The Waterworth Optical Collection:
1. houses an important collection of images and objects that reveal an amazing story of Tasmanian character and ingenuity, of a call to serve the country in a time of dire need, of intellectual brilliance combined with a can-do spirit and, above all, bears witness to an important piece of social history. All set against the backdrop of World War Two and its aftermath.
2. story has it all – an eccentric professor in leather-patched tweed jackets who worked with Ernest Rutherford and was one of Tasmania’s earliest conservationists; a mild-mannered inventor with an inquisitive mind who at 21 invented the world’s first automatic record changer, with a hypno-dentist father and a mother who successfully advocated for the needs of Tasmanian women and children; lives bathed in music; a call to arms and; an industry pulling itself up by its boot straps; lives saved and a war won.
3. ... and beside these movie-like elements, lie the stories of nearly 200 women, housewives and young school-leavers, learning new skills, working together in teams, making, fixing and designing thousands of finely honed glass and metal objects – precision instruments for defence and attack. This experience profoundly changed and empowered the lives of these women – providing skills and independence which persisted long after the war had ended.
4. the tens of thousands of objects produced during and after the war in Hobart’s Optical Annexe and the Waterworth factory are merely sampled in this digital archive. They represent, however, an important link between the Tasmanian community and its University, between amateur and professional science and industry, and a key stage in the changing role of women in Australian society.
BRIEF HISTORY: from gunsights to discovering planets!
1940 - A Call to Arms
Two Hobart scientists and a local inventor respond to a national call for assistance for the war effort. They, along with five university physics students and more than 160 local women, developed and manufactured prisms and lenses for optical instruments for the Allied Forces (from binoculars to cameras, from rifle to bomb sights) - all produced from fused window glass. The output from what became the Hobart Optical Annexe (initially designated the Optical Munitions Annexe 9/101) and its university – community association was such a success locally, nationally and internationally that during the war :
1. Secret Missions - Eric Waterworth was secretly flown to both the USA and Britain, with examples and designs of lenses for rifle sights and surveillance cameras, to advise military experts and optical manufacturers on their production;
2. Secret Flights - RAAF flights in a Beaufort bomber were made over Hobart to test camera lenses created and built at the Annexe which were later used during reconnaissance flights by the Allied airforces over Asia and Europe;
3. Diggers Arms - Thousands of lenses, prisms and instruments made at the Annexe found their way into the rifles, binoculars and gunsights used by ordinary soldiers, airmen and seaman during the battles of the Pacific, North African and European campaigns against the Axis forces. Many allied airmen looking down at the enemy territory they flew over, did so through lenses made by the Tasmanian women of the Annexe.
1945 - War's End
After the war, most of the women employed at the Annexe were highly skilled and eager to continue working. As a result Eric Waterworth took on the responsibility of creating a new peacetime business – the design and production of slide projectors for schools and other optical instruments for sale Australia-wide and overseas. The male research team of former and current Physics students and machine operators also continued in the post-war business. The new business operated successfully until Waterworth's retirement in the 1960s.
Thus the Optical Munitions Annexe 9/101, producing tens of thousands of components for the war effort, evolved into an Australian sunrise industry of optical instrument production which continued to employ many war service women and their daughters until the 1970s.
More than a banausic phenomenon, it represents an important transition in Australian women’s wartime and post-war social and economic roles.
The Annexe Legacy
Later re-named the University’s Waterworth Annexe, still part of the university's Domain Campus, continued its positive working relationship with the University (even after the Physics Department moved to Sandy Bay).
From this collaboration was also borne a new age in optical astronomy in Tasmania, which remains a strong research focus some 80 years on. Eric’s son, Michael Waterworth was a central figure in this research effort, which resulted in the building of the Canopus Observatory on Mt Rumney. This research effort, supported by entrepreneur and former UTAS Physics student David Warren, has led to some of the earliest discoveries of new planets in our galaxy.
A Partnership First
This partnering of the University of Tasmania with local business and the local community during the war years was an Australian First. Its truly global contribution to the war effort and its successes were well-documented in the press of the time.
The Waterworth Optical Collection showcases objects, documents, images primarily from The Eric Waterworth Collection held at the University of Tasmania. This Collection was gifted to the university in 2017 by the late Dr Peter Smith OAM. Other objects have been loaned or gifted for use in this digital archive by family members, friends and associates of those involved in the Annexe and its history.