John Whitefoord Heyer was born in Devonport, Tasmania on the 14th September 1916. His parents, Dr Fritz Heyer and Marcia Fay (nee Elliston), had been married in Hobart in 1909 and John was their third child after his brother George, born 1910 and sister Fay, born 1913. A fourth child, Frank, born in 1924 died during infancy.
Their father was a Doctor of Medicine with degrees from Melbourne and Edinburgh Universities and, when John was born, Dr Heyer was the resident doctor at the Davenport Hospital. Although he had trained to be a doctor, his real love was for science and scientific invention but, at the time, this was not deemed to be an appropriate career path for the son of strict Lutheran parents.
When John was three, the family moved to Waratah, a town in North Western Tasmania which had been built to service the local tin mine of Mount Bischoff. Here, growing up in their family home with his two older siblings, John seems to have had a very happy childhood. His father worked in general practice for a short time but was soon appointed Medical Superintendent to the Mount Bishoff Mining Company. While working there, he invented a system for syphoning off the sulphurous acid gas, a by-product of the zinc ore smelting process which dissolved in the atmosphere and created a diluted acid rain that rotted the corrugated iron roofs of the nearby homes. Unfortunately, he failed to patent this invention immediately and, when he did decide to do so sometime later, the idea had already been patented.
In the 1920s, in collaboration with 2UE, one of Melbourne’s major radio stations, he developed and successfully tested a broadcast system that prevented anyone receiving a broadcast unless his special device had been attached to the receiver. In his unpublished autobiography, John writes “It was basically two slices of quartz crystal both ground to resonate at the same very high frequency, one for the transmitter and one for the receiver”. He sold the idea to the Defence Department and later it became the basis of crystal-controlled radio communication. The love of science and scientific inventions played an important role in the life of John’s father and it was a love that his son inherited.
In 1926, the family moved from Tasmania to the Melbourne suburb of Blackburn where John and his siblings attended the local school. His father started a practice in Blackburn as a General Practitioner and established rooms in Collins Street as a Specialist Consultant in stomach diagnosis. The family lived in an early two storey Victorian house, with an orchard and croquet lawn on one side and behind it an acre paddock with a muddy pond on which they often ‘sailed’ in a discarded piano case flying a skull-and-crossbones.
John and George both attended Scotch College but the following year tragedy struck the family with the unexpected death of George. He had been in the Scotch College rowing crew practicing for the annual Head of the River when his appendix burst and he developed peritonitis. He was in hospital for a few months slowly getting thinner and thinner until he died aged only 17. He had been an incredibly fit young man and had only recently won the top physical specimen award in Victoria. John recalls that, on the first morning after the funeral, the Headmaster gave a short eulogy for George to the whole school gathered in the main classroom and they all sang his favourite hymn – Rock of Ages. It was a very moving little ceremony. “Looking back on it” he wrote many years later, “I still feel the warmth of the whole school attending the ceremony and the simple courtesy with which they behaved”.