A MAN OF VISION: Reg Etherington  was a man of many talents and great vision, and Mildura’s Alan Saunders, PICTURED, has fond memories of the man. He is pictured with the plaque recently installed that commemorates his post-World War 2 top secret lens efforts in a Nissen hut behind the same building which is now The Province restaurant. Photos: PAUL MENSCH

With special contribution from Dr Don Edgar’s ‘Star Wars’ article.

Reginald Robert Etherington was born in Faversham, London, in 1905, and died on September 3, 2000, aged 95.

A remarkable man by almost any measure, Reg was widely read, a Councillor and Mayor for the City of Mildura, and a member of the Victorian Arts Centre Building Committee, which developed the now familiar theatres and gallery in Melbourne. 

Reg was a jeweller by trade, who came to Mildura when he was 19 to work for Horace Hammerton. 

He studied optometry by correspondence, and was involved in the early formation of the Country and Liberal Parties. 

Reg had a finger in many pies, and left his mark, not only in Mildura (the Arts Centre, the Mildura Sculpturescapes of the 1970s, and the Old Mildura Homestead), but also across Victoria, through its unique regional art galleries movement. 

He was someone who ruffled a few feathers in the name of progress, and was never deterred by his detractors!

It’s a fascinating story

Reg’s story is a fascinating one, and was the subject of a feature in the Mildura Weekly’s Sunraysia’s Finest special publication last year, but this article is about the first wide-angle lens factory in the world, which just happened to be established right here in Mildura.

The factory was set up at the request of the Department of Defence in 1949, with Reg being chosen to head up the top-secret manufacturing operation because of his optometry skills.

The factory itself was housed in what was known as a Nissen hut, which was obtained from the former RAAF flight training barracks at Mildura Airport.

A Nissen hut is a prefabricated steel structure for military use, especially as barracks, made from a half-cylindrical skin of corrugated steel. 

Designed during the First World War by the American-born, British engineer and inventor Major Peter Norman Nissen, it was also used extensively during the Second World War and adapted to the similar Quonset hut in the United States.

Reg relocated the hut to the rear of some premises he had purchased in Langtree Avenue, which today is the site of The Province restaurant, the building now owned by Reg’s daughter, Dr Patricia Edgar, who inherited the property when her father passed away.

Recently, a plaque was erected on the exterior of the building, which commemorates what took place at the rear of the site – something that Patricia and her husband, Dr Don Edgar, who reside in Melbourne, had been planning to do for some years.

“It’s something that Don and I have been talking about for quite a while, because it’s such an historic thing that nobody in Mildura really knows anything about. Who knows that the world’s first wide-angle lenses were actually manufactured in Mildura?” Patricia said.

“So Don and I thought that the site should be marked as a matter of public interest.

“The plaque was put in place in early May and it was made by Hammerton’s Jewellers, which was ironic, considering my father opened up a business in opposition to Horrace Hammerton, the original owner, when he would not honour the employment agreement my father thought they had made originally. 

He then established Etherington’s Jewellers with his brother Jim.”

A friend of the Edgars, who knew Reg when he was growing up in Mildura as young boy, is local nurseryman, Alan Saunders, who has strong recollections of the entrepreneurial businessman and farmer. 

“Probably the significant thing I remember is that Reg Etherington owned a big property which he ran cattle on near my parents’ place along the River Boulevard,” Alan recalls.

“I knew him when I was a young boy of seven or eight, until he passed away.

“In 2005, when I purchased the property next door to the where The Province is today, I renovated the shops and built a residence behind, and in the process I got to meet our neighbour, who happened to be Patricia Edgar.

“Eventually it all came out about her father and his connection to the building where this plaque has been erected, and the story of what took place many years ago in the old Nissen hut, which my father had told me had come from the airport.

“Incredibly, when we were developing the rear of my property, we discovered some of the crystal quartz that Reg had used in the manufacturing process for the lenses.” 

Much more than your average optometrist

Running parallel with his activity in the arts, Reg Etherington had other, more scientific interests.

The impetus for this derived from the British Government’s alarm at the V2 rocket attacks on London and its realisation after American atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that nuclear warheads could be attached to the new missiles.

Winston Churchill had bombed the German rocket manufacturing base at Peenemunde in Holland, dispersing the V2 enterprise and, on VE Day – May 8, 1945 – there was a race by the US, Russia and Britain to grab the rocket scientists and obtain the new technology.
Britain missed out, so decided to start its own work on missiles. 

In 1946, the ‘Evetts Report’ recommended setting up the Salisbury Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) and developing a vast rocket range at Woomera in South Australia.

As one of Victoria’s first qualified optometrists and because of his connections with R.D. Elliott – a Senator for Victoria and newspaper proprietor who was also trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria and was involved with the Minor Industries War Agricultural Committee − Reg was asked by the Department of Post-War Reconstruction to tour optical factories in Britain and the USA. 

He was at the time (1949) District Governor for Rotary International, covering the whole of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

The Cold War climate and the Korean War of 1950, led Prime Minister Chifley to insist Australia be part of British scientific rocket research – something Britain resisted – and by 1951, Salisbury had started work on the pilotless Jindivik airplane – the GAF Jindivik was a radio-controlled target drone. Rocket testing at Woomera was in full swing.

On his return in 1949, Reg was contracted by the Department of Supply to make optical lenses for a range of military uses: telescopic and rifle sights, and then Askania theodolites which were used to track missiles fired from the Woomera Rocket Range.

He recruited skilled lens grinder Stan Johnson from Melbourne, was supplied with equipment to use in the small Mildura workshop and set up ‘Etherington Optical’ in the hut behind the ‘Dragon Pearl’ Chinese restaurant in Langtree Avenue, another premises he owned.

In 1954, an Australian named Frank Dixon at WRE (Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury S.A.) invented the world’s first wide-angle lens, more commonly known as a ‘fish-eye’ lens. It was unique because it could take a 360-degree photo, thus enabling rockets to see over the horizon. As such, it marked the beginning of the new age of inter-continental ballistic missiles, an age that led to the fear of nuclear attack and President Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ exercise aimed at stopping any future attack from space on the United States. It was this wide-angle lens that made Etherington Optical a top-secret production facility. 

To make full use of the rocket range and this wide-angle lens, scientists invented the new WRECISS and WRETAR cameras, one attached to the nose of a target Jindivik (The GAF Jindivik was a radio-controlled target drone) the other to the missile being launched against it – and the wide-angle lenses were made in Mildura.

In addition, Etherington Optical manufactured prisms, optical blanks, rifle telescopic sights, submarine and tank periscope lenses, binocular and range-finder lenses. 

Reg had applied to the Minister ‘Black Jack’ McEwan in 1954 for a glass importing licence and foresaw the potential for a world-class optical manufacturing industry for Australia.

By 1959, they were in full production, but it was a frustrating experience for Stan Johnson and Reg Etherington. 

Bureaucratic bungles led to equipment delivery delays, supply of faulty ‘Chance glass’ slabs, inefficient grinding machines, incorrect specification for some lenses, and unnecessary rejection of ‘faulty work’.

By 1958-9, Britain was secretly testing guided nuclear missiles (‘Blue Steel’ and ‘Blue Water’), but because they were being left behind by Russia and the USA (its sky-to-air “Skybolt’ missile) and because there was unease in Britain and NATO at escalation of the arms race, Britain withdrew. 

So, suddenly, English Electric abandoned its nuclear missile project, sacked 1000 workers and closed its Luton factory. 

This left Etherington Optical high and dry.

Never easily daunted, Reg wrote to the Department of Supply in 1961, urging that his industry was a vital one for Australia, and that imported optical instruments should not be preferred to the Australian product.

The Australian bureaucratic and political establishment seemed unable to appreciate the future potential and lost its opportunity to keep Australia at the forefront of optical and missile research and manufacturing.

Reg closed down his secret Mildura plant and Stan Johnson left for Salisbury – and all the while most people in the region were none the wiser.