of view’. 22 Lord was assisted by SJ Elwin, a lecturer in manual arts and amateur astronomer, whom Woolley had discovered at the Sydney Teachers’ College. Elwin had ‘himself computed and made a 6” objective’, demonstrating the self-taught skills which made him a valuable addition to the optical team. 23 ‘Hundreds of experiments were tried’ in the early stages as workshop staff sought to develop ‘techniques which could be understood quickly and applied by novices’. 24 Methods and machines were improvised through determined, hands-on effort. Within a year, the CSO was producing lenses, prisms and trained optical workers.

For Cla Allen it was a time of disappointment and frustration as he grappled with the practical demands of optical manufacture. ‘The only variety at work is made by the mistakes I make and their consequent difficulty’, he noted in January 1941, ‘except for that I just go on making lenses’. 25 Each day brought ‘the usual ups and downs with scratches and other troubles’. 26 ‘I sometimes feel depressed with the results which I haven’t time to perfect’, he admitted a few months later. 27 Eventually Allen gained some relief from the daily grind, when he was asked to monitor sunspot activity as part of an effort to improve radio communications. 28 But the optical work continued to grow, as the observatory stretched its staff and skills until it was able to handle all aspects of the manufacturing process, from design to testing. New tasks brought new problems, new failures, and Allen began to question Woolley’s judgement on the CSO’s capacity. His tendency to ‘underestimate…the work involved in everything’ was, Allen remarked in his diary, ‘something of an embarrassment’. 29

Where Allen was cautious and self-critical, Woolley was expansive and optimistic. The war provided an opportunity to forge alliances, to bring science to the attention of government and military. In March 1942, Woolley took up the post of Chief Executive Officer with the Army Inventions Directorate (AID). While continuing to supervise the CSO, he was now changed with the daunting task of tapping ‘Australia’s undoubted reserves of inventive genius’. 30 It was hardly a glamorous job. Previous attempts to deal with the public’s enthusiastic outpouring of war-winning ideas had either drowned beneath the flood of innovation, or withered from lack of resources and commitment. A conference held to consider problems with the AID’s predecessor, the Central Inventions Board, stalled when it was realised that ‘none of its members felt there was any real need for the existence of the board’. 31 The only justification in the minds of many was political convenience—the government and the military needed a way to fob off determined crackpots.

Laurence Hartnett, however, firmly believed in the promise of backyard genius. The man who would become known for his quixotic pursuit of a truly Australian car, provided hopeful inventors with an unofficial ‘home from home’ in his Ordnance Production Directorate. 32 With political pressure mounting over the treatment of inventions such as the Owen gun, Hartnett proposed a new organisation with its own staff and resources, one that would not only assess public submissions, but would actively encourage inventors to respond to the needs of the military. The threat of Japanese invasion brought added urgency, and in January 1942 the Minister for the Army, Frank Forde, convened another conference, declaring, ‘very definitely, an Inventions Board is wanted’. Such an organisation should ‘not only “tap” the worth-while element in the stream of inventions’, Forde proclaimed, it should ‘positively and actively encourage and energise Australian inventive genius’. Hartnett’s vision won the day and he was appointed to chair the new Army Inventions Directorate. 33

It was comforting, in a time of peril, to believe that the adaptability bred of Australian bush life could be harnessed to the cause of national security. With the onset of the Pacific War, Forde noted, Australia would become increasingly isolated from the world, beset by shortages ‘needing all our inventive and improvising genius to overcome’. 34 Australians had conquered isolation before, they had learned to make-do in the face of hardships and shortages, surely the legendary spirit of invention would not fail them now. Hartnett, the shrewd car salesman, recognised that the AID had an important role in maintaining public morale. It provided an outlet for ‘the public’s pent-up desire to do something to help’, a means of preventing their frustrations spiralling downwards to despair. 35 Ordinary men and women, worried and fearful, could contribute their ideas to the AID and feel they were making a direct, practical contribution to the war effort.

The AID received 21,645 submissions ranging from perpetual motion machines and bullet-proof paint, through to ideas for ridding kitchens of cockroaches, and a recipe for ‘fish liver vitamin bread’. The register of submissions itself reflects the progress of the war, with a surge in anti-submarine devices following the midget sub attacks on Sydney, and counters to flying bombs and suicide planes proliferating as the conflict neared its end. 36 Only 127 inventions were finally accepted for development. An improved signalling mirror and a bullet-proof radiator, were not perhaps war-winning weapons, but the savings in money and lives afforded by such innovations were, in DP Mellor’s view, ‘sufficient to justify the directorate’s existence’. 37

The AID’s ‘creed’ was, according to Hartnett, based on a number of fundamental principles. It recognised that ‘science, new ideas, devices and inventions play an extremely important part’ in modern warfare’. It accepted that the fighting forces themselves understood best the needs and practicalities of such innovations, but devoutly maintained that ‘there is no monopoly of new ideas, novel equipment, new devices or improvements to existing equipment, as such thoughts can emanate from virtually any person’. Hartnett was determined that all submissions would be received in a positive and encouraging manner. ‘Many instances are on record’, he argued, ‘where a person has submitted several quite irrational and unsound submissions, yet by careful handling has brought forward an extremely effective new device or invention’. 38 This was not always easy. As the unpublished history of the AID wryly records, ‘to preserve friendly relations with inventors, too keen an appreciation of the humorous aspect of any invention was unwise’. 39

But Hartnett’s creed was itself constrained by practicality. A newspaper article on the AID urged all potential inventors not to hesitate ‘for fear of being called a crack-pot’. After all ‘many a scientific and technical development was “crack-pot” when it first appeared’. However, it added, ‘it is advisable to stick to your own field of knowledge as far as possible’. 40 The AID soon focused its advertising on technical and trade journals, assuming that useful inventions were most likely to come from people with at least some specialist knowledge. Posters were distributed to universities and technical colleges, and AID staff delivered ‘workshop lectures’ in munitions factories. 41 What made an inventor? Hartnett remained attached to the idea of innate genius, to nationalistic visions of Australian ingenuity, but in practice the AID sought an appropriate mix of creativity and technical expertise.

At the end of the war, the directors of the AID met to consider the organisation’s future. Hartnett had no doubt such a body could play a vital role in peacetime development. ‘Australia is a young nation’, he reminded the meeting, ‘abounding in national problems and challenges’ that could be readily ‘answered by inventions’. Moreover, the constant circulation of ideas would bestow a psychological advantage upon the nation, stimulating the people’s ‘exercise of ingenuity’ and furthering the ‘technological advancement of the country’. 42 A peacetime inventions organisation would give people confidence to face the problems of the future, to grasp the possibilities of progress.

Woolley, however, drew a different conclusion, ‘I think our experience in this war has shown that not enough first class work is done here’. Australia’s over-reliance on outside sources of expertise had been the cause of many of its wartime difficulties. What the nation needed was not the broad scale cultivation of popular ingenuity, but deliberate investment in its scientific resources. ‘I do not think a country, however small, can afford to be without its scientific workers’, he added, ‘we should do everything we can in this country to encourage first class work and fundamental work of any nature’. 43 Kerr Grant, professor of physics at the University of Adelaide, strongly agreed. ‘Scientific knowledge is absolutely basic in war and in peace’, he insisted, ‘and unless it is developed there is always the risk that a nation will commence to fight the next war with the weapons of the last’. 44 With news of the atomic bomb barely a month old, this was indeed a terrifying prospect. ‘What use were bows and arrows and spears in the face of firearms?’, Kerr Grant asked, ‘to-day what use are tanks, guns and battleships?’ 45

The bomb was revealed to the world as the product of pure science, as the endpoint of decades of disinterested research through Einstein, Rutherford and beyond. It was proof of what scientists like Woolley and Grant had been claiming for decades—fundamental research would inevitably yield discoveries of immense practical significance. Inventors brought forth small improvements in equipment and technique, but how could these be measured against the revolutionary significance of the bomb? How could a backyard genius compete against the intellectual and financial might of the Manhattan Project? As DP Mellor attempted to survey the achievements of the AID, he found it increasingly difficult to maintain the distinction between invention and scientific discovery. Most patents, he observed, now emanated ‘from well-equipped private or government laboratories or from the drawing boards of large-scale engineering or manufacturing organisations’. The individual inventor seemed to be ‘a dying species’. 46

The AID’s unique attempt to harness the creative powers of a nation was not quite a failure, not quite a success. It probably paid for itself, but to many observers its achievements seemed largely political. Woolley himself was grateful for an education in the ‘rules of Public Service in-fighting’, but showed little interest in continuing the experiment. 47 Instead he sought to use his experience to establish an ongoing consultative structure, linking scientists to the services in peace as well as war. ‘I feel I should be wrong to retire’, he remarked, ‘without making some effort to put into effect what we lacked at the beginning’. 48

But while the AID laboured over its few modest gains, the optical munitions effort brought dramatic success, acclaimed as ‘one of Australia’s most spectacular wartime scientific developments’. 49 The determined efforts of Australia’s scientists had triumphed over the doomsaying of British experts to supply the nation with urgently needed optical instruments—a stirring saga, an instructive lesson. As Woolley began to plan the CSO’s postwar program, he pointed to the ‘vital contribution which pure scientists have been able to give to the nation’, arguing that this clearly demonstrated ‘the utility…of having first-class scientists’. ‘The versatility of the pure scientist is of exceptional national value’, he emphasised, illustrated in the creation of an optical munitions industry ‘entirely by pure scientists who had no previous manufacturing experience’. 50 What could the nation not achieve with brainpower such as this at the ready? As Australian politicians pondered the difficulties of initiating research into atomic energy, reassuring evidence of the nation’s capacity ‘to undertake work of this kind’ was found in the ‘outstanding success which was made of problems of optical munitions by staff of the Commonwealth Observatory at Mount Stromlo’. 51 Not quite the Manhattan Project perhaps, but an example, nonetheless, of the latent power of science.

As Cla Allen and Arthur Higgs waited in South Africa to complete their solar observations, they wondered what sort of ‘useful’ role they might play in a country consumed by war. Their desire to do ‘something’ was shared by many, including the thousands who submitted their ideas and inventions to the AID. They too hoped their knowledge might make a practical contribution to the war effort. But what did it mean to be practical? The pure scientists who initiated the optical munitions work, pointed to their broad theoretical training as the source of their versatility. A theoretical education was proved to be of immense practical value. Meanwhile, inventors, drawing on their own experience and responding directly to practical needs, flooded the AID with thousands of useless and irrelevant ideas.

But how confident was Cla Allen of his ‘versatility’ as he struggled to produce a lens without scratches or pits? How could the scientists’ attempts at optical manufacture have succeeded without the industrial experience of Francis Lord? The importance of hands-on experience, the constant trial and error, these were rendered invisible as the supposed ‘versatility’ of the pure scientist was paraded for public admiration. What did it mean to be practical? The Canberra Times could list a mine detector developed through the AID alongside penicillin as evidence of the growing significance of science in war, but the sometime prospector who invented the detector was unlikely to be sharing a podium with Howard Florey. 52


  1. Letter from AJ Higgs to RvdR Woolley, 28 July 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.
  2. Letter from CW Allen to RvdR Woolley, 26 July 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.
  3. Letter from RvdR Woolley to AJHiggs, 17 July 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.
  4. Letter from AJ Higgs to RvdR Woolley, 21 August 1940; letter from CW Allen to RvdR Woolley, 29 August 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.
  5. Letter from CW Allen to RvdR Woolley, 29 August 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.
  6. CW Allen, diary entry, 19 July 1940, vol. 17, CW Allen papers, NLA: MS7360.
  7. For biographical details see William McCrea, ‘Richard van der Reit Woolley’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 1988, pp. 315-45. For the history of the observatory during the Woolley era see: SCB Gascoigne, ‘Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo: the Woolley era’, Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia, vol. 5, no. 4, 1984, pp. 597-605; SCB Gascoigne, ‘Bok, Woolley and Australian astronomy’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 1992, pp. 119-26; Richard Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 1, no. 3, September 1968, pp. 53-7.
  8. Diary entry, 5 December 1939, vol. 16, CW Allen papers, NLA: MS7360.
  9. Letter from JA Carrodus (Secretary, Interior) to OU Vonwiller, 1 July 1940, NAA: A427/1, G1941/7.
  10. RW Home, ‘Science on service, 1939-1945’, in RW Home (ed.), Australian science in the making, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 220-51.
  11. Quoted in ibid., p. 235.
  12. ibid.
  13. Hugh Cleland McKay, ‘Magic eyes of war and peace’, Smith’s Weekly, 18 November 1939, p. 13.
  14. Laurence Hartnett, Big wheels and little wheels, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1964, pp. 121-2.
  15. For details of the work of the OMP see: JS Rogers, ‘The history of the Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel’, unpublished typescript, NAA: MP730/11, item 12; HC Bolton, ‘JJ McNeill and the development of optical research in Australia’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 5, no. 4, 1983, pp. 55-70; HC Bolton, ‘Optical instruments in Australia in the 1939-1945 war: successes and lost opportunities’, Australian Physicist, vol. 27, no. 3, March 1990, pp. 31-43; DP Mellor, The role of science and industry, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Series 4 (civil), vol. 5, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958, ch. 12.
  16. Letter from LJ Hartnett to Essington-Lewis, 17 July 1940, NAA: MP730/11, item 16.
  17. Minutes of the Optical Munitions Panel, 23 July 1940, NAA: MP1472/4, box 1/1.
  18. Letter from RvdR Woolley to FS Daley (Controller, Ordnance Production Directorate), 8 August 1940, NAA: MP392/9, Box 3 – Optical Panel.
  19. CW Allen, diary entry, 16 November 1940, CW Allen Papers, NLA: MS7360.
  20. CW Allen, diary entry,18 November 1940, CW Allen Papers, NLA: MS7360.
  21. Raymond Haynes, Roslynn Haynes, David Malin, and Richard McGee, Explorers of the southern sky: a history of Australian astronomy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 158-9.
  22. Letter from RvdR Woolley to FS Daley (Controller, OPD), 8 August 1940, NAA:MP392/9, Box 3,Optical Panel.
  23. ‘Report by Dr RvdR Woolley on Optical Designs’, NAA: MP1472/4, Box 1/1 (Meetings 1-8).
  24. ‘Report on optical munitions from the Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, 13 February 1942, NAA: MP1472/4, Box 1/2 (Meetings 9-13).
  25. CW Allen, diary entry, 30 January 1941, CW Allen Papers, NLA: MS7360.
  26. CW Allen, diary entry, 26 March 1941, CW Allen Papers, NLA: MS7360.
  27. CW Allen, diary entry, 10 March 1941, CW Allen Papers, NLA: MS7360.
  28. Mellor, The role of science and industry, pp. 507-8.
  29. CW Allen, diary entry, 5 February 1943, CW Allen Papers, NLA: MS7360.
  30. Canberra Times, 3 August 1942, p. 2.
  31. Mellor, The role of science and industry, p. 642
  32. AS Fitzpatrick, ‘Inventions in war – Record of the origin, growth and achievement of the Army Inventions Directorate in the war period. March 1942-September 1945’, unpublished manuscript, AWM: 54, 435/1/6, p. 15.
  33. ibid., pp. 15-23. See also: Hartnett, Big wheels and little wheels, pp. 139-46; Mellor, The role of science and industry, ch. 27.
  34. Quoted in AS Fitzpatrick, ‘Inventions in war – Record of the origin, growth and achievement of the Army Inventions Directorate in the war period. March 1942-September 1945’, unpublished manuscript, AWM: 54, 435/1/6, p. 19
  35. Hartnett, Big wheels and little wheels, p. 140.
  36. For a complete register of inventions submitted see NAA: MP1164/12, vols 1-3. See also Mellor, The role of science and industry, p. 647
  37. Mellor, The role of science and industry, p. 653.
  38. ‘Inventions Directorate or Army’, notes by LJ Hartnett, 25 May 1942, AWM: 54, 435/3/3.
  39. AS Fitzpatrick, ‘Inventions in war – Record of the origin, growth and achievement of the Army Inventions Directorate in the war period. March 1942-September 1945’, unpublished manuscript, AWM: 54, 435/1/6., p. 80.
  40. Canberra Times, 3 August 1942, p. 2.
  41. AS Fitzpatrick, ‘Inventions in war – Record of the origin, growth and achievement of the Army Inventions Directorate in the war period. March 1942-September 1945’, unpublished manuscript, AWM: 54, 435/1/6, pp. 43-6.
  42. Minutes of the AID meeting, 18 September 1945, p. 3, NAA: MP927, A177/1/106 part 3.
  43. Verbatim minutes of the AID meeting, 18 September 1945, pp. 18-19, NAA: MP927, A177/1/106 part 2.
  44. Minutes of the AID meeting, 18 September 1945, p. 4, NAA: MP927, A177/1/106 part 3.
  45. Verbatim minutes of the AID meeting, 18 September 1945, p. 19, NAA: MP927, A177/1/106 part 2.
  46. Mellor, The role of science and industry, p. 640.
  47. Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, p. 54.
  48. Verbatim minutes of the AID meeting, 15 November 1944, NAA: MP927, A177/1/106 part 2.
  49. Canberra Times, 29 January 1945, p. 2.
  50. RvdR Woolley, ‘Post-war reconstruction of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, memorandum for Secretary, Department of the Interior, 13 May 1943, p. 1, NAA: A431, 47/2068.
  51. Canberra Times, 11 October 1945, p. 2.
  52. Canberra Times, 16 April 1943, p. 2.

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