Perhaps because they live a great distance from any other country, New Zealanders have always had to invent things they could not easily obtain.
Māori developed skills in weaving and carving, and at making voyaging canoes, stone weapons and fortified pā, that astonished the Europeans who first saw them. In 1819 the British naval officer Richard Cruise was impressed at how a Bay of Islands chief named Tetoro had made a stock (wooden butt) for his musket, ‘with much ingenuity. The place for the barrel had been hollowed out by fire, and the excavation for the lock, though made with an old knife and wretched chisel, was singularly accurate.’1
In 1900 New Zealand had the highest number of patent applications per capita in the world. In 2006 New Zealand was ranked fourth in the world for patents filed in proportion to gross domestic product (GDP), and fifth on the basis of population. This tradition of Kiwi ingenuity is often known as the ‘no. 8 wire’ attitude, a reference to a gauge of fencing wire that has been adapted for countless other uses in New Zealand farms, factories and homes.
The first electric street lighting in one Nelson suburb was powered by a small hydroelectric generator in the hills above the city. To switch the lights on and off, a chicken run was added to the power plant. At dusk every night the hens would go inside their coop and roost on a special hinged perch. This sank under their weight and connected a switch which turned on the street lights. At first light the hens would leave the coop, the spring-loaded perch swung back and the lights went out again.
Nonetheless, many New Zealand inventions have been produced by trained engineers and tradespeople aiming to improve on the tools and machinery they worked with. Cecil Wood, a Timaru engineer, built his own car about 1900 based on brief descriptions and pictures of the first European models. The Thermette, a simple and effective device for boiling water outdoors over an enclosed fire, was invented by Manawatū plumber John Hart and patented in 1931. It was still widely used in the 2000s.
Farmers and others without technical training have also found inventive ways to make their work easier and life more enjoyable. In the 1920s Ernest Godward, an Invercargill cycle dealer, invented improved bicycles, motorcycles, and a carburettor which went on to be used in motor vehicles around the world.
Women inventors include Norma McCulloch, a Rongotea housewife who developed a hand pump for extracting air from freezer bags in 1975. A simple cardboard tube with a metal tube sliding inside it, the pump sold to Australia, Britain, Canada and the US. McCulloch Industries branched out into making innovative cooking and medical equipment.
Invercargill spice and coffee merchant David Strang took out a patent for ‘Strang’s Patent Soluble Dry Coffee-powder’ in 1890 and is credited with inventing instant coffee. His method entailed blowing hot air over liquid coffee until it became solid. Strang’s invention was forgotten until Heritage New Zealand registered his son James’s house in Invercargill and did some research on the family.
Perhaps the highest-profile New Zealand invention is the bungy jump, developed for commercial use by builder A. J. Hackett. In June 1987 Hackett made a highly publicised and illegal bungy jump from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The world's first commercial bungy site opened the following year in Queenstown. By 2009 Australia, Bali, France, Germany, Malaysia and Macau also had commercial bungy operations.
An invention is a new device or process. A patent is a property right granted (by the government) over an invention. The owner of the patent has the exclusive right to use that invention for up to 20 years. A patent can be bought, sold, transferred or licensed just like other types of commercial property.
In New Zealand patents are issued by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), part of the Ministry of Economic Development. Anyone wishing to patent an invention in New Zealand supplies designs to the IPO, which issues the patent if it finds that the invention has enough unique features and is able to be used by industry. The IPO maintains a register of all patents granted in New Zealand. It also registers trademarks, often known as brands or logos, and used to distinguish a particular business from others in the same market. Designs (the external appearance of objects) and plant variety rights (the right to produce and sell a new variety of plant) can also be registered.
New Zealand’s first system for officially issuing patents was set up in 1860. The Patents Act 1860, closely modelled on a similar British law, established the New Zealand Patent Office. In 1861 it issued its first patent to A. G. Purchas and J. Ninnis for ‘An Invention for the preparation of the Fibre of the Phormium tenax (flax)’. From 1882 applications for patents could be filed at any courthouse, greatly speeding up the process of application and registering. In 1889 a revised Patents Act allowed the Patent Office to also administer trademarks and designs.
Commercially successful inventions tend to be those that meet immediate practical needs. The most common patents in the 1860s and 1870s related to flax spinning and gold mining, but from the 1880s inventions for farm machinery overtook them. Ernest Hayes produced many new tools and gadgets from a small shed on his Central Otago farm, including an improved wire strainer for farm fences, patented in 1923 and still made and widely used in the 2000s.
As local manufacturing industries developed, they resulted in more sophisticated inventions such as the Tullen snips – scissors made using a heat-treating process, which were tough enough to cut coins in half. By the 1980s more than 20 million had been sold.
New Zealand’s public health system has produced medical inventions such as the Baeyertz measuring tape for accurately predicting human birth dates, patented in 1982 and still used worldwide in the 2000s. New Zealand is earthquake-prone, and government scientist Bill Robinson developed the seismic shock absorber, a flexible building pile. It now protects major public buildings such as the University of California Teaching Hospital, Tokyo’s central post office, and New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings and national museum.
Failing to patent an invention can enable others to profit from it. In 1884 John Eustace, a Dunedin tinsmith, invented the airtight lid still used on containers such as paint cans and tins of golden syrup. He sent to England to have a die made to mass-produce his invention, but did not take out a patent on it. Soon many British companies began making lids using the Eustace design. One company even offered Eustace thousands of pounds for the rights to it, before realising they could legally copy it for nothing.
Patent agents are experts in patent law who assist inventors and others to register and protect their inventions. New Zealand’s first patent agent, Henry Hughes, was an engineer from the north of England who specialised in steam locomotives. He migrated to Wellington with his family in the 1870s and set up the country’s first patent agency in 1882. One of his agency’s early clients was the aviation pioneer Richard Pearse, perhaps New Zealand’s most renowned inventor. Henry Hughes Ltd is New Zealand’s oldest firm of patent and trademark attorneys. The New Zealand Institute of Patent Attorneys, the professional body representing patent agents, was established in 1912.
Scottish farmer James Little came to New Zealand in 1863 and raised English-bred sheep on Corriedale station in North Otago. He developed a Lincoln–Merino cross suitable for New Zealand’s low-rainfall conditions, and it was officially named the Corriedale in 1911. Large flocks were later established in North and South America and in Australia.
In the 1950s Massey Agricultural College researcher Geoffrey Peren crossbred the Cheviot and the Romney to produce the Perendale, a hardy animal ideal for both wool and meat production. Another agricultural scientist, F. W. Dry, discovered the gene affecting hairiness in sheep’s wool and bred an extra-hairy variety called the Drysdale, which has wool ideal for making carpets.
Until the 1930s New Zealand butter was often tainted with unpleasant smells. Lamont Murray and Frank Board ran a butter factory in Te Aroha, and aimed to deodorise the cream they used without affecting its flavour. In 1933 they patented a steam pasteurising process they named the Vacreator. It sold widely in the US as well as New Zealand.
New Zealand was the first country to successfully use light aircraft for sowing seeds and distributing fertiliser. The first attempts took place in the 1930s but were halted by the Second World War. The availability of ex-military aircraft and pilots allowed aerial topdressing to expand rapidly from the late 1940s. High prices for farm produce in the 1950s and support from the public service helped New Zealand topdressing firms to maintain a technological edge over those in much larger countries.
Hamilton farmer Bill Gallagher was forced to be resourceful during the economic depression of the 1930s, and built his own tractors out of other vehicles. After a horse repeatedly scratched itself on his car, Gallagher’s brother Henry experimented with cheap and effective forms of stock control and in 1953 was awarded a patent for a ‘wire-winding reel for electric fences’. Gallagher electric fencing technology was exported worldwide, and in 2009 the company had offices in more than 30 countries.
The world’s first farm bike was invented in 1963 by New Plymouth farmer and keen motorcycle mechanic Johnny Callender. He was soon swamped with orders but faced difficulties expanding production. His bike used a Suzuki engine, and the Suzuki company soon built and sold their own version, making it impossible to develop Callender’s invention into a local industry.
Timaru vet and recreational hunter Colin Murdoch designed and invented the first tranquilliser gun, enabling animals to be dosed without being caught. Murdoch patented a special syringe with a plastic dart-like tail, fired from a modified pistol or rifle. His company, Paxarms, has exported this technology to more than 150 countries.
In 1906 patent number 21476 was granted to a Temuka farmer named Richard Pearse for ‘an improved aerial or flying machine’, featuring the first known ailerons (moveable flaps on the wings). A version of this machine may have made the world’s first powered flight in 1903.
Pearse later invented (but did not fly) a ‘convertiplane’, with a tilting engine to allow for vertical take-off and landing, and was granted New Zealand patent number 87637. His many other unpatented inventions included a power cycle, recording machine, potato planter, topdresser and two sorts of music box.
Irishman Creek station, a high-country sheep farm near Lake Tekapo, is threaded with mountain streams that are shallow in summer and often fast-flowing in other seasons. In the 1950s the farm’s owner, Bill Hamilton, and his employees developed and patented a plywood boat powered by a jet propulsion unit to navigate these rivers. In 2009 Hamilton Jet employed over 300 people at its Christchurch factory. It had a network of distributors in 50 countries supplying jet-boat engines for patrol boats, passenger ferries, rescue craft and recreational vessels.
No. 8 fencing wire was one of the materials used by Christchurch engineer John Britten, in a world-beating racing motorcycle he designed in his spare time. In 1994 Britten patented some of the structural features of his V1000 Superbike, which broke several world records and was manufactured to order in Christchurch for the international market.
In the 1980s, aged 19, Christchurch man Peter Montgomery began working as a deck officer on cargo ships. A fatal accident on the Melbourne docks convinced him that the traditional method of mooring ships, using heavy ropes called hawsers, was dangerous and inefficient. After 12 years’ work he invented a vacuum suction system that was much faster and safer, although initially more expensive. The following year it was installed on a New Zealand inter-island ferry. In 2007 Montgomery’s firm merged with a large Dutch company to market his invention worldwide.
Living at Manukau Heads, Terry Roycroft had either a short boat trip or a long car drive to get to Auckland. He developed and patented a car that can retract its wheels to become a jet boat. His neighbour, businessman Alan Gibbs, bought the idea and developed it into the Aquada, an amphibious sports car that can travel at 160 kilometres an hour on land and 50 kilometres an hour on water.
In 2009 Christchurch inventor Glenn Martin began taking commercial orders for his jetpack, an experimental ultra-light aircraft. The jetpack (which does not actually use a jet or rocket motor) is the product of more than 20 years of research.
A trademark enables businesses to distinguish their products or services from similar ones offered by competitors. A trademark must be unusual enough that buyers identify it with only one trader. Once a trademark is registered, the ® symbol may be used with it.
Thomas Edmonds was a Lyttelton grocer who started selling baking products after his customers complained about the unreliable baking powder they were using. In 1879 he sold his first batch of 200 tins, telling his customers that their baking was 'sure to rise'. In 1912 the firm of Edmonds registered the rising-sun trademark for its baking powder. This trademark is still registered today and has become a New Zealand icon.
Taranaki has a high rainfall, and in 1913 New Plymouth tailor William Broome invented a woollen work shirt with special waterproofing to cope with the conditions. He called it the Swanndri, because it shed water like raindrops off a swan’s back. The same design was still being made under the Swanndri trademark almost a century later.
It is not always easy to prove first rights to a trademark. The family of Taranaki man John Cowie claim that he began making a plastic version of a traditional Japanese sandal in the late 1940s, naming it the jandal (from ‘Japanese sandal’). However the trademark was registered in 1957 by an Auckland businessman named Morris Yock. In the 1980s and 1990s the trademark owners threatened legal action to prevent cheap imported copies from being sold as jandals. Since the late 1980s, even the real jandal has been imported from Malaysia.
A new fruit that became popular in New Zealand from the 1930s was first named the Chinese gooseberry, because the seeds had been imported from China. New Zealand growers began exporting the fruit to the US in the 1950s. It was the height of the Cold War, and growers were advised to change the name to make their product more politically appealing. The name ‘kiwifruit’ was proposed in 1959 and later became standard. However New Zealand did not register the kiwifruit trademark internationally, so any country in the world may use it. In 2017 China produced half the world’s kiwifruit. To distinguish 'Kiwi kiwifruit', the trademark Zespri was registered in 1997.
New Zealand was the first country to commercially farm deer. In the 1980s deer farmers aimed to export more farmed venison and were determined to avoid the mistake made by the kiwifruit industry by selling their product under a unique name. The New Zealand Game Industry Board decided to register a trademark for export-quality venison, which could only be used by New Zealand deer farmers. Thousands of possible names were considered. The one chosen was Cervena, from Cervidae (Latin for deer) and venison.
Since 1992 New Zealand has been a member of the Patent Co-operation Treaty, an international treaty covering most countries in the world. This makes it possible to apply in New Zealand for patents covering all the other countries which are members of the treaty.
In 1994 the term of a New Zealand patent was extended from 16 to 20 years, in line with the requirements of the World Trade Organization, of which New Zealand is a member.
The Patents Bill 2008 was introduced to replace the Patents Act 1953. When enacted, this bill will remove the right to patent on the grounds of ‘local novelty’, which meant that an invention used elsewhere could be patented for use in New Zealand. The availability of information on the internet made local novelty difficult to enforce, and many countries no longer recognise this type of patent. The bill also proposes to ban methods for the surgical treatment of humans, or therapy and methods of diagnosis practised on humans, from being patented.
The Patents Bill has special features recognising the place of Māori as indigenous people. Any application to register a trademark using Māori text or imagery may be referred to a Māori advisory committee, which advises on whether the proposed trademark is offensive to Māori. The Māori advisory committee may also advise on whether an invention claimed in a patent application is derived from Māori traditional knowledge or from indigenous plants or animals. The committee may then advise whether the commercial exploitation of that invention is likely to be contrary to Māori values.
The Patents Bill 2008 will remove the right to patent a new plant variety. A separate law, the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987, currently provides exclusive rights to produce and sell a new plant variety. Among the new plant varieties protected under this act are Jazz apples, a cross between two other New Zealand varieties, Gala and Braeburn.
The most prestigious award for inventors in New Zealand is the national stage of the international James Dyson Award. This award, set up by the British inventor James Dyson, designer of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, is open to students and graduates of design and engineering in 21 countries.
In 2009 the New Zealand award went to 22-year-old Christchurch designer Tim Cox for the Tretech, an ultrasound device for measuring the size and quality of growing trees before felling. Another invention to make the finals was a plastic blanket to reduce moisture loss in stranded whales. Rotorua-born designer Jamaine Fraser said his invention would allow rescuers to spend more time comforting the whales instead of hurrying to pour water over them.
Bridges, Jon, and David Downs. No. 8 wire: the best of Kiwi ingenuity. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2000.
Hopkins, Jim. Inventions from the shed. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1999.
Riley, Bob. Kiwi ingenuity: a book of New Zealand ideas and inventions. Auckland: AIT Press, 1995.