McAulay could throw off ideas but he wouldn't have a clue how to put things together. He wasn't a workshop man. But he would look through and see what's needed and throw off the idea and it was up to somebody else to put it into steel and power. So it was a very interesting group. - F.D. Cruickshank (1)
Alexander Leicester McAulay was born and educated in Tasmania. He obtained his PhD at Cambridge University, studying under E. Rutherford. McAulay then became Head of the Physics Department at the University of Tasmania and was the leader of the optical munitions team there, which included F.D. Cruickshank, the Waterworth brothers, and many women technicians and physics students.
McAulay's work for the Optical Munitions Panel included the design of optical flats, spherical test plates for dial sights, the design and development of grinding tools, pitch polishing tools, and polishing materials. One of the first tasks assigned to him and his team in Hobart (in 1941) was the notoriously difficult roof lens. Geoff Fenton, a physics student at the University of Tasmania during this time, tells the story:
Professor McAulay decided that he would have a go to see if he could make a prism himself. He made the first roof prism all by hand. A few months later there was a meeting of the Optical Munitions Panel. The story goes that at the panel the other members were sitting around wondering how they could get industry set up to make these [roof] prisms that were required, because of all the difficulties they could see, with not only getting glass but also with the testing and checking of accuracy and that sort of thing. Professor McAulay pulled this one out of his pocket and said: 'Would this do?' That was Professor McAulay's attitude: to first of all have a go himself, to see what the problems were, instead of sitting around on a committee wondering who you could employ to make a prism or a lens. We were very quickly then given the go-ahead to employ people and start up this small industry at the university. (2)
McAulay assisted in the establishment of the Waterworth Hobart Annexe and developed new ways of designing and making a range of lenses, including reconnaissance camera lenses for the RAAF. These camera lenses, in particular, were another triumph for McAulay. The Optical Munitions Panel had assigned the task of designing these lenses to T.H. Laby's laboratories at the University of Melbourne, thus the Panel's team in Hobart were not supposed to work on camera lenses. McAulay returned to Hobart from this Panel meeting and said:
Laby's going to develop camera lenses in Melbourne and we are not to do anything about them. But I don't think Laby will do it. My hunch is that somebody will scream one day for camera lenses for the RAAF. Therefore, we're going to start immediately and look into the problem. (3)
McAulay asked Cruickshank to research the camera lens problem, and soon after he had successfully produced a camera lens, the next Panel meeting was held. News had come through that a ship carrying 400 camera lenses for the RAAF had been sunk - the lenses had to be supplied somehow. McAulay was correct in his assumption that no research would have been undertaken in this area, and the Panel were uncertain how they could go about supplying the lenses. But at that meeting:
McAulay pulled [the lens] out of his pocket and said 'Well, we've made one, gentlemen.' It was one of his wins. And therefore the job came to us to get on to camera lenses for the Air Force.(4)
(1) Interview by Jill Cassidy with Cruickshank in Jill Cassidy (1990), Eric Waterworth: an inventive Tasmanian, Exhibition Catalogue, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, p. 12.
(2) Interview by Jill Cassidy with Fenton in Jill Cassidy (1990), ibid., p. 8.
(3) Interview by Jill Cassidy with Cruickshank in Jill Cassidy (1990), ibid., p. 13.
(4) Interview by Jill Cassidy with Cruickshank in Jill Cassidy (1990), ibid., p. 13.