Remembrance Day 2017: a wartime invention's 100th anniversary

Alexander Worsfold's WW1 stretcher

As the nation prepares for Remembrance Day, where we will pause to reflect on those who have suffered or died in wars and conflicts, we’re taking the opportunity to look at Alexander Worsfold and his life-saving device.

‘The Transporter’, as it became known, was an ambulance stretcher designed to reduce the ‘difficulties of transport of provisions, munitions, comforts, etc., from the field base to the trench, and of wounded soldiers from the trench to the field hospital’. This year marks 100 years since it was used in the First World War, and it remains the only Australian invention developed on the home front that was adopted on the battlefield.

In a time where motor car bodies were hand-built using timber, Alexander Worsfold was a ‘wholesale manufacturer of motor and carriage ware’, based in Arncliffe in Sydney’s south. Worsfold built ‘the Transporter’ from mountain ash and a pair of bicycle wheels.

Capable of carrying up to a quarter of a ton, Worsfold’s Transporter resembled a snow sledge. This was no coincidence. In fact, Worsfold had previously designed sleighs and skis for the Antarctic expeditions of both Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Douglas Mawson. On hearing of Worsfold’s intention to use his expertise to contribute to the war effort, Sir Mawson responded by saying: ‘In your particular line I judge that you have no peers in Australia, and feel certain that there are many openings for your genius in producing paraphernalia in connection with war requirements’.

Despite this glowing endorsement, Alexander Worsfold had difficulty in convincing the Department of Defence of its value. In 1915 he spoke of his frustration to a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald. He claimed he had ‘been trying for months to interest the Defence Department in my inventions…If I cannot make those things, I can go, and with my son, fill a dug-out, or perhaps at the seat of war there may be more opportunity for assisting my country with my technical knowledge’. True to his word, Worsfold joined the AIF later that year as a Private in the 9th Field Ambulance and embarked on HMAT Argyllshire in Sydney on 11 May 1916.

Prior to leaving, Worsfold worked day and night at the Victoria Barracks army base in Paddington, testing and improving his ‘life-saving device’. The contraption was inspected by representatives from the Department of Defence, and though it was initially rejected, the Transporter was eventually used in combat in France in 1917.

While serving his country, Worsfold contracted the flu and was admitted to hospital in December 1916 and by June 1918 he had been transferred to the AIF Research Section Headquarters in London. During his time there he invented a sound-ranging apparatus and was then promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in April 1919.

He was sent home to Australia on 18 October 1919. During his career, Worsfold registered numerous patents, such as: 'Improved movable seat appliances for dog-carts, gigs and such like vehicles' (1905), 'Improved hollow concrete block to be used in the construction of walls and other structures' (1921), 'Improved type of autoclave for soap making, steam distillation and analogous purposes' (1922) and 'Improved system of construction for wireless telegraphic masts' (1922).

Worsfold's stretcher is just one example of Aussie ingenuity during the First World War. Head on over to the IP rights in WWI page for more!

Published: 
10 November 2017