Obituary: Richard Dufton

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Richard Dufton, mechanical engineer: born Helton, Westmorland 16 January 1912; chief designer, Miles Aircraft Company 1948-61; Fellow, Institute of Mechanical Engineers 1960; member, St Dunstan's Council 1977-94; married 1944 Norma Gough (twin sons); died Reading 5 February 1994.

RICHARD DUFTON used his engineering skills to develop Lazlo Biro's novel ball-point writing implement, invented in the Forties, into the more refined instrument which is so widely used today. The fact that he was blind made this feat even more remarkable.

Dufton was born in 1912 in Helton, Westmorland. He attended a local secondary school and then helped on his parents' farm. He joined the Royal Navy in 1934 as a member of the Lower Deck Engine Room Division, and was blinded during an air raid whilst on an Engineering course in Plymouth in March 1941.

He went to St Dunstan's, the organisation responsible for men and women blinded in the Services, then located in Church Stretton, Shropshire, for rehabilitation and retraining. A year later, he was one of seven war blind to be taken on at Miles Aircraft Ltd, near Reading, where he was involved with experimental aircraft and aero-engines. He worked with the aid of a tactile drawing-board and a phenomenal memory and mind for figures.

In 1943, the Hungarian-born Lazlo Biro took out a patent for a ball-point pen. Miles saw great advantages to this writing instrument for use by test pilots at high altitude and in other adverse conditions, and purchased the development and manufacturing rights. Dufton led the work, becoming Chief Designer in 1948. By the time he left the company in 1961, they were making half-a-million pens a week. Dufton was elected to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers on acceptance of his thesis, 'The Technology of Ball-Point Pens', completed in 1960.

The then Chairman of St Dunstan's, the late Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, saw great potential in Dufton's knowledge and experience and wished to direct this towards providing technical solutions to the problems of blind people. In 1961 Dufton became Research Director of St Dunstan's, liaising with many national and international bodies on a wide variety of subjects, including talking books, sonic and other mobility aids, wireless for the blind, education and employment of the blind and braille. He saw the evaluation in this country of two reading devices for the blind, the Optacon and, in 1979, the Kutzweil Reading Machine, the first computer to 'make the printed word talk'. He presented papers at several scientific conferences both at home and abroad.

Dufton retired in 1977, in which year he was also made a member of St Dunstan's Council. He was a keen gardener and managed a three- acre garden producing both vegetables and flowers. His wife Norma was one of the first VADs employed at St Dunstan's at the outbreak of the Second World War. She cared for him devotedly after he suffered a stroke in 1991.

(Photograph omitted)