Much more than No 8, Antonius Papaspiropoulos

Kiwi Ingenuity ‑ A Book of New Zealand Ideas and Inventions
Bob Riley
AIT Press, $39.95
ISBN 0 9583334 4 0

There’s a wonderful sequence in a mid‑80s Woody Allen movie called A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Woody, a self‑confessed “crackpot inventor” called Andrew, appears on the doorstep, his wings in tatters, his aviator’s helmet lopsided, his goggles dangling round his neck.

“Andrew, are you alright?” his wife asks him.

“Yeah, no, I’m fine. 1 just can’t get airborne with my wings for some reason and I’ve had such wonderful success with my flying bicycle.”

Ten minutes later he is seen flying around the house.

These images came flooding back when I read Torbay writer Bob Riley’s Kiwi Ingenuity A Book of New Zealand Ideas and Inventions. It’s full of weird and wonderful ideas from 66 Kiwi crackpots ‑ though I note in the Mark Twain verso of the title page that “every inventor is a crackpot until his idea succeeds”.

There is the amphibious car, the motorised toboggan (but why?), the hydrodrive, low‑wing monoplane motor-mower. A few pages are dedicated to the exploits of early aviator/ inventor Richard Pearse who (arguably) beat the Wright Brothers into the air. Pearse worked on a myriad of other inventions for which he is less well known ‑ a mechanical guitar music box, a phonogram with a horn so powerful it could be heard half a mile away, and “a motorised bicycle”.

Kiwi Ingenuity is the sort of book that harks back to a bygone age ‑ perhaps Victorian ‑ when eccentricities and curiosities were the rage. One imagines the book beautifully bound in soft green leather, with dark brown binding, and fly‑rice pages upon which appear intricately detailed diagrams of useful (and unusual) inventions like … the poor person’s bidet.

Invented by 80‑year‑old Lloyd Blackshaw who still actively promotes it, the bidet is designed for “those who, either through age or disability, are unable to maintain personal hygiene. Realising some years ago that many people could not afford a bidet although they would like to use one, Lloyd came up with the idea of siphoning warm water from the basin down to where it was needed in the toilet bowl.” There are instructions (with measurements) and a diagram for those who’d like to build their own.

The inventions in this book tend to fall into three categories: the useful, the unusual and the things‑you-want‑to‑have‑a‑go‑at. A good example of the last category is a pocket planetarium called “Nightstar”. Bruce King, an intrepid Kiwi traveller and budding mad-hatter, brainstormed this idea when he was lying on his back one starry Sussex night. King deduced that the best way to study the stars and planets wasn’t by way of a flat, two dimensional chart, but through half a concave plastic sphere, held up to the heavens. Heavens above, it could be used as a navigational tool as well. The idea was perfected several years later in Santa Cruz and is now an established astronomy product available throughout the world.

Then there’s a whole raft of other ingeniously useful inventions, like the mountain buggy invented by fitness fanatics Allan and Adrienne Croad so they could take their little boy, Fraser, for an evening jog. You may have sighted joggers with these out on the streets. The contraption resembles a horizontal wheelbarrow, inside which neatly fits your very own “baby‑bunting”. Baby rides along on big, bouncy wheels while you slog your guts out; it’s a must for every half‑marathoner with an infant (or two) in tow (or before‑toe). More than 500 have been sold from the inventors’ Whangaparoa fitness centre, with sales to London and tourists here and a looming licensee in Australia.

From the “did you know?” file comes the “disposable syringe and the tranquilliser dart” used by millions every day in the tranquillisation of wild animals and, unbeknownst to many, I’m sure, developed by Christchurch veterinarian Colin Murdoch more than 40 years ago.

As someone with a bit of a bath fetish, I was also interested in Robert Mischefski’s “bath delight”, a foam padded sheet that can be secured to the bath by rubber suckers to improve its contour. This was inspired by Mischefski’s fiancée who complained that the bath had too many hard corners. Mischefski market‑researched the invention around Palmerston North bathroom companies (I presume because that is his home town, or do Palmerston Northers bathe more than the rest of the country?) who gave the thumbs up.

Mischefski enrolled in a business development course, wrote a business plan, patented the product, became an accountant and continues to fine‑tune the product. This includes incorporating massage nodules, developing a baby‑version, as well as a device to lift dogs into the bath or shower (are dogs difficult? do people really bathe their dogs inside?).

An afterword informs budding visionaries where to get patent advice, and an appendix lists patents issued to Kiwis since 1992: a fantastic array of gizmos and gadgets, such as a railway wagon derailment detector, directions for boning meat, a Wasabia Japonica growing method, a traffic light controller for model railroads, a dog collar with six lights, an “oral administrator” and “an improvement relating to a stationary item”. No flying bicycles.

Kiwi Ingenuity is in an easy‑to‑read, colloquial style which is a bit sloppy at times: there are too many words and it deserved more time with designers. An address telling readers where products could be bought or further investigated would have not gone amiss.

Riley’s book fills an important space in New Zealand’s inventive history, about which very little else seems to have been written, unless you count J E L Baldwin’s 15‑page monologue, A History of the Patent Profession in New Zealand, and Suppressed Inventions and Other Discoveries, by Dr Brian O’Leary (Auckland Institute of Technology Press, 1994), which is of great appeal to anyone with an unhealthy interest in “fluoride”.

Kiwis being inventive and ingenious souls, there must be a treasure‑trove of other odds and ends that would fill another book. There is probably stuff right under your nose.

“I never noticed this thing before, Andrew. What is that?” Woody Allen is asked by his movie wife.

“Oh, it’s my spirit ball, if it works. I doubt that it’s going to, but it penetrates the unseen world.”

“Oh, yeah. What unseen world are we talking about?”

“You do admit that there’s more to life, more than meets the eye. Either that or I weep….”

“Like what?”

“Like ectoplasm, like various energies. I want that thing to emit light rays and capture our future and the past.”

Antonius Papaspiropoulos is a Wellington public relations consultant. He is working on a flying bicycle.

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