Out of Window-Glass, Women and War: the Waterworth Optical Collection Goes Online

Published 06 Dec 2017

Our island ‘can-do spirit, secret wartime missions and reconnaissance flights are elements captured in a unique collection, featuring the work of Hobart’s World War II ‘Optical Munitions Annexe 9/101’ and its 25 year post-war manufacturing legacy.

The ‘Waterworth Optical Collection’ has been launched in preparation for the 2018 75th anniversary of the formation of the Optical Annexe.

Built on the University of Tasmania’s Domain campus, ‘The Annexe’ produced countless high quality lenses and over 17,000 prisms from ordinary windowglass - for reconnaissance cameras, gunsights, telescopes, bombsights, binoculars and other instruments for the war effort.

These products were designed by a dedicated team of University of Tasmania Physics students, led by Professor Leicester McAulay and local inventor Eric Waterworth. The beating heart of the Annexe was a 200 strong community workforce – most of whom were women – plucked from normal domestic life and trained as highly-skilled machinists, glass workers and lens makers. Secret missions to Britain and the USA advised military experts on expertise in optical munitions design, and covert RAAF flights over Hobart tested camera lenses created and built at the Annexe.

The Annexe became Australia’s first post-war optical factory, making the famed Waterworth projectors, lenses and instruments for mapmaking and education.

A ‘virtual exhibition team’ comprising a University Collections curator, historians, artists and scientists is developing interdisciplinary research projects, exhibitions, and installations using the objects in the collection. The developing collection already comprises more than 200 items, including lenses, magnifiers, slide projectors, instrument cases, stereoscopes, related optical artefacts, newspaper articles, photographs and advertising materials. Many of these were gifted to the University by the late Dr Peter Smith OAM.

Waterworth Optical Collection curator, Lynn Davies, said that the collection is a shared cultural asset that “showcases local ingenuity and passion and reveals a vital link between the university and our local community at a time of need”.

“This digital archive has been created as a virtual museum to share the stories and objects centred on these wartime and post-war activities,” she said.

“We hope the community might help us find missing objects, or photographs of Annexe staff and other stories of these wartime activities, and that some might be lent or even donated to add to our collection.”

Director of the University’s Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies Stefan Petrow said the online collection provides the chance to uncover important local, wartime and post-war Tasmanian history.

“This is an exciting opportunity to uncover a crucial role women played in Australia during World War Two,” he said. “In the post-war period, the Annexe showcased the entrepreneurial flair of which Tasmanians are capable”.

The digital collection is publicly accessible at http://waterworth.omeka.net

More information on how to contribute to the collection is available online.