Australian inventor leader in his fieldBy GREG SHERIDAN
LAST WEEK, at 73, one of Australia's most prolific and creative inventors died of cancer. Richard Ifield shunned publicity all his life but he was an immensely accomplished inventor. Before World War II he invented a fuel pump system that was to become standard equipment on early jet aircraft. That invention alone earned Lucas Industries, the company that sponsored Ifield, millions of pounds through the sale of manufacturing licences.
At one stage in Britain during the war the British army's advanced design division, for whom Ifield had prepared tank steering and transmission designs, was competing for his services with the people developing jet engines. The jet people won.
Ifield was a particularly Australian inventor. A very private man, undemonstrative but with an unpredictable sense of humor, he avoided not only publicity but also commercial entrapment.
He had no formal engineering qualifications but nonetheless was recognised by the top English and Australian engineering bodies. Despite his lack of qualifications he was registered as a chartered engineer, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineers, Australia.
Ifield was born in 1909 in Campsie, Sydney, and spent much of his early life at Eastwood. In a small volume of memoirs which he wrote but never sought to have published Ifield said that at school he was thought of as "an inattentive dreamer."
The family fortunes were such that young Ifield left School before he was 14 to seek full-time employment. He worked as a junior laborer and at other unskilled jobs until the family's financial position improved to the point where he could do a 12month draughtsmanship course.
Ifield obtained his draughtsmanship diploma in 1925 and for the next seven years he worked for various companies, seeking knowledge and ex-perience. One company, Brady Franks, patented the first of Ifield's inventions to be used commercially. This was a special hinge designed to overcome problems with the heavy bronze doors of the Melbourne War Memorial.
Ifield developed a strong interest in motor cycles. He was not a particularly skilled rider but achieved considerable success, including a long-standing Australian quarter-mile record, because he modified the bikes to improve their performance.
He developed his own foot-operated gear change which was more efficient and more adaptable than other similar devices developed overseas and, in 1932, went into business for himself producing and selling his device. He expanded to sell bikes and other parts but later he described the three years up to 1935 as his leanest.
In 1933 Ifield married and in 1935 he sold his business, borrowed some money from relatives and he and his wife set off to England in search of fame and fortune. It was a journey one of Ifield's sons, Frank, was to take on the road to success as a singer.
Going to England was a big gamble. Many had tried and failed. But as Ifield said of himself: "I have always been an optimist, without which characteristic no inventor could even begin along the road to success."
The young Australian had a swag of ideas and inventions but he was hoping particularly to interest someone in his idea for an infinitely variable transmission for use in motor vehicles. After a seemingly endless series of interviews, the Riley Car Company became his first sponsor and paid him a retaining fee. He stayed with Riley until 1938.
A scheme for a restricted ratio differential was transformed into a prototype and the army, in particular, was very impressed. In the end the differential was never produced but the company Ifield founded later in Australia, Ifield Engineering, is pursuing the same differential principle again.
In 1940, Ifield joined Lucas Industries, who needed a new fuel pump for a top secret project: the jet engine. Ifield was to maintain a business association with the company for the next 30 years.
In his memoirs, Ifield wrote that he knew of no successful jet engine in the immediate post-war period that did not use his pump and control system. Even today many aircraft gas turbine engines use Ifield fuel pumps and control systems based on his inventions.
But in 1948, mainly for personal reasons, and in spite of the blandishments of the Lucas management, Ifield decided to give up his position as chief engineer of the Lucas Gas Turbine Company and return to Australia.
The many small inventions and discoveries which followed may sound arcane to the layman but are important in industry. Ifield established a law of rolling and sliding friction which he disclosed at the 1969 jubilee conference of the Institution of Engineers, Australia.
At a simpler level, his wife called him one day to fix the toilet. He took off the lid to have a look, decided it could be done more efficiently and invented a new toilet flushing system.
But perhaps the most important project Ifield worked on back in Australia was his constantly or infinitely variable transmission. When he first put forward the concept, fuel considerations were not so important. Now, with the experience of energy shortages, the idea has been revived. Ifield Engineering currently has a contract from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the US to supply a prototype of a hydrostatic form of a constantly variable transmission.
Ifield retired from full-time service in his family company in 1974 but continued to work on his ideas which produced something like 250 provisional patents. Of these, 112 were accepted as world-wide patent inventions.