90 years on, the Thermette finds some hip new friends

by Rob O'Neill / 19 June, 2018

Diane and Trevor Tull say there's a generation of Kiwis who didn't know the Thermette - but think of it as an eco-product. Photo / Rob O'Neill

Great design really can be timeless, and when 90 years of history is added, you have an icon on your hands.

Some products are so much bigger than the businesses that own and market them they become part of our collective conscience.

Corporations worldwide are mining their histories and archives for such ideas, attempting and often failing to bring them back to the market for a generation hungry for authenticity.

The results are too often what one wag dubbed “fauxthenticity”. And that means failure.

Authenticity has never been a challenge for New Zealand’s Thermette boiler, or indeed for the three generations of people that have owned the business.

The Thermette’s design has never changed. The materials remain the same. The machinery on which the Thermette is made hasn’t changed either. If you buy one, it will come in a brown cardboard box.

A hip young marketer might call that genius, but it’s an authenticity that can’t be emulated or fabricated because it is backed by longevity and stories and an understanding by the owners that they have been entrusted with something special.

Diane and Trevor Tull bought the business in 1990 to become the third owners of the business, founded by Manawatu inventor John Hart, who died in 1964. In between, the company was run by Doug Harris.

“When Doug retired in 1990, he approached my husband and said ‘You’re the right person for this. I know you’ll look after it. I want you to have it,’ “ explains Diane Tull. “So my husband bought it.”

Diane and Trevor Tull were the third owners of the thermette business. Photo / Rob O'Neill

The Thermette is from a different time, from the depths of depression and war. It was a time when there were few cafes and no espresso machines. It was also a time of mandated tea breaks.

But to make and drink a cuppa in fifteen minutes is a challenge, especially if you are out in the bush, fighting fascists in North Africa or working on a roading or construction gang.

And that truly is the genius of the Thermette – it’s all in the design that delivers 2.2 litres of boiling water (around 12 cups of tea) in five minutes with just a few sticks as fuel.

The inside of the cylinder is conical, exposing maximum surface temperature to the heat and helping the fire to roar. You can fry an egg or some bacon on top as well.

Tull says her generation still talk about the Thermette because they never left home in the country without one.

“We would stop at Rangipo and my Dad would go down to the river to get water and it was my job to get the sticks,” she says.  “We’d have a cup of tea there.

“That’s how we travelled and also as a safety item. If you broke down on the Desert Road in those days there was no petrol station between Waiouru and Turangi and we always had a hot drink.”

Among the many stories told is of someone lost in the bush who found yet another use for their Thermette: as a megaphone, shouting through the conical tube for help.

It was in North Africa, though, that the Thermette earned its affectionate nickname: the “Benghazi Boiler” and caused confusion among the Axis troops. They couldn’t understand why there were so many neat, round burn marks on the ground after Kiwi troops had left.

The Tulls have retired to Matakana now, but the business carries on. A pile of Thermettes, manufactured on the North Shore, is ready for delivery to retailers nationwide and buyers abroad as well.

“There’s a generation that has never seen it and they see it more as an eco product,” says Tull. “You don’t need anything other than a bit of timber. You don’t need a gas bottle or to replace anything. They love it.

“It doesn’t matter wherever we go, if it comes up we have a huge conversation with a lot of people.”

Inevitably given the rise of café culture and the demise of tea breaks, sales numbers are down, but Tull says that’s partly because people now prefer to buy the copper version which can last forever. One happy customer has had their copper version, bought with money from their milk delivery round, since the 1930s.

“So that’s not very good for business,” Tull laughs.

What was good for business was some TV exposure a few years ago.

“We were so busy we had to import an extra quarter of a ton of copper. We had to fly it in. It was a very expensive exercise.

“But if people want it we do it. We stand by our product.”

Almost by definition, you can’t copy authenticity, but young innovators take heart from John Hart: he reportedly had 32 patents in his name. The other 31 are all forgotten.

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