Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pomeroy, John (1873–1950)

by Tom Griffiths

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Pomeroy (1873-1950), inventor and pieman, was born on 17 August 1873 at Invercargill, New Zealand, son of James Henry Pomeroy, ship's carpenter, and his wife Louisa, née Brokenshaw. His career as an inventor began early when, aged 12, he designed a non-slip clothes prop and sold the patent to a hardware dealer for £50. He was educated locally and at 14 was briefly apprenticed in an Invercargill engineering shop. He then worked on his father's fleet of trawlers and, when about 20, signed on a windjammer and sailed the world. Returning to New Zealand he married Mary MacDonald at Invercargill on 14 April 1903. Divorced in August 1911, he married Amy Amelia Blom at West Melbourne on 11 September.

In his backyard, on his Southland farm, and later, when he settled permanently in Melbourne after World War I, Pomeroy invented many household and industrial items. These included a hat fastener, a machine that converted smoke into gas fuel, a process for taking the bitterness out of oranges, a headlamp dimmer and a painless rabbit-trap. Sometimes the inventions were financially successful—the sale of his 'elixir of life', Puratone, yielded him £25,000 in the United States of America in 1919—but often his eccentric ideas did not achieve commercial production. One failure was his pneumatic leg-guards for cricketers which, when tested in Melbourne, sent every fast ball to the boundary.

Pomeroy's most public successes as an inventor came through his designs for explosive bullets used in the first and second world wars when he was forced to go overseas to find committed interest in his work. His first explosive bullet was invented in 1902 but New Zealand army experts, although impressed, did nothing about it. Disappointed, Pomeroy left for Australia and later England where, as early as August 1914, he submitted his design to the British War Office. After an initial rebuttal, Pomeroy was recalled from Melbourne to develop his idea. On 2 September 1916 Pomeroy's bullets, together with new Brock ammunition, first proved their effectiveness against the growing menace of the German Zeppelin. After the war the British government granted Pomeroy £25,000 in royalties and reputedly offered him a knighthood which he refused.

In 1937 Pomeroy showed Australian army authorities his design for a new anti-aircraft incendiary shell. Following its rejection, Pomeroy sold his new explosive bullet first to China and then the United States. Pomeroy later claimed that features of his bullet had been utilized by the American government in their 'blue-nose', .5-calibre shells that were successful in the Pacific War, but his claim for £5 million in royalties was rejected.

From the early 1920s Pomeroy maintained a steadier income through the proprietorship of Melbourne hotels and particularly by establishing a night pie-stall outside Flinders Street station. 'Pop's Pie Cart', drawn by a white horse, became a Melbourne landmark. Pomeroy himself let down the counter flaps each night and sold pies, pasties, coffee, steak and kidney on toast and plates of peas until early morning.

Plump, round-faced and silver-haired, Pomeroy was a prolific inventor with a defiantly amateur style. He was more concerned with ideas than with marketing them, and valued intuition above expert advice. He died of cancer, for which he had been seeking a cure in his final years, at South Melbourne on 21 August 1950. Two daughters of his first marriage and a daughter and two sons of his second survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Whitehouse, The Zeppelin Fighters (NY, 1972)
  • People (Sydney), 15 Mar 1950
  • Parade, Jan 1955
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1916, 25 Nov 1939, 'Weekend Magazine', 20 Feb 1943, supp, 22 Aug 1950
  • Punch (Melbourne), 13 Sept 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan, 31 July, 1 Aug 1939, 8, 20 Nov 1941, 9 Mar 1944, 10 May 1948, 22 Aug 1950.

Citation details

Tom Griffiths, 'Pomeroy, John (1873–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pomeroy-john-8073/text14089, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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