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 English army 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.
The culture of invention
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.
Best-known New Zealand invention
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.