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Eric Newham Waterworth (1905–1990)

by Jill Cassidy

This article was published:

Eric Newham Waterworth (1905-1990), inventor, was born on 15 May 1905 at Lindisfarne, Hobart, eldest of three children of English-born parents John Newham Waterworth, optician, and his wife Edith Alice Waterworth, née Hawker, a prominent women’s welfare advocate. Educated at Hobart High and The Hutchins schools, Eric valued the practical skills he learnt from his builder grandfather and from Richard Shaw, an amateur electrician, with whom he spent many hours after school constructing electrical instruments. Following a year studying optometry at university, he pursued a career as a designer and practical engineer.

Aged 20, Waterworth patented an automatic record-changer, demonstrated in October 1925 to a group which included the Tasmanian premier, J. A. Lyons. Waterworth sold the patents in Britain, enabling him to continue freelance work on his return, such as building the sound equipment for Hobart’s first ‘talkie’ movie theatre, the Avalon, opened in March 1932. He returned to England and Europe, and on 3 September 1932 in the Newhaven district, Sussex, England, married (Amy) Lilian Davies (d.1967), a violinist.

Returning to Hobart in February 1933, Waterworth was appointed as a consulting engineer and production manager for Nettlefold & Waterworth Pty Ltd’s factory, set up by his father and J. A. Nettlefold to manufacture safety razor blades—the first such factory in Australia. His contract permitted him to continue with freelance design once the production was running smoothly. He then began his long association with the University of Tasmania, designing and making innovative equipment for Professor Leicester McAulay of the physics department and Ernest Kurth of the chemistry department. When McAulay was appointed to the Commonwealth’s Optical Munitions Panel at the outbreak of World War II, he immediately consulted Waterworth. The firm knew how to polish lenses but they planned to develop from scratch the manufacture of various optical components. McAulay was quick to solve fundamental problems of optical design, and it was Waterworth who made the required machinery in partnership with his brother Philip.

In February 1941 J. S. Rogers, secretary of the OMP, convinced McAulay to attempt manufacture of the difficult roof prism, essential for accuracy of artillery sights. It required design precision in both surfaces and angles. Waterworth developed a series of adjustable jigs to hold glass blanks firmly in position while being ground to shape. This enabled operators to manufacture high-quality prisms in large quantity after only two weeks training. Diamond saws, necessary for cutting glass, were unobtainable. Instead he devised a method of using dental amalgam to fasten industrial diamonds to a cutting edge, producing a constant supply of glass blanks.

Waterworth delivered the first roof prisms in June 1941. The newly built Optical Munitions Annexe, next to the physics department, also known as the Waterworth Annexe, began supplying prisms (including ten thousand to the Frankford Arsenal in the United States of America) in 1943. Later the annexe produced some of Australia’s first camera lenses, and by the end of the war it had made £250,000 worth of prisms, and lenses. (Sir) Laurence Hartnett, director of ordnance production, was later to say that the development of a local optical munitions industry, especially in Hobart, was the greatest feat Australia performed in wartime munitions manufacturing. It was Waterworth’s first-rate mind and his ability to work from first principles to produce the exact device needed that was integral to the industry’s success.

Following the war, Waterworth’s factory operated on a commercial basis, supplying optical equipment for Australia at a time when German imports were no longer available and before Japan dominated the market. It produced projector lenses for cinematographs, process lenses for printers, optical systems for South Australia’s Waite Agricultural Research Institute, combined microfilm/fiche readers and survey equipment. Waterworth also became involved in developing medical equipment through Philip’s father-in-law, Dr William McIntyre, who devised the first humidicrib, marketed as the Waterworth Infant Respirator. His best-known design was the robust Waterworth slide and filmstrip projector which, from the late 1940s, sold widely around Australia.

In 1965 Waterworth retired from manufacturing, although not from freelance design. On 9 November 1968 at Christ College Chapel, Hobart, he married with Church of England rites Yvonne (Rochana) Odile Davies. His connection with the university remained strong; he served (1956-80) on the university council and was awarded an honorary degree (M.Sc., 1987). Softly spoken and unassuming, Waterworth was regarded with admiration and affection by co-workers attracted by his charm and humanity. Survived by his wife and by the son from his first marriage, he died on 24 December 1990 at Margate, Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • M. O’Brien, Tasmania’s War Effort (1946)
  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (1958)
  • Eric Waterworth (1990)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 21 May 1986, p 20, 29 Dec 1990, p 5
  • Southern Star (Hobart), 16 July 1986, p 8
  • Examiner (Launceston), 24 Oct 1990, p 20, 29 Dec 1990, p 15
  • artefacts, photographs and oral history interviews (Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Jill Cassidy, 'Waterworth, Eric Newham (1905–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1905
Lindisfarne, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


24 December, 1990 (aged 85)
Margate, Tasmania, Australia

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