The Giant's Eye: the Optical Munitions Exhibition Bright Sparcs Exhibition Papers

Some themes in the development of optics in Australia

H.C. Bolton, Physics Department, Monash University, Clayton 3168, Victoria

Reproduced with permission from Australian Physicist

This paper is an enlargement of the after-dinner speech given at the Conference on Progress in Optical Physics at Melbourne University, August 1984, organised as an international conference sponsored by the International Commission for Optics together with the Australian Optical Society.

While writing the biography of the late J.J. McNeill [1] I became aware of two aspects of the history of optical research in Australia in which he had been involved. First there was his work before and during the 1939-45 of their optics section and eventually of their physics section. This work led me to consider the work done for the war effort by the academic physics community in Australia; this can be called outstanding without any exaggeration and which had consequences that appeared after the War. Secondly there was McNeill's link with the work on the diffraction grating ruling engine at CSIRO Chemical Physics Division and his deep interest in the work of H.I. Grayson who made a first class diffraction ruling engine of international standard in Melbourne from the summer of 1909-10 onwards. These two themes were very important to McNeill and on the second he wrote articles on Grayson's engine and on the Davies-Staff engine that was made at Chemical Physics [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]. I shall take these two themes in turn, taking first the war effort in optical physics

The standard history of science in Australia in the 1939-45 War is given in the book by Mellor [6]. It is shown there that the physicists were linked early in the War into an organisation called the Optical Munitions Panel which spread over nearly every academic centre and three government laboratories. This was not the only major effort made by the physicists; they contributed greatly to radio and radar one of the consequences of which was the early development of radio-astronomy in Australia. Mellor refers in his book to a written history of the Optical Munitions Panel which was traced to the Australian Archives in Brighton, Melbourne [7]. It was written by J.S. Rogers who was on the staff at Melbourne University Department of Natural Philosophy [8] [9].

The story starts with T.H. Laby, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Melbourne University who in 1939, before the War, was President of the Australian branch of the Institute of Physics; the Secretary of the branch was A.D. Ross, Professor of Physics at the University of Western Australia. Laby was concerned to find the "best way by which physicists could assist Australia in the national crisis." In August 1939 Laby wrote to the Prime Minister R.G Menzies suggesting that a consultative committee be set up to assist the Government. He suggested three duties, one being on manpower, the second on the new tasks for Australian physicists as a result of a war which could isolate Australia from its fellow Dominions and the third, the most important for us, "which subjects should be specially studied so that physicists may be ready to take part in war work with a minimum of preliminary training and direct the teaching of Physics students into suitable channels." The Prime Minister replied asking for more detailed proposals and although there was a meeting of Laby and Ross with the members from the Departments of Supply and Defence there was no call from the Government until June 1940. The Dunkirk withdrawal had by then taken place and the War changed its character amd its urgency almost overnight.

This delay of nearly one year in organising the science community occurred in Britain also. In Britain one trigger to the change seems to have been the production of a Penguin Special called Science in War [9]. This was an anonymous book, produced at white heat and the authors are now known. Among them were S. Zuckermann and J.D. Bernal. It was Zuckermann's dining club the Tots and Quots that broughtthese persons together [10]. The publication of this Penguin irritated some of the leaders of science [11]. Indeed the crisis in British political and military life was urgent enough and the publication of one outspoken Penguin can scarcely be claimed to have a deep significance. The President of the Royal Society was then W.H. Bragg who played a leading role in the harnessing of science and scientists to the war effort. One of the British responses was the interviewing of all science undergraduates in the country by C.P. Snow and the psychologist H.S. Hoff who placed them in the right scientific organisation. These were later called "Snowmen" of which I was one.

The response from Australia to the crisis of June 1940 was a meeting in Melbourne taken by L.J. Hartnett, the founder of the Holden car firm and now Sir Laurence Hartnett who was then Director of Ordnance Production of the Ministry of Munitions. The meeting was attended by the physicists T.H. Laby of Melbourne University, E.L. Sayce and H.J. Frost of the Munitions Supply Laboratories along with others. The ostensible reason for the meeting was Hartnett's findings that optical telescopic gun sights for tanks were not available in Australia and that it was unlikely that they could be obtained from Britain. Laby suggested that R.v.d.R. Woolley of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory and O.U. Vonwiller of the Physics Department of Sydney University be approached as well; this was the farsighted step of Laby that enabled a large part of the Australian physics community to be brought together in common action.

Hartnett's meeting also recommended that Laby should set up a group to draw up the optical specifications of telescopic sights and other instruments, the lenses of which could be manufactured in Australia. This group became the Optical Munitions Panel and their first meeting was a month later. Hartnett presided over this first meeting and the physicists present were N.A. Esserman, originally of Munitions Supply Laboratories and later of CSIRO National Standards Laboratory, Kerr Grant of Adelaide University, E.O. Hercus of Melbourne University, E.L. Sayce of Munitions Supply Laboratory, O.U. Vonwiller of Sydney University, R.v.d.R. Woolley of the Commonwealth Solar Laboratory and J.S. Rogers of Melbourne University who was the Secretary. Other physicists who were later on the Panel were G.H. Briggs of National Standards Laboratory, H.J. Frost of Munitions Supply Laboratories, A.L. McAulay of the University of Tasmania, A.D. Ross of Western Australia University and P.G. Law of Melbourne University who was later Acting Secretary. Only Queensland University was not represented on the Panel but its Physics Department did other war work. There were Service representatives as well. The Panel designed and made instruments mainly for the Army. The head-quarters of the Panel was in the Physics Department of Melbourne University.

The War of 1939-45 started as an "optical" war. There were still traditions of being able to see the enemy. There were strong emotional connections with the War of 1914-18 exemplified by the work of optical glass manufacture and optical instruments in Australia which was helped greatly by the book by Wright which had been written to explain the work in the USA to develop their own optical glass manufacture and optical industry during the first world war [12]. Of course, radar was ready in Britain and Germany at the beginning of the War of 1939-45 and developed in Australia during it and there was a change in character of the assistance that scientists gave to war work. At the end of 1943 the Optical Munitions Panel changed its title to Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel in order to widen the scope of its work but in fact the momentum in optical work by then was large and the Panel continued in optical development until the end of the War.

The Panel made a decision early not to have a central research institution. Each of the senior physicists in their separate laboratories was given optical instruments to be designed by them and then to be made commercially. The Panel was advisory to the Ordnance Production Directorate of the Ministry of Munitions and this Directorate placed the orders of the instruments over a number of firms. Mentioning only a few, there were the Australian Optical Company in Sydney and Melbourne, the British Optical Company in Sydney, W. Handley Pty Ltd in Melbourne and F. Tough, Instrument Maker in Perth. The Tough business is still active and the present proprietor Mr S.H. Tough is very keen to see that a collection is made of these optical instruments. It should possibly be attached to one or more of the museums in Australia.

There were three Government laboratories in the Panel; the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, Canberra, Munitions Supply Laboratories, Melbourne and the National Standards Laboratory, Sydney. There were five University physics laboratories: Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Tasmania and Western Australia. The Munitions Supply Laboratories played a very special role. The two senior physicists were E.L. Sayce and H.J. Frost and before the War, N. Esserman had been there. The work of MSL on optical munitions was only a small part of its work. The optics work was under way before the War and one of the first tasks was to prepare for the collecting of binoculars, their testing and fitting them with graticules. MSL expected to handle many thousands of binoculars [1].

During the War MSL built up an excellent glass-working shop and J.J. McNeill was put in charge of this. He had been trained in the Physics Department at Imperial College, London at the beginning of the War under L.C. Martin and had also worked under F. Twyman of the optical firm of Adam Hilger. With these two strands in his training, McNeill became a link between the physicists and the optical technicians. McNeill's reports on optical techniques were circulated from MSL amongst the members of the Panel. MSL had also a strong team on optical computation under G.G. Schaefer and after the War, the Universities Commission ordered student microscopes from the Ministry of Munitions. The optics for these were designed and manufactured at MSL. There were two microscopes made, one by MSL and one by L.D. Colechin of the Australian Optical Company. Examples of both are currently in the Museum for Medical History at Melbourne University and were displayed at the Conference.

T.H. Laby played the major role not only at Melbourne University but also among the physics community in general. At Melbourne University, he stopped all research other than optical munitions during the War. He built up a large research effort in optics by using young graduates. Substantially he organised a research school in optics and the names of the students are now well known in laboratories all round Australia. Some of them are, in Melbourne, E.H.S. Burhop, E. Laby, D. Medley, V.D. Hopper, W.G. Kannaluik, R.L. Abbey, J.W. Blamey, J.F.G. Darby. E.R. Johnson, J.F. Richardson, H.D. Rathgeber, J.S. Dryden, J.B. Willis, in Hobart, F.D. Cruikshank, E.N. & P.H. Waterworth, A.G. Fenton, in Perth, S.E. Williams and C.A. Ramm. There is a rare photograph of a meeting of the Panel with some of the optical instruments [13].

The Chemistry Department of Melbourne University was then under E.J. Hartung and he directed the work on the production of optical glass in Australia ([6],[7]. Before the War no optical glass had been made in any of the British Dominions. During the War, optical glass was made in Canada and in Sydney at the Australian Window Glass Pty Ltd. In Canada the glass was made by a special arrangement with Chance Brothers in England but negotiations to do the same in Australia failed. The Australian High Commissioner in the UK was drawn into the discussions and he reported that "Chance Bros were opposed to glass manufacture in Australia"[7]. Chance Bros also reported that "having regard to the problems of chemical and physical control as well as the highly complicated details therein involved. Australian glass makers may be underestimating the difficulties which they have to face". The High Commissioner stated also that "negotiations turn on the contentious question of post war reconstruction".[7]

Advice on glass making was given to Australia from the USA. The intermediaries were G.H. Grimwade and H.G. Little (the latter from ACI) sent by the Ministry of Munitions. The National Bureau of Standards, Washington gave much help to Grimwade and Little and also to G.H. Briggs and R.G. Giovanelli of National Standards Laboratory. Hartung was aided by the book of F.E. Wright ([12] which was written as a result of the experience in the USA in the War of 1914-18. The first sample of optical glass was made by Hartung in December 1940 only a few months after the start of the Panel. The Sydney furnaces making the optical glass closed down in March 1945. There is now a collection of this Australian optical glass in the archives of Melbourne University.

The health of T.H. Laby was not good towards the end of his chairmanship. He retired from the Chair in the Department of Natural Philosophy in 1942 but continued until 1944 as Chairman of the Optical Munitions Panel [14]. In that year there was a break between Laby and the Panel Committee; Laby resigned and Kerr Grant of Adelaide became Chairman of the Panel for the remainder of its life [15]. This is a good place to pay a tribute to T.H. Laby. It was his stimulus in 1939 that brought the physicists together and established a first class Australia-wide research activity. He was a physicist who could grasp quickly new problems in new fields and could see how to find their solutions. Towards the end of his life he seems to have been a difficult man in Committee but he was always too important both as a physicist and as a personality to ignore. Shortly after the start of the work of the OMP, E.L. Sayce, one of the physicists at MSL, paid Laby a spontaneous compliment in one of his letters to J.J. McNeill; "...With the introduction of Professor Laby, all sorts of new ideas and methods are being tried."[16]

Looking at the work of the Optical Munitions Panel it is useful to view it in a wider perspective. It seems to be charcteristically Australian to have allowed the individual departments to go their separate ways and not to have a central laboratory. It can be compared with the equally characteristic activities of physicists in the UK and the USA even if the scales of action are widely different. I am speaking of what many physicists would regard as typical of the time and the country; in the UK it was the effort put into the development of Radar culminating in the Radar Research Establishment at Malvern and in the USA it was the development of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. There were similarities in approach as indeed could be expected seeing that they all involved problems in physics. They also all generated much intense activity with loyalty to the problem in hand. All of them involved young physicists in the way that any big research group acts when it has a central research theme.

The second theme in optical research in Australia is the development of ruling engines. The great name in this field is H.J. Grayson who built a diffraction grating ruling engine in Melbourne beginning in 1909. It is not widely known however that this work arose out of earlier work in Melbourne on microscope ruling engines. In the nineteeth century when optical microscopes were being steadily improved especiallv with the theoretical work of E. Abbe and the technical support of Zeiss [17], it was important for a user of a microscope to know its ultimate resolution. The easiest way to find this was to have a test ruling on a microscope cover slip or a slide on which were ruled mechanically several bands of lines. Each band had a few lines, say 5 or 10 at separations of about a micron.

The great worker in this field was F. Nobert of Germany whose best ruling was at a separation of one-tenth of a micron. This is so fine that neither the best of optical microscopes nor diffraction techniques could resolve them. It was uncertain if Nobert had really ruled the lines and it was only recently that G.l'E. Turner of Oxford used a scanning electron microscope and showed that the ruled lines were indeed there [18]. In the nineteenth century there was a great increase in the number of amateur biological collectors and each had an optical microscope.

In Australia this activity was enhanced in the excitement of finding new specimens and again a handy scale was needed for optical microscopy. The two friends H.J. Grayson and J. Shephard had come to Melbourne from Yorkshire in the 1880 s with backgrounds in microscopy and in mechanical skills [2]. As amateur scientists both made a micro-ruling engine for test rulings about 1893. The Grayson micro-ruling engine was rediscovered a few years ago and was restored by Geoff Stiff in the workshop of the CSIRO Division of Chemical Physics. Many Grayson rulings are known and the best known to the author is one with a series of bands and the smallest resolution is one-fifth of a micron. It was not until 1983 that the author learnt of the existence of the Shephard engine. It was in the Museum of Victoria and it has been restored by Ken Nuske in the mechanical workshops of the Physics Department of Monash University. Advice on its use was given by Sandy Janke and Geoff Stiff of the Division of Chemical Physics.

Only one test ruling from the Shephard engine is known and it has a series of bands whose resolution goes down to one half of a micron. It would help to understand the story more fully if there were more Shephard rulings and an appeal was issued [19]. The single Shephard test ruling has been examined not only under a good optical microscope which resolved all the lines but also by using it as a simple diffraction grating using a laser beam.

The two friends Grayson and Shephard eventually fell out and Shephard was moved to publish a letter [20]. As far as can be seen it seems that Grayson was interested in making test rulings as a scientific problem and he was quite happy to make rulings and give them away. These rulings were known internationally with a first class reputation. Grayson then worked for Brunnings the market gardeners in Melbourne.

Shephard however wanted to make the test rulings as a commercial proposition; he was in business as an engineer. Shephard remained interested in microscopy as such and established a reputation for which he is still remembered in microscopy circles in Melbourne [21]. Grayson went on to construct a diffraction grating ruling engine at his home and later was employed by Melbourne University in the Departments of Geology and Physics. His diffraction grating ruling engine was in use in the Physics Department of Melbourne University in the 1920's.

The two micro-ruling engines of Grayson and Shephard and the diffraction grating ruling engine were all on display in the Physics Department of Melbourne University during the Conference on Progress in Optical Physics, August 1984; it is a tribute to the vision of the organisers of the Conference that they brought the engines together for the first time to show some of these traditions in the history of physics in Australia.


[1] Bolton, H.C., 'J.J. McNeill and the Development of Optical Research in Australia', Historical Records of Australian Science , 5, 55-70, (1983).
[2] McNeill. J.J., 'Diffraction Grating Ruling in Australia', Records of the Australian Academy of Science , 2, 18-38, (1972).
[3] McNeill. J.J., 'Diffraction Grating Ruling in Australia Part II', Records of the Australian Academy of Science , 3, 30-51, (1974).
[4] Bolton, H.C. and the Late J.J. McNeill, 'H.J. Grayson. A pioneer of diffraction gratings', Victorian Historical Journal , 52, 63-66, (1981).
[5] Grayson. H.J., Australian Dictionary of Biography , vol. 9, 1891-1939. Entry by H.C. Bolton.
[6] Mellor. D.P., Australia in the War of 1939-45 . Series 4 (Civil) Vol. 5. The role of Science and Industry (1958), Canberra. Australian War Memorial.
[7] Rogers, J.S., The History Or the Scientific Instruments and Optical Panel initially Optical Munitions Panel: July 1940-December 1946. Typescript in Australian Archives (Brighton). Accession Number MP 730/11 Box 3. Additional Correspondence on the History, Accession Number MP 730/11 Box 4. Item 16, File 256.S.4. A copy of the History is now held in the Basser Library Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.
[8] Rogers, J.S., Australian Physicist (1964). 1, 124.
[9] Anonymous, Science in War, (1940) Penguin Special S74.
[10] Zuckermann, S., Autobiography; From Apes to Warlords (1978) London, Hamilton. Appendix 1. The dining club was named from the aphorism of Terence, quot homines, tot sententide.
[11] Caroe. G.M., 'William Henry Bragg 1862-1942' (l978) Cambridge University Press p. l54.
[12] Wright, F.E., The Manufacture of Optical Glass and Optical Instruments , Ordnance Department Document 203, Washington, Government Printing Office (1921).
[13] Newsletter of the History of Australian Science No 3, February 1984; Editor, R.W. Home. Melbourne University.
[14] Laby, T.H., Australian Dictionary of Biography , vol. 9 1891-1939. Entry by Cecily Close.
[15] Tomlin, S.G., 'Physics and physicists in the University of Adelaide: the first seventy-five years', Reprint ADP 132 June 1975 and reprinted June 1980. pp46-64; Kerr Grant. Department of Physics, the University of Adelaide. Partly published in Australian Physicist (1975) 12, 165-168. (1980) 13, 76-80 and 97-99.
[16] Letter, E.L. Sayce to J.J. McNeill. 11 September 1940, p. 2. In the McNeill Archive, University of Melbourne Archives.
[17] Carl Zeiss, On the 150th anniversary of his birthday 11 September 1966. Supplement to Jena Review . Zeiss, Jena, D.D.R.
[18] Turner, G.l.E., Physics Bulletin (1967), 18, 338-348.
[19] Bolton, H C., 'Historical Optical Equipment: Two Appeals', Australian Physicist , (June 1984) 21, 108.
[20] Shephard, J., Victorian Naturalist (1895-6) 12,8.
[21] Personal communications to the author by members of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria, 1984. Members of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria. 1984.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 29 January 1997
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (
Prepared by: Denise Sutherland
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 19 February 1998

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