A wartime observatory observed

Ben Gascoigne, a young New Zealand physicist, stepped off the train at Canberra station. It was August 1941. A tall, good-looking man strode across the platform to greet him.

‘Woolley’ he said, offering his hand, ‘Do you play bridge?’.

That evening Ben Gascoigne found himself seated at a bridge table in Woolley’s residence at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), atop Mount Stromlo, some fifteen kilometres south-west of the nation’s bush capital.1 Richard van der Reit Woolley had been appointed Director of the CSO less than two years before, in December 1939.2 At the age of 33, Woolley had arrived in Australia, direct from the ancient halls of Cambridge, determined to breathe new life into the observatory, which had languished for ten years without a permanent head. Cla Allen, one of observatory’s astronomers, wrote excitedly that Woolley was determined ‘to make the CSO an observatory of which the Empire can be proud’3. War, however, had put these plans on hold.

Matched against Woolley and his wife Gwyneth, Ben was partnered with another recent arrival, Francis Lord, a Czech refugee. Lord happened to be an expert bridge-player, but what had brought him to Mount Stromlo were his skills as an optical technician. Woolley was gathering together a diverse community of workers to enable the observatory to play a major role in the nation’s war effort. Instead of looking through telescopes, the Mount Stromlo staff were beginning to make them – sighting telescopes for artillery. Never before had instruments of such quality been manufactured in Australia.4 ‘Winning weapons’ grab the headlines for science in war, but victory in the laboratories and workshops, like victory on the battlefields, comes inch by inch.

Australia’s scientists were not rudely torn from their esoteric studies to face the earthly needs of war. They were keen to play their part, but what part was that? In August 1939, just before the declaration of war with Germany, physicists began to consider how they might best contribute in the looming crisis. They had only recently organised themselves into a formally-constituted, national body, the Australian Branch of the British Institute of Physics5, with T.H. Laby, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Melbourne the obvious choice for inaugural president. Laby was notoriously temperamental, in Woolley’s words ‘not the soul of tact’, but he ‘burned with a great zeal to help Australia’ and had a breadth of vision that made him an invaluable contributor at times such as this.6 Together with A.D. Ross, of the University of Western Australia, he drafted a letter to the Prime Minister, R.G. Menzies, suggesting the establishment of a consultative committee to advise the government on the best use of the country’s physics resources in the coming war. Menzies replied seeking more specific proposals, but none came. A meeting between the physicists and relevant government departments on 16 September went nowhere. The official summation was of the ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’ variety, stating that ‘foreseen requirements were at present well provided for’. However, if ‘new developments’ arose, the meeting had helped to identify ‘lines on which immediate action could be taken’.7 Laby bided his time grumpily. One of his students remembers a whole lecture given over to a tirade about the government’s lack of foresight;8 but eventually the call-up came.

Laurence Hartnett, the dynamic managing director of General Motors-Holden, had been appointed the Director of Ordnance Production within the Department of Munitions, and was pushing ahead with the local production of artillery. But just as the 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? There was no precision optical industry in Australia to fill the gap. Hartnett discussed his need for expert advice with the Assistant Director-General of Munitions, Keith Brodbribb, who, according to Hartnett, replied: ‘You want physicists? 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.’9 With apparent relief to all concerned, the rampaging Laby was invited to a meeting with Hartnett and others on 26 June 1940. As a result, the Optical Munitions Panel (OMP – later the Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel) was established with Laby as Chairman. The Panel was to draw up specifications for the required optical munitions, and to advise the Ordnance Production Directorate (OPD) on their production using available resources. Hartnett called on Laby to ‘co-opt the very best men and brains that are to be found within the country’.10 Perhaps forewarned of Laby’s temperament, he added that the Panel and its members ‘should be unbiased and free of any personal feeling’ – ‘completely imbued with the war-time necessity’. One of the first Laby nominated was Richard Woolley.

Woolley’s arrival in Australia had been announced by Smith’s Weekly with the headline, ‘WILL BRITAIN COMMANDEER VAN DER RIET WOOLLEY?’ Having secured a ‘tip-top Dominion astronomer’ for the CSO, was Australia about to lose him for the duration?11 Woolley was certainly not called home, but in Australia he did make it known that he was ‘extremely anxious to do something to help the war effort’.12 As Laby had found, there were no formal avenues through which scientists could offer their services. However, Woolley was still a young man, and from a military family, perhaps he should join up? Laby, as Chairman of the Observatory’s Board of Visitors, wrote to Menzies in July 1940, concerned about this possibility.13 He understood that there had been some discussion of Woolley enlisting as a Lieutenant in a Survey Regiment, and suggested a more suitable alternative would be to appoint Woolley as acting Commonwealth Meteorologist. The position was vacant, and likely to be of major defence significance. Laby was also worried about the Observatory as a whole; what would become of it if its staff were ‘dispersed to the four winds’.

Meanwhile, however, Woolley had been busily investigating a range of possibilities. By early June, he had already had discussions with government officials, CSIR, the Munitions Standards Laboratory and the Aeronautical Research Laboratory. As a result of these talks he drafted a memo for the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (the department with responsibility for the CSO) presenting options for the utilisation of Observatory staff on war work.14 His first suggestion was that he and his staff provide a ‘scientific liaison’ service, coordinating the needs of the services with the skills of the scientific community. This was similar to Laby’s consultative committee, and a body of this kind was indeed established later in the war – the Scientific Liaison Bureau. Woolley, though, was committing himself to the task, rather than just floating an idea, arguing that more could be achieved ‘by individual effort than by a committee’.

The second option Woolley discussed was the employment of CSO staff on the design and manufacture of optical instruments for the services. Woolley recognised that there would be a demand for such equipment even before Hartnett had found himself sightless. Not that it had been difficult to predict. In November 1939, H.C. McKay writing in Smith’s Weekly described the glass lens as ‘the giant’s eye of modern mechanised warfare, without which armies would be practically blind’.15 He noted that Australia was ‘entirely dependent on overseas countries for these vital supplies’, and asked whether Australia should produce its own optical glass’. The market seemed too small for it to be economically viable at that time, but a ‘double blockade (Atlantic and Pacific) isolating Australia, would be another matter’.

Woolley also had his own reasons for being conscious of this potential need. As a postgraduate student, he had been awarded a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to study at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Besides its research credentials, Mount Wilson at that time boasted an extremely well-equipped optical workshop, built up during WWI when the USA found itself desperately short of optical munitions. Woolley recognised that the CSO could play a similar role in Australia, and at the same time add to its own facilities. Mount Wilson’s optical shop had ‘been of great value to them in the prosecution of their astronomical research’.16 Optical munitions could provide the CSO both with a war-time role and a peace-time bonus.

So with all these plans already in mind, Woolley probably had mixed feelings when the letter came from Hartnett seeking his involvement in the OPD’s own optical munitions program. After all, the Optical Munitions Panel was being set up to do a job that Woolley may well have envisaged as his own. Aware of the initiatives Woolley had made ‘to get moving on the subject of lenses and telescopic materials’, Hartnett was very keen to have Woolley on his team, and offered him not just a place on the OMP, but a direct secondment to his Directorate.17 Hartnett argued that this arrangement ‘would be one of the best ways of making use’ of Woolley’s ‘expert knowledge and scientific experience’. He later wrote to Essington-Lewis, the Director-General of Munitions, describing Woolley as ‘the highest qualified mathematician in the country’.18

Woolley was quick to take up Hartnett’s offer, and wrote to the Secretary of the Interior requesting approval for his attachment to the OPD as a ‘Scientific Liaison Officer’.19 Clearly he imagined himself with a fairly free-ranging brief – a major figure on the defence science landscape. But the question of what was going to happen to the Observatory remained. Would the personnel be dispersed? Already the Munitions Standards Laboratory had made a bid for two of his staff, Arthur Hogg and Noel Chamberlain.20 Chamberlain, a Research Fellow, who had spent some time at the Watheroo Magnetic Observatory in WA, was to be engaged on meteorological work, while Hogg was sought for his experience in ‘the measurement and count of atmospheric dusts’. Hogg was subsequently released from the CSO and took up duty at the Munitions Standards Laboratory in Melbourne a few months later in September 1940.21

Arthur Hogg had joined the Observatory in 1929, with a background in industrial chemistry. He undertook research into atmospheric electricity and cosmic rays, designing and building much of his own equipment.22 This work made him extremely valuable to the Chemical Defence Section of the MSL, where he studied the effectiveness of respirators using an ionisation penetrometer he developed himself. In 1944, the administration of chemical warfare activities was reorganised and Hogg was transferred to the secretariat of the Chemical Defence Board. An active field research program was being undertaken by this time, and a series of sub-committees were established to draw on the expertise of civilian scientists.23 Hogg was made secretary to the Physical and Meteorological Sub-Committee, which also included Woolley. Hogg’s services were highly valued, and he exercised considerable responsibility. Late in the war he may well have been appointed Acting-Head of the Chemical Defence Section, but the CSO were beginning to make anxious noises about his return.24

Two of Woolley’s other senior staff, Cla Allen and Arthur Higgs, had left in June 1940 to observe a total solar eclipse in South Africa. Thoughts of their homecoming weighed heavily as they sat around waiting in a foreign country. Both wrote to Woolley asking him if there would be war work for them to take up on their return. Higgs, in particular, felt that he was ‘wasting time’ in South Africa:

I… would very much to prefer to be doing something toward “the nation’s war effort” – we get the same old catchphrase just as often over here! When I come back I shall be champing at the bit to jump into something useful as soon as possible.25

Allen was worried about the arrangements he should make for his family, and wondered whether the fact that Woolley was not joining them for the big event as originally intended, meant that he had joined up.26 Eventually a letter from Woolley reached them explaining that he would be ‘going into questions of the design of optical instruments for war purposes’.27 While at one stage it had seemed that the observatory would be ‘completely dispersed by war activities’ it was now likely that work would come their way. He assured the two concerned astronomers that they need have no ‘qualms of conscience’, and made his own frustrations evident: ‘The utilisation of scientific workers is at last being organised’.

War is a time of uncertainty and conflicting emotions. Just as there are many reasons why soldiers choose to enlist, so there were many factors at work in the minds of the Mount Stromlo scientists. They hoped to stay at the Observatory, but what if they were needed elsewhere? It made sense for them to use their scientific skills, but was it just an excuse, should they join up anyway? They wanted to contribute to the war effort, but perhaps there were career opportunities as well. Motivations are never simple. These were not cartoon scientists, blinkered by their own research, seeking only to be left alone. They were citizens, spouses, confused and concerned. At the outbreak of war, Allen was recently married with a young son, and he and his wife Rose were eager for more children. He wrote back to Woolley relieved that he would have a useful job on his return, but equally relieved that he would be able to keep his family with him: ‘I have been having visions of joining up, or perhaps being sent somewhere else’.28 Higgs remained very eager to return but was calmed by the news that there would be ‘something definite and useful to do’.29

The first meeting of the Optical Munitions Panel settled the fate of the CSO. The minutes record that Woolley ‘agreed to set up his place and direct it solely to optical work’.30 More specifically, as Woolley explained to his Department, ‘the Panel agreed to place all optical design under my supervision and I understood it to be the feeling of the Panel that this work should be carried out on Mt. Stromlo’.31 In fact, this merely recognised a situation that Woolley had created through his own hard-driving efforts. A week before the OMP meeting Hartnett noted that Woolley ‘has been working fifteen and seventeen hours a day – Sundays included – on this optical munitions problem’.32 With the endorsement of the OMP, Woolley was satisfied that at last that both he and his observatory were in a position to contribute fully to the war effort, and he convinced Hartnett that he should remain at Mount Stromlo rather than join the OPD in Melbourne. He did, however, seek some sort of formal status within the Munitions establishment, rather than Science Liaison Officer, he now suggested ‘Director of Optical Design’.33 Hartnett obviously had great admiration for the young scientist, as he remarked to Essington-Lewis: ‘Enthusiasm like this, properly co-ordinated, I think is worth an awful lot to Australia’.34

One of the first tasks of the OMP was to draw up a detailed report for the Director-General of Munitions, outlining what was required to produce the necessary optical instruments.35) The obstacles were considerable – there was no local supply of optical glass, there were few workers skilled to work the glass into lenses and prisms, and little of the required equipment. Dependent on overseas sources for so long, Australia was really starting from scratch. However, there were a few glimmers of hope. While the standard of accuracy acceptable in the Australian optical industry was at least ten times less than that required for optical munitions work, there were ‘a few men in Australia (eg. F.Lord at Solar Observatory Mt Stromlo)’ who could ‘manufacture lenses to the optical degree of perfection needed’.36 Lord and others would provide the nucleus for the establishment of a precision optical industry in Australia.

Francis Lord’s arrival at Mount Stromlo had been an early stroke of luck for Woolley. Lord studied optics in Paris and had worked for some time in an optical factory in Czechoslovakia producing the sort of instruments that Australia so desperately needed.37 The German forces occupying his homeland were keen to fill an existing contract with Rumania for the establishment of an optical workshop there, and allowed Lord to leave the country to supervise the new establishment. Lord had other ideas and fled the Nazis, making his way to Australia. However, life in wartime Australia was not easy for an ‘alien’, so although he found work with the British Optical Company in Sydney, his fellow workers treated him with anger and suspicion. Eventually the company was forced to let him go. The manager, Champion, was sympathetic and when he heard that the CSO was looking to undertake optical munitions work he arranged for Lord to meet Woolley. A farcical journey to Canberra followed, as Lord and Champion tried to comply with police restrictions that allowed Lord to visit the ACT in daylight hours only. Woolley, with Hartnett’s enthusiastic approval, signed him up immediately.38

While the design of optical systems requires a long and complex series of calculations, it is based on well-known physical laws. The design of a functioning optical workshop is a different matter altogether. Drawing on Lord’s knowledge of what was ‘required from the actual workshop point of view’, Woolley began to reorganise the observatory. As well as undertaking optical design work, they planned to ‘actually make lenses’ and thereby test their designs before they were submitted to the military. With a functioning optical workshop and Lord’s practical experience, the CSO would also be able to study surfacing techniques and train workers ‘up to the required standard’. Of course, extensions to the existing workshop were required, and some new equipment, but with his Mount Wilson experience in mind, Woolley reassured the authorities: ‘money spent in this way will not be thrown away when the war is over’.39 Beginning with just a single spindle, ‘hundreds of experiments’ were tried in the first year in an attempt to develop techniques ‘which could be understood quickly and applied by novices if possible’.40 Lord was assisted by S.J. Elwin, a lecturer in manual arts and amateur astronomer, who Woolley discovered at the Sydney Teachers’ College. Elwin had ‘himself computed and made a 6″ objective’ and his self-taught skills made him a valuable addition to the optical workshop.41. Through their efforts a technique and ‘certain mechanical contrivances’ were developed that ‘proved entirely satisfactory’. Within a year the CSO was turning out lenses, prisms and trained optical workers.

By October 1940 Woolley had designed the first piece of military optical equipment to be produced in Australia. It was a modest start, a sighting telescope based on the British design ‘Telescope, Sighting, No, 24B’.42 The optics of the British instrument were analysed, but without a supply of optical glass they were impossible to duplicate. Woolley prepared a design that used readily available spectacle glass. Inevitably, the resulting instrument was optically inferior to the British model, but the OMP accepted the design and decided to place an ‘educational’ order with contractors in Sydney and Melbourne. The results were good enough for a larger order to be placed, and by war’s end nearly 2,500 had been manufactured. Much of the CSO’s work in the first year of optical munitions production was to follow a similar pattern. The Services would order an instrument of British War Office design. This design would be analysed and an Australian variant produced according to locally available materials.

Woolley was assisted by Noel Chamberlain, who he had decided not to release to the MSL. As the computations required became more and more time consuming, he sought further assistance from Laby, who arranged for two of his research students to spend some time on Mount Stromlo.43 One of these, Jim Dooley, stayed on at the observatory.44 Cla Allen returned from South Africa in November 1940 to a much-changed institution. At first he found it difficult to know where he fitted into the new regime, but after a short while he too was occupied on the design work.45 Without optical glass it was difficult to meet the required specifications, but the Mount Stromlo team responded by producing some innovative designs that were often simpler than the British originals. Actual production of the instruments was undertaken by outside contractors, but the contractors were dependent on the CSO for the supply of optical gauges and for instruction in precision optical work. Of course, none of the contractors had ever undertaken such work before.46

With a substantial program of work building up, Woolley needed to recruit more skilled staff. He eventually found them locked away in internment camps in country NSW. These were the ‘Dunera boys’, German Jews who, having fled the Nazis, found themselves imprisoned in Britain as ‘enemy aliens’. Woolley made inquiries and discovered a number of internees who had ‘first-class optical experience’. In typically strong terms he wrote seeking the release of three men for optical munitions work, arguing that they would ‘more than double the number of experienced men in Australia for this particular class of work’.47 The Australian High Commission in London was cabled to ascertain whether the UK authorities had any objections on security grounds. A pettifogging reply turned up a month later, pointing out that the experience of the men in question was very limited and presuming that the matter of their release would not be pursued.48 Woolley contacted the camp authorities and confirmed his initial information; their experience was everything one ‘could reasonably expect’ given the fact they were in their early twenties. He wrote again pointing out that ‘the optical munitions industry in Australia has been set an extremely difficult problem, and that the number of persons qualified to assist is extremely limited’.49 Given the delay that had already occurred he urged that ‘the strongest possible representations be made to the UK authorities’. Finally in May 1941 the matter went before the Australian War Cabinet for approval. The internees were released under Woolley’s supervision, subject to various restrictions on their movements. The first two, Georg Froelich and Hans Meyer, started work on the 1 July 1941, six months after Woolley’s initial application. All together, five internees were released to work in the optical and mechanical workshops on Mount Stromlo.50

In February 1941, the OMP met on Mount Stromlo for the first time. The members of the Panel took the opportunity to inspect the new workshop facilities, and talks on various aspects of optical production were given by Lord, Allen and Elwin.51 It was also an excuse for a little morale-boosting publicity, with a Sydney Morning Herald headline boasting ‘Optical Instruments – War needs supplied’.52 The Canberra Times naturally played up the local angle, describing Woolley as ‘one of the most outstanding representatives of the science of optics’. What had already been accomplished, it remarked, ‘will become a milestone in the scientific progress of Australia’, as well as the foundation for ‘a valuable peace-time industry’.53 Certainly much had been achieved in a small space of time. Woolley’s first Progress Report, submitted in January, made impressive reading.54 A variety of machines had been constructed for the workshop, three prototype instruments had been produced, highly accurate optical gauges had been manufactured for use by industry, six complete instruments had been designed, and instruction on various optical processes had been given to representatives of the Australian Optical Company and the British Optical Company, two of the major contractors. At the same time work on various optical munitions problems was underway in Melbourne, Hobart, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. One development in particular demanded attention.

Ernst Hartung, the Professor of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne, had been investigating the optical glass problem. Working with the ACI in Sydney, he determined that it was possible to manufacture the required types of glass from locally available materials.55 In December 1940 he presented the OMP with the first-ever sample of locally-made optical glass. A piece of this first melt remained one of Hartnett’s treasured possessions, and he referred to the ‘optical glass triumph’ as ‘one of our proudest achievements of the war’.56 The doom-saying of British experts sceptical of the Australian efforts heightened the nationalistic appeal of the optical glass work., but it was a product of unflagging enthusiasm and hard work rather than any major scientific achievement. Hartung was working from a book published by the USA after WWI, with most of the research dependent on trial and error. Hartung himself was somewhat embarrassed by the credit given to him, seeking to highlight the contribution of ACI’s technical people.57 In fact, most of the scientific work undertaken in Australia during the war was aimed at adapting or scaling-up known processes or techniques.58 It is in the character, rather than the content of the work, that the scientists’ main achievement can be recognised.

Despite the progress that was being made many frustrations remained, and the impatient Woolley was far from satisfied with the way the work had developed. While the supply of optical glass from both local and overseas sources greatly facilitated the design process, it also highlighted a source of conflict between the scientists and the military. Woolley became increasingly frustrated by the Army’s reluctance to accept instruments ‘differing radically from Imperial designs’.59 Forced, by the lack of optical glass, to come up with designs that substituted mirrors for prisms, the CSO team had developed instruments that not only performed to specifications, but were considerably cheaper to make. However, once it was realised that prisms could be manufactured in Australia, it was decided to proceed with the conventional designs. The ‘general tendency,’ noted Woolley, ‘is to prefer an Imperial design to a local product even where the local product is substantially simpler’.60 That being the case, the task left to the optical designers was simply to adapt War Office designs to the Australian stocks of optical glass. By July 1941, Woolley was forced to conclude that the ‘time for experiment and research into entirely novel designs seems to have passed’.61

These frustrations were compounded by the actions of the OMP itself. Woolley had left the first meeting believing that he and his staff were responsible for optical design. He was therefore rather perturbed when, at the next meeting, Laby began to describe the design work being undertaken in Melbourne, referring to a previously unknown committee set up to investigate the subject. Woolley felt he had to ‘cross swords with Laby about it at once’ and it was again agreed by the Panel that all the necessary design work would be carried out at Mount Stromlo. To try and prevent a recurrence of this misunderstanding, Woolley repeated his suggestion to the OPD that he be given some honorary position within the munitions establishment – ‘Director of Optical Design’ for example. This was quite a straightforward matter, and was most agreeable to the relevant bureaucrats who liked their scientists clearly labelled. Of course, no one thought to ask Laby.

When he finally discovered what was afoot, Laby wrote a letter to the Prime Minister and offered his resignation.62 He argued that Woolley’s appointment as a ‘Director’ in the Munitions Department gave him a status equivalent to Hartnett, who was Director of the OPD. Woolley would therefore have greater authority than himself, and the whole optical munitions program would be threatened: ‘for the Commonwealth Government to impair the little authority which it had given me to undertake this difficult task was to lessen the small prospect of success which I had of accomplishing it’. Menzies, presumably informed by Hartnett, replied reminding Laby that Woolley had been co-opted at his suggestion, and that the OMP itself had given Woolley responsibility for optical design.63 The title itself was just a bureaucratic convenience. The whole matter was left in the too-hard basket, a sign of things to come as Laby’s health steadily deteriorated. Finally in March 1944, when Laby launched an unwarranted attack on J.S. Rogers, the Panel’s hard-working secretary, the entire membership resigned, refusing to work with the Chairman.64 In a swift piece of lateral thinking, they reformed the following day and acted under a different name for one meeting, until Laby himself offered his resignation one final time.65

The Controller of the OPD, Frank Daley, was sympathetic to Woolley’s attempts to clarify the optical design situation and admitted: ‘the almost unconscious bias which exists in directing everything to this State [Victoria] is… a difficulty’.66 Of course, Woolley himself was not always a paragon of reason. A file note attached to one of his letters to the OPD, complaining about various delays and problems with the OMP, reads: ‘This report is full of temprament [sic] and despite its veracity fails to obtain the actual “atmosphere”’.67 Like his rival, Laby, Woolley was inclined to heighten the drama of certain situations to get his own way. He wanted a clear-cut job, and he wanted the power to get it done. While Hartnett apparently believed that the OMP functioned as ‘a proper technical democracy’, Woolley was of the opinion that the Panel was ‘unwieldy’, ‘had inadequate power’ and was ‘poorly constituted in that there was no clear distinction between its scientific, advisory and executive functions’.68 In particular, Woolley was concerned about the OMP’s lack of power in supervising the actual production of optical munitions. The OMP was an advisory body to the OPD and had no authority to intervene in the work being undertaken by contractors. One possible solution, which received serious consideration in mid-1941, was to attach Woolley to the Munitions department in some sort of formal capacity, with responsibility for overseeing the contract work. This was much like Hartnett’s original plan, put forward some twelve months earlier. In the end, Woolley’s formal transfer was not considered necessary, as the CSO itself began to move into optical production.

At the time of Ben Gascoigne’s arrival in August 1941, the type of work undertaken by the observatory was beginning to change. Gascoigne was another of Woolley’s lucky finds. He had recently studied astronomical optics at Bristol University, before returning home to New Zealand to assist in the manufacture of rangefinders as part of their modest optical munitions effort.69 Woolley was quick to offer him a Research Fellowship and wrote seeking the necessary approval, explaining that Gascoigne’s ‘experience in optical work is unique’ and that he had been ‘trained in a way in which no one else in Australia has been qualified’.70 Gascoigne joined the optical design team, though it was by now obvious that optical design was not the all-consuming task that Woolley had originally envisaged. The Army’s lack of enthusiasm for novel designs coupled with problems dividing responsibility between Melbourne and Canberra, meant that most of the work would be fairly routine. Not that it was ever easy. Every design required large numbers of detailed computations, and sometimes, even after all that work, the lens systems just didn’t perform as expected, and it was back to the drawing-board. Optical design remained important, but instead of being the CSO’s central activity it was becoming just the first station in the observatory’s own production line.

From the beginning, the observatory had complemented its work on optical design with experimental work on the actual production of optical surfaces. Lord and Elwin had built up a sophisticated optical workshop, capable of producing a wide range of lenses and prisms, and there was a regular stream of visitors from contracting firms, eager for instruction in advanced optical techniques. Woolley now argued that the CSO’s leadership in the development of Australia’s optical skills base would best be maintained by ‘actually attempting mass production’.71 A ‘school of technical instruction’ risked becoming ‘entirely academic’ unless work actually passed through its shop. By accepting contracts for the production of instruments, Woolley and his staff would acquire ‘some practical experience in all phases of the work’, enabling them to address the problems of the burgeoning optical industry more effectively.72 It would also take some pressure off existing contractors, who were struggling to meet their orders. In addition, this new arrangement offered a degree of independence from the OMP, with all stages of optical production from design to assembly under Woolley’s direct control. Woolley made it clear to the OPD that he would prefer the optical munitions work undertaken by the CSO to be ‘self-contained as far as possible’. He wished to have ‘definite jobs allotted to the CSO’ which would ‘not overlap with work undertaken elsewhere’.73

The move into production meant that the CSO continued to expand. The observatory’s existing mechanical workshop was gradually strengthened in staff and equipment to the point where it could ‘handle small contracts’.74 The mechanical work was led by Jim Banham, the pre-war foreman, who throughout the war period ‘exhibited powers of leadership and initiative’.75 Desperate for a mechanical designer and draftsman, Woolley had scoured the technical colleges and discovered Kurt Gottlieb, an engineering graduate with substantial industrial experience.76 Gottlieb was another Czech refugee, who had arrived in Australia on the same ship as Francis Lord. Like his compatriot, Gottlieb was to make a major contribution to the success of the observatory’s war-time work. Staff came from all over; as well as the internees, two mechanics were transferred from the PMG in Melbourne.77

Five boys were taken on as trainees in the optical workshop. Instruction in basic mathematics, English and science was organised by the Canberra Technical College, with Elwin supplying hands-on training and a course in ‘the theory of applied optics’.78 Other courses for optical workers were set up in Sydney and Melbourne, though Woolley was unimpressed by the standard of knowledge demonstrated by some of the Sydney instructors when they visited Mount Stromlo.79 As the volume of work increased, a number of women were employed for tasks in the optical and assembly shops. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and included the daughters of the Secretary of the Department of the Interior and one of the district’s large land-owning families. They joined two female computors who had been taken on for astronomical work in early 1940. These two originally formed part of the optical design team, but over the course of the war undertook various tasks including the finishing and testing of optical components. Of course, throughout the Australian workforce, women were taking on positions that had previously been the exclusive domain of men. In order to deal with the question of what wages should be paid in these circumstances, the government established the Women’s Employment Board (WEB) in 1942. The case of the female optical workers at Mount Stromlo was the first WEB determination made in the ACT.80 Giving evidence at the hearing Woolley explained that most of the women employed had been recommended by the Principal of the Canberra Technical College. While they did the same work as male employees, he felt that ‘in all cases the best males were superior to the best females’.81 Lord’s assessment was that the work of the men and women was simply ‘interchangeable’.82 A significant pay rise was the result.

By the second half of 1941, the mechanical workshop was ready, a new assembly building was planned, and the optical workshop was undergoing a period of ‘intensive experiment in mass production’. By early 1942, the CSO’s staff had increased from a pre-war 16 to 44. The optical shop was producing the equivalent of two instruments per day, and the prism section under the supervision of Francis Lord had manufactured over 200 prisms for a variety of instruments. The mechanical workshop was working two shifts on telescope bodies, and the assembly shop was developing its finishing processes. By August the same year, the CSO was contracted to produce 10 different instruments – more than 600 individual items. In addition, they were sub-contracted to produce another 400 or so sets of optics. A wide variety of instruments was required, including: rangefinders; predictors; sighting telescopes; periscopes; sextants; and directors. The CSO also undertook to fill part of a large order for optics received from the USA, manufacturing thousands of roof prisms.83 Seeking further orders, Woolley reported in September 1943 that the CSO’s output was 300 prisms per month and expected to rise to 500 per month, even higher for repeat orders.84 At the same time, the observatory remained the main centre for the development of prototype instruments. Woolley would have preferred to concentrate more on this area, but the demand was variable and he had ‘to find other work’ to keep his staff engaged.85 At the peak of its production, the CSO employed over 60 people, organised into six ‘smooth-working sections’: Optical Design; Mechanical Design; Optical Construction; Mechanical Construction; Assembly; and Inspection.86

The CSO’s venture into the world of production was not without its difficulties. As with any manufacturer, especially in wartime, they had to contend with shortages and delays in obtaining supplies. Mechanical work that had been sub-contracted out to other firms did not always meet the required standard. The CSO’s educative role therefore remained important, with representatives of firms engaged in optical munitions spending considerable periods of time at Mount Stromlo gaining a first-hand appreciation of the degree of precision required. But the degree of precision demanded by the Army inspectors, whose job it was to accept or reject completed instruments, was another matter altogether. Inspection was a constant source of conflict between the OMP, the army and contractors.87 The inspectors themselves often had little experience in optical work, and found it difficult to interpret some of the specifications. The result was that instruments that performed perfectly well were rejected due to minor defects, such as scratches or chips. Woolley complained to the OPD asking whether it was ‘finish’ or performance that really mattered, arguing that when it came to performance, ‘the CSO physicists… are well able to refute ill-informed criticism’ made by the Army Inspection officers.88 On one occasion, to demonstrate that minor scratches made no difference to optical performance, Francis Lord obtained a comparable German instrument collected by the Australian War Memorial. Not only were there scratches on the lenses, there were part numbers diamond-etched around the edges!89

However, genuine problems were encountered in getting the assembly shop up and running at an appropriate level. This was the area in which the observatory staff had least experience, so there was some difficulty in training workers, and achieving the necessary conditions of cleanliness and consistency. Cla Allen, serious, dedicated and naturally cautious, was acutely aware of the problem and dubious of Woolley’s sudden and exuberant expansion in the observatory’s activities.90 An OPD official inspected the CSO early in 1943, concerned about the number of instruments that were failing to meet the Army’s inspection standards. His report was extremely critical of the production work in general, commenting that the heads of the various sections ‘do not work in harmony’. He argued that ‘first-class instruments’ were unlikely to be produced without ‘a suitable rearrangement of the assembly facilities’, and recommended that the observatory ‘be relieved of all its production work’.91 The CSO responded by tightening up its own system of inspection and control and within a few months the same official reported that the situation was ‘greatly improved’.92

From time to time the military also called upon the CSO’s astronomical experience. In one instance, the CSO staff ran a course on celestial navigation for tank crews. As the optical munitions work passed its peak, the observatory devoted more time to functions linked to its peace-time program. As far back as February 1940, Woolley had been asked to investigate a possible takeover by the Commonwealth of the Melbourne Observatory. Besides making an eager bid for the Great Melbourne Telescope, Woolley recommended that the CSO take on the time service and magnetic survey provided by Melbourne.93 These services were regarded as ‘of national importance’ and the expansion in the CSO’s functions was readily approved.94 However, in the meantime Woolley had turned his institution over to optical munitions work and he was unwilling ‘to divert the energies’ of his staff towards the establishment of a time service, unless there was a specific demand for it.95 The whole matter was put on hold until 1943, when the Victorian Government Astronomer, J.M. Baldwin was due to retire. The Army made it clear that a highly-accurate, local time service was essential for the survey work they were undertaking in northern areas, so Woolley agreed to begin the required astronomical service as soon as possible.96 Ben Gascoigne was put in charge, and with Kurt Gottlieb, he modified an old survey telescope to do the job.97 Eventually the service was transferred completely from Melbourne, and a land-line was installed between Mount Stromlo and the Harman naval base for the broadcast of shortwave time signals. An unexpected consequence of the takeover, was a change in to the Commonwealth Observatory, as a result of a query by Treasury bureaucrats who felt it would be much neater to drop the ‘solar’ given these increased responsibilities.98 Woolley pointed out that he had suggested the same change some three years previously.99

Research into the behaviour of the ionosphere had been carried out at Mount Stromlo for some years under the aegis of the Radio Research Board. Automatic recording equipment was installed in 1937, and maintained by Higgs until 1941, when he was transferred to the CSIR’s Radiophysics section for urgent work on radar.100 The effect of the ionosphere on radio communications became a vital concern during the war. The Radio Research Board correlated the data collected by the automatic recorders with information on sunspot activity to provide the services with advice on the best frequencies to use at any given time. To further this work the Australian Radio Propagation Committee (ARPC) was established in September 1942. While this information on average conditions greatly improved communications in the Pacific, abnormal sunspot activity could result in severe magnetic storms that disrupted communications, even causing total radio blackouts. To enable these major disturbances to be predicted, the ARPC asked Allen to maintain a watch on sunspot activity using the CSO’s solar telescope. Assisted by two WRANS, Allen performed a valuable service which did much ‘to enhance the reliability of communication’.101

Woolley had enough confidence in his staff to leave the day-to-day supervision of the production work in their hands. From April 1942, he was away from Mount Stromlo much of the time, having taken the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Army Inventions Directorate. The physicists Allen, Chamberlain, Gascoigne and Dooley took on supervisory roles in design, assembly and inspection. The latter three, together with Lord and Gottlieb, lived in the bachelors’ quarters, which in some ways became production headquarters.102 It was also the focus of much of the observatory’s social activity. Raucous parties could carry on in the relative isolation of Mount Stromlo, free of the war-time restrictions imposed in Canberra. Assuming, of course, that guests could negotiate the observatory’s winding, dirt road in darkness. More wholesome activities such as sporting contests were also popular. A scheduled bike race from the main building to the front gate and return had the residents in training for days. A wood-chopping competition was also keenly contested, with the workshop buzzing to the sound of grinding axes. In this case it was the older hands who prevailed, with Cla Allen coming in ahead of Jim Banham. The Murrumbidgee River ran nearby, providing a restful picnic spot and welcome relief in summer. Bushwalks along the rivers, or into the rugged Brindabella Ranges were also undertaken. Bicycles provided the main form of transport, but Noel Chamberlain owned a car which, running on pooled petrol rations, could carry them further afield, often to the snowfields for skiing.

Married couples, including the Allens, the Elwins, the Dooleys, and later the Gascoignes, were also accommodated on the mountain. Allen was a devoted gardener, and kept a careful record of the planting of his roses and fruit trees. Serious as he was, Allen enjoyed having his colleagues and their families in for an evening’s singalong, or just a yarn by the fire. His wife, Rose, on occasion entertained some of the women staff at afternoon tea, and many times provided lunch for the observatory’s visiting scientists. The young Allen boys provided their parents with a few anxious moments, wandering off as they sometimes did. The elder child, Clabon, once found his way up the hill to the Oddie telescope, and another time nearly to the bottom of the hill.

A strong sense of community developed amongst the residents, despite their disparate backgrounds. The five German internees were, of course, still denied their freedom, but they were at least in a friendly environment and engaged in useful, if not stimulating, work. It is a time remembered fondly by the ‘bachelors’, a time when they were given responsible roles in the nation’s war effort, a time of friendship and hard work. Both on the homefront and the battlefield, war can provide a sense of purpose, community and achievement that is difficult to recapture. The experience of the women workers, brought by bus each day, is less accessible, though other writers have commented on the sense of freedom and achievement felt by women employed in war industries generally. Not that relations were always harmonious; rivalries existed, and conflicts arose over some aspects of the munitions work. Elwin, who was older, married, and used to working on his own, found it difficult to blend in with his co-workers. Allen perhaps felt the disruption to his scientific work most keenly, and could muster little enthusiasm for the optical production enterprise. In January 1941 he noted sullenly in his diary: ‘The only variety at work is made by the mistakes I make and their consequent difficulty’.103

The positive sense of community and teamwork which predominated can be attributed in part to Woolley. He was a man who enjoyed company, and mixed easily with staff at all levels. Over lunch, he would regularly seek out Francis Lord for a game of chess. Then there were the bridge evenings, tennis matches and horse riding. He encouraged others to prepare musical performances, including an eight-handed version of Beethoven’s Pastorale on two pianos, for which Dooley, Elwin, Woolley and his wife rehearsed. Woolley genuinely enjoyed these diversions, but they also provided a means of keeping in touch with what was going on around the observatory. Interestingly, the ability to cultivate this sort of atmosphere was one of the main requirements for the position of Director outlined in a report on the future of the CSO prepared in 1937. Given the relative isolation of the observatory, the report argued that ‘a team spirit must be generously cultivated’.104 Contact between staff could be maintained by ‘informal meetings… or even brief daily chats at afternoon tea’. While the Director’s scientific record was important, he also had to ‘be able to arouse and maintain the enthusiasm of his juniors’. Woolley fitted well into this role.

Although the practical demands of work demanded most of their attention, the CSO staff could not shut out the bleak, bloody menace of war. The various restrictions imposed on the community at large, such as rationing, blackouts, and Air Raid Precautions, also reached Mount Stromlo. Tensions heightened as the possibility of a Japanese invasion began to seem real. Woolley made his own preparations, having a horse-cart laden with supplies ready to carry him and his wife into the safety of the Australian bush. The staff were all in reserved occupations and unable to enlist, but Jim Dooley desperately felt that he had to be there in the front-line of Australia’s defence. With Woolley’s help he slipped through the net and joined an anti-aircraft unit in New Guinea. Woolley obviously sympathised with the eager young man, perhaps reflecting on his own thoughts of enlistment. As it happened, Dooley’s service was short-lived. Somebody noticed that he was a physics graduate and he was returned to Australia for training in the use of the newly-developed radar equipment. Eventually, he was returned to the observatory to continue with optical munitions.

Engaged on ‘secret’ munitions work, the observatory was officially closed to visitors in September 1941, and was required to have its own guard. The only security scare, though, seems to have been mysterious flashing lights that were reportedly seen on the mountain. Were the ‘enemy aliens’ employed on Mount Stromlo signalling their co-conspirators? Nothing came of the incident, though it did highlight the predicament of the internees. They were making a vital contribution to the allied war effort, and yet were not trusted to travel more than a mile from the CSO without permission. They were also prohibited from leaving the ACT, though on some bicycle outings that approached the border, they made a point of touching a toe in forbidden territory. ‘Aliens’ were also criticised for taking the jobs of Australian workers, with Mount Stromlo specifically mentioned in the ACT Advisory Council for replacing a Australian who enlisted with a ‘naturalised subject’.105

No new contracts for optical munitions were received after 1943, and activity began to wind down. First Chamberlain, then Dooley left the CSO to join the Commonwealth Mineral Resources Survey, soon to be reconstituted as the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics. Chamberlain had arrived at Mount Stromlo in 1940 contemplating life as an astronomer, but the wartime work had made him realise that it was hands-on, practical work he enjoyed most, and there was more scope for that in geophysics.106 He went on to become the organisation’s Chief Geophysicist. Woolley was keen to maintain the optical workshop as a ‘national asset’, with a ‘small nucleus of skilled instrument makers’ to ‘keep alive in Australia some of the optical instrument knowledge gained the hard way during the war’.107 But Francis Lord could see that his opportunities would be limited, and with one of the former internees, Hans Meyer, he founded his own optical business in Sydney. Hogg returned from the MSL to resume his career in astronomy, but Higgs remained with the CSIR. Gascoigne and Gottlieb were the two major additions to the observatory staff. Gottlieb, the Czech engineer, went on to collaborate with Woolley in research into monochromatic magnitudes, while Gascoigne became one of Australia’s leading astronomers. The wartime community slowly dissolved, as the observatory settled back into its guise as a scientific institution. We talk about scientists being part of the ‘scientific community’, some amorphous body bound by aims, methods, and systems of reward and recognition. But there is also their immediate community, their institution and its staff, without which the scientific work could not proceed. In war, results come before theory, practice before reflection. The reward system is turned upside down and all the people who make a scientific institution what it is, emerge from the infrastructure. A different type of scientific community becomes visible.

From March 1942, it had been the Australian community as a whole that had demanded most of Woolley’s attention. As Chief Executive Officer of the Army Inventions Directorate, it was his job to ‘tap Australia’s undoubted reserves of inventive genius’.108 An Army Inventions Board had been in existence at the beginning of the war, but it was totally unable to deal with the flood of suggestions submitted by a concerned war-time populace. The solution, of course, was to reorganise the body under a different name, and so the Central Inventions Board was born. This included representative of all the services, with scientific input coming from CSIR. Unfortunately it lacked both the will and the resources to actually do the job. Submissions were given ‘scanty investigation’, and were viewed with an ‘unsympathetic attitude’.109 A conference was called to discuss the board’s lack of progress, at which ‘most serious revelation’ was ‘the fact that none of its members felt there was any real need for the existence of the board’.110 The only justification in the minds of many was political convenience – the government and the military needed a way to fob off determined crackpots.

Hartnett, however, felt rather differently. An engineer and inventor himself, he argued that there was ‘no monopoly of new ideas, novel equipment, new devices, or improvements to existing equipment’. Such suggestions could come from ‘virtually any person’.111 Hartnett’s enthusiasm, coupled with the outbreak of the Pacific War forced a rethink. Another conference was called, but this time the Minister for the Army, Frank Forde opened proceedings on a rather more positive note, saying that an Inventions Board was ‘very definitely’ wanted, to ‘actively encourage and energise Australian inventive genius’.112 The Army Inventions Directorate was constituted, differing from its lacklustre predecessors in that it employed its own technical staff to examine submissions, it had funds to develop inventions to the prototype stage, and it actively solicited submissions from the public.

According to Hartnett, Woolley’s response when approached to fill the position of Chief Executive Officer was: ‘For God’s sake, why me?’.113 Hartnett was impressed with Woolley, regarding him as ‘an excellent organiser and a fast worker’, but Woolley’s reasons for accepting the post do not seem quite so clear.114 Unlike the optical munitions work, the AID did not seem to have a connection with the observatory’s peace-time role. However, it did offer the opportunity to establish links with a wide range of military, scientific and industrial figures. At one meeting of the AID, Woolley spoke of ‘a legacy of ill feeling’ within the Australian scientific community, and commented that ‘my generation and younger… are determined to try and root out all this jealousy’.115 Perhaps Woolley viewed the AID as a power base from which to build a new co-operative structure. In any case, the AID offered him what the OMP never could – a definite job, a formal structure, and a clear-cut line of authority.

The AID received 21,645 submissions, only 127 of which were finally accepted for development. The crackpot element was well-represented with a steady stream of perpetual motion machines appearing (or rather, not appearing). The AID staff were required to be encouraging to all their potential inventors, though this was not without its difficulties:

It was soon appreciated by Officers of the Directorate that to preserve friendly relations with inventors, too keen an appreciation of the humourous aspect of any invention was unwise. After a few false steps in that direction, requests form the gentlemen of the Press for examples likely to cause mirth were therefore refused.116

Submissions were rigorously examined, and those considered to be of value were forwarded to the services, who informed the AID whether such items were currently required. If the military showed interest then development continued through the design and prototype stage. For some time the AID lacked its own workshop facilities, and relied on those of other government institutions, including the CSO. Kurt Gottlieb was an invaluable source of advice to Woolley, and a number of prototypes were constructed on Mount Stromlo. The actual production of the invention, if finally deemed warranted, was the responsibility of the services.

While the AID did publicise itself through the mainstream media, it concentrated its call for new ideas in publications ‘which were read by persons having some measure of technical training’.117 Equipped with a loud-speaker, AID staff visited munitions factories to deliver workplace lectures on the function of the Directorate. Others gave talks to professional societies, such as the Institution of Engineers. Service personnel were also targeted. ‘Never before in the history of warfare’, one circular announced, ‘have the scientists and technicians been called upon to play such a prominent and vital part’.118 The AID was keen to learn of that ‘one good invention’ that was said to be in the mind of ‘every technical man’.

Trying to liaise between the public, the services and the bureaucracy was a difficult task, and is not surprising that the AID failed to satisfy many expectations. But by most measures, it was certainly a success. Politically it defused the inventions question. Psychologically, as Hartnett argued, it provided an outlet ‘for the public’s pent-up desire to do something to help’.119 Indeed, it is possible to track the progress of the war through the number and type of inventions submitted. There was a sudden surge in anti-submarine devices after the midget sub attack on Sydney, for example. Later in the war, there came large numbers of counter-measures for dealing with ‘flying bombs’ and ‘suicide planes’.120 Most important, of course, were the inventions themselves. There were no war-winning devices, but many lives were saved by improved signalling mirrors, life-rafts, and land-mine detectors. Other inventions, such as a ration calculator, brought increased efficiency, and on a purely financial basis, it was calculated that these easily covered the cost of the AID. In the shadow of the atomic bomb and radar, the AID might seem a meagre, even comical, enterprise. But perhaps such an assessment speaks more of the dramatic convergence of science and the military observed in the post-war era, than it does of the AID’s own achievements.

Always thinking a step ahead, Woolley tried to use the AID as a platform for establishing some ongoing consultative structure linking scientists and the military. Having been ‘connected with the business for five years’, he felt some obligation ‘to put into effect what we lacked at the beginning of this war’.121 Hartnett agreed, remarking: ‘When I think of our early days in the war and how we groped in the dark, it would be wicked and wrong to do the same again’.122 However, mindless obstructionism won the day, and a frustrated Woolley was forced to withdraw:

It is not a concern in my own case, I hope to go back to my Observatory the minute the last shot is fired. At the same time, I do not think we should evade the responsibility of making some provisions for the future.123

There were various noises made about maintaining some sort of peace-time inventions establishment, but Hartnett’s vision of stimulating the ‘exercise of ingenuity by the people’ to meet the ‘problems and challenges’ of postwar Australia was never realised.124 In a scientific community ideas are supposed to be assessed, not on the basis of the proposer’s prestige or qualifications, but on their own intrinsic worth. The AID offered a model that sought to open this structure, not just to a profession, but a nation. In war, people were offered a way of contributing directly to the national good, which, in peace-time, is denied.

Significantly, the AID has tended to be remembered as a political exercise, whereas the OMP has been regarded as a scientific success story. Part of the reason relates to the nature of the tasks they were given. The OMP had a limited brief which it managed to fulfil. All of its mistakes, dead-ends, jealousies and stuff-ups were dealt with discreetly in private. The AID, however, was a public entity with an open-ended commission. In comparison with the OMP it seemed to lack a ‘real, important task’, and disgruntled inventors were only to keen to air their grievances in the press.125 The optical munitions work could also be more readily portrayed as a victory for pure science. In planning the post-war program of the CSO, Woolley sought to stress the institution’s ‘purely scientific’ role.126 He used the optical munitions work as an example of ‘the versatility of the pure scientist’, which was of ‘exceptional national value’. Similarly, in an AID meeting shortly after the destruction of Hiroshima, both Woolley and Kerr Grant, the University of Adelaide physicist, drew on the war-time experience to press home the value of scientific research. The war had shown ‘that not enough first-class work’ was done in Australia, and that no country could ‘afford to be without its scientific workers’.127 ‘Scientific knowledge’, added Kerr Grant, ‘is absolutely basic’. Without it there was always ‘the risk that a nation will fight the next war with the weapons of the last’.128

Science, and particularly physics, had emerged from the war with greatly enhanced prestige, thanks largely to the atomic bomb. The Australian scientists were attempting to cash-in on the public relations jackpot, and with good reason, for scientific research had been largely neglected in the past. Woolley himself later recalled that early plans for the Australian National University did not include a physics department, as it was thought the subject was too expensive to pursue.129 The events of 1945 quickly changed these priorities. The optical munitions work, involving so many of Australia’s physicists, seemed to demonstrate that Australia too had the intellectual resources to participate in the atomic age. In October 1945, the question of Australia’s plans for atomic research were raised in parliament:

One example cited of the capacity of the Commonwealth to undertake work of this kind was the outstanding success which was made of problems of optical munitions by the staff of the Commonwealth Observatory at Mount Stromlo.130

A rather modest version of the Manhattan Project, but a success nonetheless.

The AID, however, slotted into to a different mythology – that of the ‘practical man’, the ‘inventive Australian’. Whereas the OMP appeared to draw its strength from the country’s scientific elite, the AID sought to distil the creative energies of all Australians, scientifically trained or not. But where would Mount Stromlo have been without the enthusiasm and initiative of its technical staff, the workers in the optical and mechanical shops? Could the optical munitions effort have succeeded without the hands-on experience of men like Francis Lord and Syd Elwin? The ‘pure science’ interpretation was effective in the postwar context, but hardly accurate. The difference between the OMP and the AID lies not so much in the fact that one was ‘science’ and the other was not, but that the AID’s communal structure was clearly revealed. It is only in studying the work of an institution like Mount Stromlo during the war that you begin to develop a feeling for the combined effort – for the community itself. In optical munitions, as in other defence science areas, as in life, much of the work was trial and error, advances were piecemeal, and mistakes were made. It is only in an abstract, dehumanised form that the pure science success story emerges. The portrayal of science as a magic bag spilling out war-winning tricks only serves to widen the gap between the boffin and the inventive, practical Australian to the ultimate detriment of all.

  1. The name changed in 1943 to ‘Commonwealth Observatory’, however, CSO is used throughout this article. For the history of the CSO generally during the Woolley era see: S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo: the Woolley Era’, Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia, vol. 5, no. 4, 1984, pp. 597-605; S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Bok, Woolley and Australian Astronomy’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 1992, 119-126; R. Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vo1. 1, no. 3, November 1968, pp. 53-57. []
  2. William McCrea, ‘Richard van der Reit Woolley’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 1988, pp. 315-345 []
  3. Diary entry, 5 December 1939, vol. 16, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []
  4. Optical munitions work was carried out in a number of universities as well as the Munitions Supply Laboratories and the National Standards Laboratory, see: J.S. Rogers, The History of the Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel (unpublished), Australian Archives, MP730/11, Box 3; H.C. Bolton, ‘J.J. McNeill and the development of optical research in Australia’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 5, no. 4, 1983, pp. 55-70; H.C. Bolton, ‘Optical instruments in Australia in the 1939-45 war: Successes and lost opportunities’, Australian Physicist, vol. 27, no. 3, March 1990, pp. 31-43; D.P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958, Ch. 12. []
  5. R.W. Home, ‘Origins of the Australian physics community’, Historical Studies, vol. 20, 1982-3, pp. 383-400. []
  6. Woolley, p.54 []
  7. Rogers, p.1 []
  8. Interview with J. Dooley, 2 July 1994. []
  9. Sir Laurence Hartnett, Big Wheels and Little Wheels, 3rd edition, Wildgrass Books, Boronia (Victoria), p. 143. []
  10. L.J. Hartnett to T.H. Laby, 9 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP730/11, Item 16. []
  11. Smith’s Weekley, 9 December 1939. []
  12. J.A. Carrodus (Secretary, Department of Interior) to O.U. Vonwiller, 1 July 1940, Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  13. T.H. Laby to R.G. Menzies, 2 July 1940, Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  14. R. Woolley to J.A. Carrodus (Secretary, Department of Interior), 3 June 1940, Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  15. H.C. McKay, ‘Magic eyes of war and peace’, Smith’s Weekly, 18 November 1939, p. 13. []
  16. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 6 August 1941, Australian Archives, MP292/9, Box 2 – Optical, Mt Stromlo. []
  17. L.J. Hartnett to R. Woolley, Australian Archives, 9 July 1940, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  18. L.J. Hartnett to Essington-Lewis, 17 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP730/11, Item 16. []
  19. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 12 July 1940, Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  20. Minister for Munitions to Minister for Interior, 5 July 1940, Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  21. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, Australian Archives, 30 August 1940, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  22. S.C.B Gascoigne, ‘Arthur Robert Hogg’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 1, no. 3, November 1968, p. 58-70. []
  23. Mellor, p.376; ‘Chemical Defence Board – Physical and Meteorological Sub-Committee’, Australian Archives, A1928, 1181/51. []
  24. Memo for the Secretary, Factory Board, Ministry of Munitions, ‘Chemical Defence Section, MSL – Appointment of Acting-Head of Section’, Australian Archives, MP661/1, ORG30/4 Part1 []
  25. A.J. Higgs to R. Woolley, 28 July 1940, Australian Archives, A9103, Item 4. []
  26. C.W. Allen to R. Woolley, 26 July 1940, Australian Archives, A9103, Item 4. []
  27. R. Woolley to A.J. Higgs, 17 July 1940, Australian Archives, A9103, Item 4. []
  28. C.W. Allen to R. Woolley, 29 August 1940, Australian Archives, A9103, Item 4. []
  29. A.J. Higgs to R. Woolley, 21 August 1940, Australian Archives, A9103, Item 4. []
  30. OMP Minutes, 23 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, OMP Minutes, Volume 1, Meetings 1-8. []
  31. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 26 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 3 – Optical Panel. []
  32. L.J. Hartnett to Essington-Lewis, 17 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP730/11, Item 16. []
  33. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 26 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 3 – Optical Panel. []
  34. L.J. Hartnett to Essington-Lewis, 17 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP730/11, Item 16. []
  35. Rogers p. 13-14; ‘Cost and Production of Optical Munitions’, 3 September 1940, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol. 1 (Meetings 1-8 []
  36. ‘Cost and Production of Optical Munitions’, 3 September 1940, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol. 1 (Meetings 1-8), p. 4. []
  37. Interview with Francis Lord, 16 July 1994. []
  38. ‘Since we were lucky to find this Czech refugee… I immediately sent a telegram to Dr. Woolley asking him to employ Lord’. L.J. Hartnett to Essington-Lewis, 17 July 1940, Australian Archives, MP730/11, Item 16. []
  39. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 8 August 1940, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 3 – Optical Panel. []
  40. ‘Report on optical munitions from the Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, 13 February 1942, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol 2 (Meetings 9-13). []
  41. ‘Report by Dr R.v.d.R. Woolley on Optical Designs’, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol. 1 (Meetings 1-8). []
  42. Mellor p. 262-3; Rogers p. 20-1 []
  43. OMP Minutes, 28-30 October 1940, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol. 1 (Meetings 1-8). []
  44. Interview J. Dooley, 2 July 1994. []
  45. Diary entry, 18 November 1940, vol. 17, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []
  46. Rogers p. 19. []
  47. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 5 December 1940, Australian Archives, A659, 40/1/8641. []
  48. Cablegram to PM’s Department, 14 January 1941, Australian Archives, A659, 40/1/8641. []
  49. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 17 January 1941, Australian Archives, A659, 40/1/8641. []
  50. They were Hans Mayer, Georg Froelich, Ernst Froelich, ? Freye, ? Krentler. []
  51. OMP Minutes, 24-26 February 1941, p. 6, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol 1 (Meetings 1-8). []
  52. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 1941. []
  53. Canberra Times, 24 February 1941. []
  54. ‘Progress Report from Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, 24 January 1941, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol 1 (Meetings 1-8). []
  55. Rogers p. 45-56; Mellor p. 250-8; Bolton, 1990, p. 33-4. []
  56. L.J. Hartnett, Big Wheels.., p. 146. []
  57. Mellor papers, Australian War Memorial []
  58. R.W. Home, ‘Science on service’, Australian Science in the Making, ed. R.W. Home, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 245, 249. []
  59. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 6 August 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  60. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 6 August 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  61. R. Woolley to L.J. Hartnett, 16 July 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  62. T.H. Laby to R.G. Menzies, 29 September 1940, copy in Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol 1 (Meetings 1-8). []
  63. R.G. Menzies to T.H. Laby, 1 October 1940, copy in Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 1 – Vol 1 (Meetings 1-8). []
  64. SIOP Meeting, 28 March 1944, Australian Archives, MP1472/4 Box 2 – Vol 6 (Meetings 24-7). []
  65. Advisory Committee on Optical and Scientific Instruments, Meeting 29 March 1944, Australian Archives, MP1472/4 Box 2 – Vol 6 (Meetings 24-7). []
  66. F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD) to R. Woolley, 14 August 1940, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 3 – Optical Panel. []
  67. Routing slip attached to letter from R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 9 August 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  68. Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel, Report of Meeting 16 February 1945, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, Box 2 – Vol. 7 (Meetings 28-29). []
  69. Interview with S.C.B. Gascoigne, 14 April 1994. []
  70. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 25 August 1941, Australian Archives, A431/1, 52/201. []
  71. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 27 May 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  72. R. Woolley to L.J. Hartnett, 16 July 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  73. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 6 August 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  74. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 6 August 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  75. Rogers, Appendix 4. []
  76. R. Woolley to T.A. Harrigan (OPD), 31 March 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  77. Deputy Director, PMG, to Secretary, Department of Munitions, 15 May 1941, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 2 – Optical – Mt Stromlo. []
  78. Secretary of Apprenticeship Board to Principal, Canberra Secondary College, 20 January 1942, Australian Archives, A659, 43/1/1952. []
  79. OMP Minutes, 10-13 June 1941, Australian Archives, MP1472/4, OMP Minutes – Vol 2 (Meetings 9-13). []
  80. Details in Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  81. Canberra Times, 28 November 1944, p. 3. []
  82. Canberra Times, 29 November 1944, p. 3. []
  83. Rogers, p. 85. []
  84. R. Woolley to T.J. Malcolmson (OPD), 20 September 1943, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 12 – Optical-Machine tools & Mt Stromlo. []
  85. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 18 January 1943, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 12 – Optical – Machine tools & Mt Stromlo. []
  86. ‘Notes to be used in the writing of a history of optical munitions’, p.22, Australian Archives, MP438/3, Item 58. []
  87. Rogers p. 81-2. []
  88. R. Woolley to F.S. Daley (Controller, OPD), 18 January 1943, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 12 – Optical – Machine tools & Mt Stromlo. []
  89. Interview with Francis Lord, 16 July 1994. []
  90. Diary entries, 26 January 1943, 5 February 1943, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []
  91. Memo from T.J. Malcolmson to T. Hedberg, 21 January 1943, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 12 – Optical – Machine tools & Mt Stromlo. []
  92. Memo from T.J. Malcolmson to T. Hedberg, 15 June 1943, Australian Archives, MP392/9, Box 12 – Optical – Machine tools & Mt Stromlo. []
  93. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 27 February 1940, Australian Archives, A659/1, 43/1/5295 Pt 1. []
  94. Cabinet Agendum from H.S. Foll (Minister for the Interior), 30 May 1940, Australian Archives, A659/1, 43/1/5295 Pt 1. []
  95. ‘Melbourne Observatory’, memo by H.A. Barrenger (Department of Interior), 29 January1943, Australian Archives, A659/1, 43/1/5295 Pt 1; R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 5 May 1941, Australian Archives, A431/1, 53/733 Pt 1. []
  96. R.Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 10 November 1943, Australian Archives, A431/1, 53/733 Pt 1. []
  97. Gascoigne, 1984, p. 598. []
  98. Memo from Acting Assistant-Secretary, Treasury, to Secretary, Department of Interior, 2 August 1943, Australian Archives, A659/1, 43/1/5295 Pt 1 []
  99. R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, 16 August 1943, A659/1, 43/1/5295 Pt 1 []
  100. A.C.D. Rivett to Secretary, Department of Interior, 2 September 1941,Australian Archives, A427/1, G1941/7. []
  101. Gascoigne, 1984, p. 598; Mellor, p.508. []
  102. Ben Gascoigne married in 1943 and moved into a house on Mount Stromlo. []
  103. Diary entry, 30 January 1941, vol. 17, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []
  104. Memo to Minister of the Interior by David Rivett and O.U. Vonwiller, 7 July 1937, Australian Archives, A431/1, 54/260. []
  105. Canberra Times, 6 January 1942. []
  106. N. Chamberlain interview, 25 June 1994. []
  107. Memo from R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, ‘Post-war reconstruction of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, 13 May 1943, Australian Archives, A431, 47/2068; Memo from R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, ‘Future work on Mount Stromlo’, 28 May 1946, Australian Archives, A431, 46/1629. []
  108. Canberra Times, 3 August 1942, p. 2. []
  109. A.S. 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), p. 12., AWM54, 435/1/6. []
  110. Mellor p. 642 []
  111. ‘Inventions Directorate of Army’, 25 May 1942, AWM54, 435/3/3. []
  112. Fitzpatrick, p. 19 []
  113. Hartnett, Big Wheels, p.167. []
  114. Hartnett, Big Wheels, p.166 []
  115. AID Verbatim Minutes, 15 November 1944, Australian Archives, MP927 A177/1/106 Pt 2. []
  116. Fitzpatrick, p. 80. []
  117. Fitzpatrick, p. 43. []
  118. ‘The Army Inventions Directorate’, 10 November 1944, AWM54, 435/3/2. []
  119. Hartnett, Big Wheels, p. 165 []
  120. See Register of Inventions, Australian Archives, MP1164/12, Vols 1-3 []
  121. AID Verbatim Minutes, p. G, 15 November 1944, Australian Archives, MP927, A177/1/106 Pt 3. []
  122. AID Verbatim Minutes, p. G, 15 November 1944, Australian Archives, MP927, A177/1/106 Pt 3. []
  123. AID Verbatim Minutes, p. N, 15 November 1944, Australian Archives, MP927, A177/1/106 Pt 3. []
  124. AID Minutes, 18 September 1945, p. 2, Australian Archives, MP927, A177/1/106 Pt 3. []
  125. J.W. B’Brien to D.P. Mellor, 26 February 1955, AWM74, Item 16. []
  126. ‘Post-war reconstruction of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory’, memo from R. Woolley to Secretary, Department of Interior, Australian Archives, A431, 47/2068. []
  127. AID Verbatim Minutes, 18 September 1945, p. 18, Australian Archives, MP927, A177/1/106 Pt 2. []
  128. AID Verbatim Minutes, 18 September 1945, p. 18, Australian Archives, MP927, A177/1/106 Pt 2. []
  129. Woolley p. 56. []
  130. Canberra Times, 11 October 1945, p. 2. []

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I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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