Canterbury Innovators - Global Legacies
From aviation and earthquake engineering to game-changing medical devices and the influential Ngāi Tahu settlement, Ōtautahi Christchurch and the wider Canterbury region have always been at the cutting edge.
ChristchurchNZ is running a series on innovation in the region, starting with a look back in time.
In late October, more than a century after South Canterbury farmer Richard Pearse achieved powered take-off in his self-built flying machines, aviation startup ElectricAir publicly debuted New Zealand’s first electric plane at Christchurch Airport.
In the years between those two aviation displays, Canterbury pioneers and innovators would go on to develop a host of new innovations, including now common technologies like the disposable, prefilled hypodermic syringe. Social champions like suffragette Kate Sheppard helped change the fabric of New Zealand society and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu became the first iwi to negotiate a comprehensive settlement with the Crown, setting the template for future settlements and formalising a suite of cultural redress tools that have had a profoundly positive impact on the country.
Engineering Advances And Innovative Farmers
With its braided rivers, mountains and wide sweeping plains, Canterbury has always been a paradise for outdoors activities. As a boy, Sir William Hamilton dreamed of a boat that would carry him up those swift, shallow rivers. He went on to develop the modern jetboat; HamiltonJet, the company that bears his name, continues to produce waterjet units from its Christchurch factory for customers around the world.
Hamilton was a childhood hero of John Britten, the famous engineer and motorcycle designer who epitomised the Kiwi number 8 wire approach — working in his garage, Britten used wire and glue during the development of his revolutionary, lightweight racing motorcycle. He went on to create the Britten Motorcycle Company in 1992 to produce his machines, which won races and set numerous speed records on international circuits.
University of Canterbury (UC) professor Keith Alexander, the modern innovator behind the Springfree Trampoline, had connections with both figures. He worked at HamiltonJet for six years from 1989, including a stint managing the design section. During his time at the company, Alexander continued to work on his trampoline design, which was patented in the late 90s.
During his time studying towards a PHD at UC, he met Britten, who would come to the university to test the power of his self-built motorcycle engines. Both Hamilton and Britten left major legacies, Alexander says.
While Hamilton didn’t invent the waterjet or the idea of using it as a propulsion system on boats, he did refine the idea and made it practical.
University of Canterbury (UC) Professor Keith Alexander
Isolated, pioneer farmers learned how to do things themselves — they figured things out themselves, and I think that's the origin, or one of the main drivers of innovation.”
"HamiltonJet, I mean every young engineer aspires to work for them and everyone knows about it — it’s a bit of a New Zealand icon,” Alexander says.
“New Zealand can say 'that started with us'.”
Britten, on the other hand, was a charismatic and beloved figure who Alexander likened to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs due to his flair for design.
When it comes to the rich vein of engineering prowess in the region (including substantial advances in earthquake engineering, which have influenced building codes and standards around the world), Alexander thinks a common thread linking innovators like Pearse and others is their farming background.
“Isolated, pioneer farmers learned how to do things themselves — they figured things out themselves, and I think that's the origin, or one of the main drivers of innovation.”
Medical Devices: From Needles To Futuristic Scanners
Every day, countless people around the world benefit from an idea Timaru pharmacist and inventor Colin Murdoch came up with after inspiration struck looking at a fountain pen during a flight from Auckland to Christchurch.
His brainflash: the sterile, prefilled disposable hypodermic syringe — a device which prevents cross-infection and which has likely saved innumerable lives. Murdoch was awarded the first patent in 1956. He held more than 40 patents and developed many other inventions including the tranquilizer gun and the childproof bottle cap.
University of Otago, Christchurch dean Professor David Murdoch describes the disposable syringes as the major health innovation to come from Canterbury.
University of Otago, Christchurch dean Professor David Murdoch
This has been transformational in that it is widely used throughout the world and is now an essential and highly-used medical device.”
“This has been transformational in that it is widely used throughout the world and is now an essential and highly-used medical device.”
A more recent medical innovation is the MARS Scanner, the world’s first 3D colour scanner developed by father-and-son professors Phil and Anthony Butler. Their company, MARS Bioimaging Ltd, invented the device drawing on technology developed at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, which operates the Large Hadron Collider. Clinical trials using a compact scanner for diagnosing hand and wrist injuries begin soon, with one of the scanners to be installed at Pacific Radiology’s after-hours clinic in Christchurch.
Other hi-tech Canterbury luminaries include Sir Gil Simpson, a businessman and programmer who developed LINC (a software development tool) and founded international software company Jade Software, and Sir Angus Tait, a trailblazer in radio communications who founded Tait Electronics (now Tait Communications). The latter company employs more than 600 people around the world, but its global headquarters remain in Christchurch, where its principal design, engineering, and manufacturing facilities are based.
Tait’s head of communications Bryn Somerville says, from the start, Sir Angus focused not just on his own business, but also fostering electronics scholarship and research and development. He believed that a vibrant ecosystem would be good for the industry as a whole — an ethos that continues today with the company’s owner trust providing substantial support for research at the University of Canterbury and for engineering programmes at primary and secondary-school level.
“Sir Angus never stood in the way when entrepreneurial young Tait engineers and salespeople decided to leave and have a crack on their own account,” Somervile says.
“In fact, they often went not just with Sir Angus’ good wishes but also with a quiet loan in their pockets to help them get started.”
Māori Legacy Of Innovation In Te Waipounamu
From their ancestors' epic sea journeys across the Pacific to cultural practices like carving and trading pounamu, Māori living on Te Waipounamu/the South Island have a long history of innovation.
"The Polynesian migrations were the first time that any people had migrated long distances by boat,” says Sacha McMeeking, head of Aotahi School of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury.
“Everyone else was walking — we were sailing. There's innovation in those histories, there's a real priority on innovation in lots of our traditional stories as well."
Sacha McMeeking - Head of Aotahi School of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Canterbury
Everyone else was walking — we were sailing. There's innovation in those histories, there's a real priority on innovation in lots of our traditional stories as well."
The Ngāi Tahu settlement, which came into effect in 1998, marked another step in an intergenerational journey characterised by that spirit of creativity and innovation.
The Ngāi Tahu negotiators need to be acknowledged, McMeeking says, for seeking the first comprehensive settlement that — as well as an economic component — contains a suite of cultural redress tools, including official recognition of te reo place names, statutory acknowledgement of the cultural, spiritual, historical and traditional associations Ngāi Tahu have with the landscape and representation on decision-making bodies, among other measures.
When it was being negotiated in the early 90s, McMeeking says te reo place names weren’t in common use — the Ngāi Tahu settlement and its influence on subsequent settlements helped change that.
“Putting place names on — when you’re on a plane and the pilot says ‘there’s Aoraki/Mount Cook’ — it normalises a different way of seeing our national history.”
The various tools in the settlement have a common purpose, McMeeking says: to increase the recognition of Ngāi Tahu values in environmental decision-making. It set a precedent for other settlements around the country, helping transform the cultural landscape of Aotearoa.
“I think the power of the Ngāi Tahu settlement was it enabled us to go from talking about how we wanted to be a more bicultural nation to having really practical tools to make that real,” McMeeking says.