Ernest Robert Godward was born in London, England, on 7 April 1869, the son of Henry Robert Godward, a fireman, and his wife, Sarah Ann Pattison. Family tradition has it that Ernest ran away to sea at 12, reaching east Asia before being sent home by the British consular authorities. He was apprenticed for 3½ years to Shand, Mason and Company, the London steam fire-engine makers, where he acquired a mechanical training. After a further period at sea, he emigrated to New Zealand, arriving at Port Chalmers in 1886.
In Dunedin Godward learned the cycle trade, entering the service of S. R. Stedman, a noted wheelman. In 1893 he moved to Invercargill where he became a partner in Southland Cycle Works, Dee Street. The firm manufactured Sparrowhawk cycles and imported British models. The cycle business was then extremely prosperous: many working people, for example, could not afford a horse but could manage a bicycle, allowing them to live in the farther suburbs and travel into the countryside.
Godward's engineering talents soon outgrew the simple bicycle. In 1900 he left the partnership to concentrate on household inventions. These, chief among them a spiral hairpin patented worldwide, brought him considerable wealth, enabling him to construct the large stone house, Rockhaven, in Elles Road for his growing family. Godward had married Marguerita Florence Celené Treweek at Invercargill on 28 January 1896. Godward's domestic inventions included a burglar-proof window, a rubber hair-curler, a mechanical hedgeclipper and a non-slip egg-beater. A kerosene pump–siphon, a tank filter and a lid for cans were also patented. By 1905 he had visited the United States four times in connection with his patents.
From 1903 to 1906 Godward served on the North Invercargill Borough Council. Locally he was greatly admired for his skill at various sports. As well as being a championship cyclist, he participated with distinction in running, swimming, rowing and boxing. He promoted motor racing, and in 1909 with his friend Robert Murie, a fellow balloonist, won a widely reported return Invercargill–Dunedin motor race. Godward was also an accomplished elocutionist, singer, instrumentalist and oil painter.
The motor car, harbinger of the next revolution in personal transport, extended Godward's skills as an inventor and led him further afield. Having set up his own cycle business around 1908, he expanded it to include the importation of Reo cars. He also developed an economiser, which converted petrol into gas before ignition – an important forerunner of the modern carburettor. From 1913 Godward was frequently away from New Zealand, studying engineering and refining his economiser. At first he was based in London, establishing the Godward Carburettor Company with a factory at Kingston upon Thames. However, his carburettor did not attract the support he hoped for.
By 1916 Godward had an office in New York and increasingly based himself there, with only periodic visits home. In 1926 the Godward Vaporiser was successfully trialled by the United States Army for use in trucks; and in 1929 his economiser, reputed to increase horsepower by 15 per cent, was installed in about 580 buses in Philadelphia. Godward lost heavily in the stock market crash of 1929, and only recovered partially. During his later career in the United States he was recognised as one of the world's leading authorities on internal combustion engines.
Ernest Godward was returning to New Zealand on the Mongolia when he died on 2 December 1936 in the western Mediterranean. He had just won a shipboard skipping competition. He was survived by his wife and 10 children. Godward had been widely admired for his all-round competence, entrepreneurial skills, wealth and sporting prowess, qualities that epitomised the popular ideal of a self-made colonial man who had made his mark in the world.