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80 years of technological innovation in New Zealand

Land diving: a bungy jumper plunges from the Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Photo/Getty Images

From jetboats to dental drills, this country has consistently punched above its weight in inventiveness.

A shoestring budget, years of trial and error and a bloke with a big idea for doing things in a better way. Those are the traits that defined our biggest innovations of the past 80 years. Here are 10 of our greatest hits.

Electric fence (1937)

Electrified fences were developed for military uses in the early 20th century and gained a dubious reputation when it emerged after World War II that they’d been used to secure Nazi death camps. But the main use of the electric fence was pioneered for penning in livestock by Alfred William (Bill) Gallagher in the mid-1930s. His horse, Joe, had taken to scratching himself against Bill’s car. The solution was an electrical circuit that delivered a small shock when Joe rocked the car. That developed into fencing technology that by the end of the 1930s was the main offering of Gallagher, the electric fence and security company that today is run by Bill’s son, Sir William Gallagher (Bill Jr), and which employs more than 1000 people and exports all over the world.

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Air turbine dental drill (1949)

If you dread the high-pitched whir of the dental drill, you have New Zealand dentist John Patrick Walsh to thank for it. It was Walsh and colleagues at the Dominion Physical Laboratory in Lower Hutt that in the late 1940s came up with the basic design that underpins dental drills today. They were seeking to develop a drill that would cause dental patients less discomfort by having the drill rotate at a higher speed than was possible with existing electric-powered drills. The handpiece they developed was driven by compressed air and received a provisional patent in 1949, attracting considerable interest around the world. The high-pitched noise and blast of air into the patient’s mouth it produced meant that Walsh’s dental drill wasn’t widely used, but it inspired the Borden Airotor, which was a commercial success.

Continuous fermentation (1956)

At 15, Morton Coutts found himself in control of the family’s Palmerston North brewery business after his father, William, became ill, in 1918, as a result of the Spanish flu. But the boy carried on in the beer business, eventually becoming a founding director of DB Breweries, where he pioneered his continuous-fermentation brewing process. This allowed the beer to be made continuously in steel tanks rather than open vats, improving its taste and consistency and speeding up the process. Coutts secured a patent for the design in 1956 and soon after licensed the design to brewers internationally.

Photo/Getty Images

Hamilton jet boat (1954)

Farmer and engineer Charles William Feilden (Bill) Hamilton wanted to explore the shallow rivers of the South Island, but the propellers of conventional outboard motors soon hit the stony riverbed. His solution was to do away with underwater appendages on motorboats, using a centrifugal-type pump to suck through the water to propel the boat forward. A trip up the Waitaki River in 1954 proved the concept, and further refinements at Hamilton’s Irishman Creek workshop in Central Otago made the jetboat ready for commercial release in the 1960s. These days, jetboats race across shallow water all over the world and Hamilton’s jet boats are still on sale.

Disposable hypodermic syringe (1956)

In the 1950s, millions of injections were being given and blood samples taken every day, but typically with reusable glass syringes. Inventor Colin Murdoch, a veterinarian and pharmacist from Timaru, wanted to eliminate the cross infection that sometimes came from reusing needles that weren’t properly sterilised. In 1956, he patented a plastic disposable syringe. At the time, the New Zealand Health Department declined to introduce the syringes, but overseas medical companies soon saw the patent documents and ran with the idea. Murdoch didn’t have the resources to challenge them, but he continued with his inventions, also coming up with the tranquilliser dart gun and childproof bottle cap.

Lead rubber bearing (1974)

William Henry (Bill) Robinson was a seismic scientist working for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1974 when he came up with the design for the lead rubber bearing that forms the core of the seismic base isolators that now protect buildings all over the world from the worst effects of earthquakes. Base isolators work a bit like a car’s suspension, dampening the force from earthquakes with lead, rubber and steel devices placed in a building’s foundations. The patented technology sits beneath iconic New Zealand buildings such as Te Papa and Parliament edifices, and has proven popular in other earthquake-prone countries, such as the US and Japan.

Bungy jumping (1986)

Leaping off towers with stretchy cords tied around your legs isn’t a New Zealand invention. The ancient ritual of land diving, which saw men leap from wooden platforms with vines tied around their ankles, had been practised in Vanuatu for hundreds of years. But it was AJ Hackett who saw the potential in the late 1970s to turn it into a safe adventure sport. He sought the help of University of Auckland scientists to perfect the bungy-cord technology and took his first leap, off Auckland’s Greenhithe bridge, in 1986. A bungy jump is now an obligatory activity for the more adventurous visitor to New Zealand and Hackett’s high-profile – and occasionally illegal – jumps around the world – including from the Eiffel Tower and the Macau Tower, have helped spread bungy’s appeal worldwide.

DishDrawer (1996)

It seemed like a fairly straightforward project for Fisher & Paykel, one of our most innovative companies, already well-known for its whiteware products. The idea was to create a two-drawer dishwasher, looking a bit like the filing cabinets that were ubiquitous in offices in the 1980s. It would be more ergonomic than conventional dishwashers, avoiding bending down as much to load and unload and washing a single drawer of dishes and cutlery would use less water. But it took 10 years and more than $10 million in development to perfect the DishDrawer, which involved extensive re-engineering of F&P’s pumps and motors. F&P was sold to Chinese appliance maker Haier in 2012, but more than 20 years on, the DishDrawer remains one of the company’s hit products both here and abroad, with about two million sold to date.

Xero (2006)

Entrepreneur Rod Drury found accounting software clunky and frustrating to use in the mid-2000s and set out to reinvent it, harnessing the new trend towards cloud computing services. Xero was born as a single unified accounting ledger, allowing everyone to see a company’s financials all in one place. Pivotal to Xero’s success was winning over accountants and integrating bank feeds, invoicing and payroll into one system. By the end of 2018, Xero had one million customers in New Zealand and Australia alone and was one of the top three accounting software companies in the world. Now listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, it has a valuation of about $9 billion.

Photo/Kieran Fanning

Electron rocket (2016)

Inspired by the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon in 1969, engineer Peter Beck became obsessed with building a small rocket that could carry satellites into space. His company, Rocket Lab, spent years refining the carbon-composite rocket body of the Electron and the Rutherford engines, which are based on a highly efficient electric-pump-fed design that hadn’t been used for space rockets before. With seven flights from its Māhia Peninsula launch pad, Rocket Lab has stolen a march on other rocket companies, proving that it can get payloads into orbit around the Earth quickly and, at a mere US$5 million per launch, relatively cheaply.

The one that got away – Martin Jetpack (2008)

As Kiwi invention stories go, it followed the typical narrative. DIY inventor Glenn Martin toiled away in his Christchurch garage for years trying to come up with the technology to allow a person to take to the sky, Jetsons-style. By 2008, his Martin Jetpack prototypes had attracted substantial investment and things were looking up.

Technically, the Martin Jetpack isn’t a jetpack at all, but a petrol-engine-powered system employing large ducting fans to allow the pilot to hover above the ground. The company listed on the NZX and brought on board a Chinese investor. But in 2015, Martin abruptly left the company he’d founded and the jetpack’s fortunes went south quickly. Ultimately, the jetpacks were too bulky to wear, too fiddly to fly and too expensive to manufacture.

Today, the company has laid off most of its staff and run out of money and the new wave of drones, some of which are being designed to carry a person, appear to have rendered the Martin Jetpack obsolete.

The breakthrough we need the most

New Zealand companies are forging ahead with artificial intelligence, meat substitutes and cutting-edge medical devices, but the one innovation we desperately need takes us back to where many New Zealand inventions began – on the farm.

Nearly half of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from agricultural activity, with a third from animals alone. The methane belched out by our cows and sheep constitutes a particularly potent if shorter-lived gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists based in Palmerston North have for the past decade been working on trying to reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock. The team has explored the development of a vaccine that could be given to animals to reduce the methane produced in their stomach, but the key to its effectiveness is understanding how those gut microbes produce the methane as the livestock digest their food.

On that front, the researchers and their international colleagues had a breakthrough in June, publishing a scientific paper identifying the main rumen microbes and enzymes responsible. If the researchers can now find a way of preventing hydrogen from getting to those “methanogens”, the methane-producing microbes, they may be able to substantially reduce methane escaping from cows and sheep.

However, anything that also reduces the milk- and meat-yielding potential of cows and sheep won’t be acceptable to farmers, so more work is required to come up with a fix that could be widely used on our farms. With animal trials and commercialisation, that is probably still the best part of 10 years away. Given our pressing need to reduce emissions, if there’s one innovation that needs fast-tracking, it’s this one.

This article was first published in the August 10, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.