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No 8 Wire – The Best of Kiwi Ingenuity
by Jon Bridges & David Downs
Hodder Moa Beckett 2000

Is Kiwi Ingenuity a Myth?

Jon Bridges and David Downs have given us a book we needed. No 8 Wire – The Best of Kiwi Ingenuity establishes a factual basis for debating whether Kiwi ingenuity is in fact a myth.

The book has an easy to read popular style that belies the depth and extent of the information it contains.

Not only does it flesh out stories that have been part of the mythology, such as continuous fermentation in beer making, but it has also unearthed successful innovations such as the Skystreme, which are relatively unknown.

Richard Pearse and the controversy as to whether he made the first powered flight could not be excluded but, mostly, the authors have restricted themselves to inventions that became innovations i.e. those that gained commercial acceptance. They have clearly sifted though many examples and it would not be surprising if this book had a successor.

There are some odd inclusions, which perhaps had to be got out of the way. They include Rutherford’s splitting the atom, Pickering’s role in the American space programme and Maurice Wilkins’ pioneering involvement in establishing the structure of DNA.

In the Clutching at Straws chapter, we get the good oil on Kiwi shoe polish, the Buzzy Bee and chocolate fish.

Individuals such as John Britten and Peter Witehira illustrate the single-mindedness necessary to carry through successful innovations.

Unfortunately, few New Zealand companies have demonstrated the same imagination, risk-taking capabilities and dedication.

It would be interesting to know what it was in the turn of the century Post Office environment that encouraged R J Dickie to develop his stamp vending machine. Too often people’s interests in preserving or enhancing their positions in the power structure have inhibited innovation in corporate environments.

Fly-By-Wire, the Hamilton Jet and Bungy Jumping are testimony to individual adventure seekers who have commercialised their ideas, while individuals who have taken their software creations to market include Murray Haszard with Ghost and Steve Outtrim of Sausage with his HTML editor.

My favourite invention is the Thermette an amazingly simple device with an association with convivial tea drinking.

Among Government agencies, Industrial Research (formerly PEL) is notable with contributions to Vega Industries’ sector navigation lights, fast camera lenses and temperature calibration devices. Probably because mechanical devices are more tangible, there is no mention of innovations that have come from the biologically based Crown Research Institutes, although in the context of the New Zealand economy these are more important.

While the book is not a primer for inventors Bridges and Downs have made an effort to understand the innovation process and quote a handy list of don’ts for would be innovators. This has come from Dr Ross Green, CEO of Wellington Drive Technologies, a company that has had a typically tortuous pathway to commercial success and is not there yet.

The authors have themselves become acquainted with the reality of the innovation process by gaining a patent on their own invention.

No 8 Wire undoubtedly demonstrates that Kiwis are ingenious. I shall feel happier with the label, however, if it carries through to encompass innovation of the sophistication required to support New Zealand’s economic well-being in the 21st Century.

Browsers to techhistory.co.nz should enjoy this book.