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Alcock, Alfred Upton (1865–1962)

by G. B. Lincolne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Alfred Upton Alcock (1865-1962), electrical engineer and inventor, was born on 22 September 1865 at Hawthorn, Victoria, eldest son of Henry Upton Alcock and his wife Jane, née Webb, both of whom were Irish-born. At the age of 30 Henry Alcock had migrated to Melbourne in the Africa, arriving on 15 April 1853. He briefly tried the goldfields but soon returned to his old trade of cabinet-making. He set up a sawmill and moulding works and began manufacturing billiard tables, trading from 1860 as Alcock & Co.; by 1901 the firm had branches in Perth and Brisbane. Alcock became known as one of the best judges of timber in the colony and developed highly skilled techniques of seasoning wood. His tables won many awards and, although not a billiard player himself, he arranged tours of leading British players to Victoria and received hundreds of testimonials from users all over the world. In 1863 he published in Melbourne his Epitome of the Game of Billiards which reached a fifth edition in 1901 as The Alcock Book of Billiards. Survived by three sons and four daughters, he died on 6 August 1912.

Alfred was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School from 1879 and then worked in his father's factory. In his spare time he taught himself applied electricity; at 16 he charged a Leyden jar from a wine bottle spinning in a lathe, and later demonstrated water-boiling and cooking by electricity to his friends. He applied for his first patent in December 1883: for 'improvements in electrical apparatus for registering numbers such as for billiard marking'. Many other applications followed in the next few years; Alcock showed remarkable inventive talent, the technical ability to design and the craftsman's pain-staking skill to construct his own prototypes. His work attracted notice and in 1889 he was admitted to membership of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London.

In the mid-1880s Alcock became interested in electricity-supply to the public. He had constructed a dynamo and in 1888 he and his father established a generating-station in Corr's Lane, Melbourne. The Ganz transformer was introduced to Australia during this year and the system of supply adopted by Alcock was single-phase alternating current. Next year he formed the A. U. Alcock Electric Light and Motive Power Co. and developed a larger station in Burnley Street, Richmond. By 1893 he was supplying 15,000 lights as far away as Footscray. Under the provisions of the Electric Light and Power Act 1896, Alcock's company was granted an Order in Council which gave permission to continue its works in Melbourne, Richmond, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Kew and South Melbourne but not permission to extend further. In 1899 the firm was taken over by the Brush Electrical Engineering Co. of England and a new venture, the Electric Light and Traction Co. was formed, with Alcock a director. This supplied electricity throughout many Melbourne suburbs and later formed the basis of the retail distribution system of the State Electricity Commission.

Alcock's earliest major invention was a device for electrically co-ordinating the range-setter and fire-control for artillery, which was tested successfully at Port Phillip Heads; in 1897 he formed a small company to promote it. Not long after his marriage in August that year to Jessie McFarlane, he went to England where the War Office gave him facilities at Tilbury and Shoeburyness fortresses to develop his device. When after three years the British government refused to commit itself to purchasing the invention, Alcock returned to Melbourne. He received no recompense for his work for the War Office, but there is evidence to show that it pioneered the application of electrically co-ordinated range-setting and fire-control to naval vessels. While in England Alcock had also invented an electrically operated ship's telegraph. A British company became interested in this and invited him to join the firm, but he refused.

In 1910 Alcock moved to Perth to manage the family business there. About that time he began work on a model which some fifty years later was acknowledged by the Westland Aircraft Co. as the basis of the modern hovercraft. The working model of his device, tested successfully before government officials and the press in Perth in 1912 and later in Melbourne and Sydney, consisted of a wooden platform with an electric motor upon it which drove both a compressor and a propeller. From the compressor, air was pumped beneath the platform to provide a cushion of air, while the propeller provided motive power. Alcock called the method of travel 'floating traction' and hoped that his invention might be used in the outback. A provisional patent was taken out in 1914 but financial backing was lacking and the patent was allowed to lapse.

In 1917 Alcock returned to Melbourne with his wife and family and entered into partnership with Herbert del Cott. From 1923 the firm co-operated with the Foundation Co. of London in converting Melbourne's cable trams to electric traction. Alcock was also experimenting with a meat-defrosting process based on an earlier device by which he had seasoned timber for billiard tables by passing an alternating current through it. In 1923 he visited England and demonstrated his defrosting process at Smithfield Market, but despite wide interest it was not developed commercially apart from use by a few passenger liners.

In 1927 Alcock retired to England; the family had always been a close one, and the parents wished to join their son, who was studying at Cambridge, and their two daughters. For the next twenty-three years they lived in or near London but mainly at Surbiton, Surrey. Alcock continued to work on his defrosting process and in the mid-1930s designed a cabinet to disinfect library books, but most of his research was in the field of physics. During World War II he helped to manage a small engineering operation set up by his son-in-law to produce components for the Air Ministry.

After moving to Budleigh Salterton near Exeter, about 1950, Alcock died at Exmouth on 1 February 1962; his wife died a month later.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • L. H. Hayward, The History of Air Cushion Vehicles (Lond, 1963)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1886, 7 Nov 1892, 7 Aug 1912, 21 Jan 1924, 31 May 1941
  • Table Talk, 22 Sept 1893
  • Illustrated Australian News, 1 July 1896
  • West Australian, 3 June 1966
  • private information.

Citation details

G. B. Lincolne, 'Alcock, Alfred Upton (1865–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/alcock-alfred-upton-4990/text8291, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 July 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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