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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 13

I Colonial Origins

II First World War

III Between The World Wars

IV The Second World War
i Optical Munitions
ii Aircraft
iii Armour
iv Radar
v Tropic Proofing

V Post-second World War

VI After The Joint Project

VII Science And Decisions At The Top

VIII Armed Services Technology

IX New Tasks And Projects

X Transfer Of Research And Development

XI Acknowledgement



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Optical Munitions

Although the mass production of guns was achieved by expanding resources in an existing technology, no technology existed in the country for manufacture of the optical sights for them. Effective gunnery in 1939 still needed gunnery officers using binoculars, submarines needed periscopes, and aircraft needed cameras and bomb-sights. When deliveries from Britain ceased in 1940, a local source seemed essential. Even raw optical glass was not produced in Australia.{19}

On 28 August 1939, Professor T. H. Laby had written on behalf of the Institute of Physics to the Prime Minister suggesting that a consultative physics committee be set up to examine the contribution which physics might make to the war needs.[20]

While Menzies expressed appreciation for the offer, the official response expressed at a meeting in September was that 'foreseen requirements were at present well provided for', but gratitude that discussion had shown 'lines on which immediate action could be taken as occasion demanded.'

The occasion did demand. After the fall of Dunkirk, Australia was informed that she could no longer rely on instruments being delivered from Britain.[21] In June 1940, within weeks of Dunkirk, L. J. Hartnett (later Sir Laurence), Director of Ordnance Production in the Ministry of Munitions, called together Laby, E. L. Sayce and H. J. Frost of Munitions Supply Laboratories and others. The meeting was called to discuss the production in Australia of lenses for sighting telescopes and other military instruments.

As a result of that meeting, the Optical Munitions Panel was established with Laby as Chairman; members included N. A. Esserman, Professor Kerr Grant, Hartnett, Professor E. O. Hercus, Sayce, Professor O. U. Vonwiller, Dr R.v.d.R. Woolley, and J. S. Rogers as secretary; Laby resigned in March 1944. The Army was represented from the beginning, and the RAAF and the RAN joined later. (For one meeting only, the name was changed to the Advisory Committee on Scientific and Optical Instruments.)

The panel had a formidable task. The 2 pounder, and 25 pounder guns being made in Australia would be sightless. In addition, at the Panel's second meeting the Army presented a list of urgently needed items which included sighting telescopes, height and rangefinders, dial sights, binoculars, stereoscopes, and several other kinds of optical device. In all it asked for 15999 (sic) optical instruments of several kinds to be produced. An urgent requirement in a country with no manufacturing base and no production of raw materials![22]

The problems were exacerbated by the dearth of skills. Only Esserman (then at MSL, later to go National Standards Laboratories) had had experience in technical optics. J. J. McNeill had been sent to the UK for training, recalled en route, and sent again but was not to return until early in 1942. The information he sent back, and the recruits he acquired were, however, to be of the greatest significance because grinding and polishing machinery would have to be improvised and later designed and constructed.

Production of the Sighting Telescope 24B depended on a re-design using the glasses collected from the spectacle industry. This was undertaken by Woolley, who was selected less as an astronomer than as a mathematician.

In an attempt to provide a quick solution to the raw materials problem, Melbourne University began a programme to make optical glass by fusing plate glass. The programme was successful, and the simplicity of the description belies the complexity of the task.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Institute of Physics; Munitions Supply Laboratories (M.S.L.); Optical Munitions Panel

People in Bright Sparcs - Esserman, N. A.; Frost, H. J.; Hartnett, Sir Lawrence J.; Hercus, Prof. E. O.; Laby, Prof. T. H.; McNeil, J. J.; Sayce, E. L.; Vonwiller, Prof. O. U.; Woolley, Dr R.v.d. R.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 930 - 931, Online Edition 2000
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