Up the Creek [without a paddle]
Sometime in the mid-1950s a young boy asked “Would you like to come for a ride in my boat?”, and the world has been saying yes ever since. The jet boat’s unrivalled performance in the shallowest of rivers revolutionised water transport and remains a quintessential New Zealand invention, perhaps our greatest contribution to the world of engineering. And the man who perfected it, in a farm workshop of a remote high-country station, was our original “bloke in a shed”, an inspiration and a role model for generations of Kiwi tinkerers, inventors and innovators.
Do have a ride in my boat, Miss S,” the little boy implored, innocent and eager to please. And how could she refuse? Not yet seven years old, this youngest of the Hamiltons’ four children, and one of her charges as a governess, had a thing for boats and water. Charles William Fielden (Bill) Hamilton was often playing on Ashwick Station’s irrigation dam and the creek that fed it. Three decades later his wife to be, Peggy Hamilton, would recall in her book Wild Irishman how he started with a galvanised wash tub with two bits of board for paddles, progressed to a raft made of five gallon oil drums that the station’s blacksmith made for him, on to a canoe with a sail made out of an old sheet, to this latest contraption, which the boy built himself.
Miss S. had to give him credit for ingenuity. The boat was cleverly made from bamboo rods and canvas, and so light Billy could carry it all by himself. But this was also what made her nervous. The canoe looked fragile and unstable and she was a woman of stately stature.
“It’s quite easy,” the boy went on, wading in to steady the craft. “I’ll hold the boat while you get in.”
The moment she lowered her bulk into the canoe, the governess knew it was a mistake, only too late. Billy had already pushed off the canoe downstream, towards a deep pool. The boat teetered as it ran out of momentum then, seeking new balance, upturned.
She found the bottom and got up to her feet, bedraggled and dripping, but the boy was nowhere in sight. Later in the day he would reappear by the creek, lured by the sight of an approaching visitor, the local minister.
“Do have a ride in my boat,” he offered sweetly.
“But I don’t think it would bear me,” the minister replied.
“Miss S. had a ride in it,” he reassured the man in the cassock. “It’s quite easy, I’ll hold it while you get in.”
The bamboo-and-canvas canoe may have broken the monotony of station life—and notched up a few more unsuspecting victims—but secretly Billy was not satisfied with the craft. It could handle the rapids on the nearby Opihi but no matter how exciting, it was always a one-way journey. Downstream. And once the free ride was over, young Hamilton had to carry the boat back to the launching spot.
He found a solution in the form of an old bicycle from behind the blacksmith’s workshop. He patched the flat tyres and made a wooden frame for the canoe. In no time at all he had a boat trailer, to which he then harnessed a reluctant brown retriever with saddle straps poached from the stables.
After much persuasion, and a little training, the beast would pull the trailer when ordered. Now, after a downstream run, Bill would walk back up, retrieve the retriever and the trailer, walk them down to the take-out point, load the boat up and mush back upstream. Yet while the solution was workable it was still cumbersome. What he really needed was a boat that could go upstream.
Young Hamilton was beginning to realise that if he applied himself he could usually come up with a solution. His mother Cora Blakeney had read somewhere that a child should not be encumbered with the rigours of education until the age of seven, and she let her son have free range of the farm. His tutors were practical men of the land—farmhands, rabbiters, shepherds and blacksmiths—and they showed him how to use tools, fix things and work with the materials at hand. The combination of the boat trailer and the canoe itself soon morphed into a land yacht which, when the nor’wester howled down the mountains, was capable of spectacular bursts of speed along the Ashwick back roads. Horses bolted and riders cursed in his wake, and he developed a reputation for speed that would follow Hamilton all his life.
But he was also making sense of the world and the way things worked, and as he did so he realised that many everyday contraptions could be improved.
In 1912, at the age of 13 and two years before the government’s first hydro power station opened at Lake Coleridge, Hamilton made a small dam across one of the gullies near the homestead, diverted some irrigation water into it, and built a flume that carried this water to a turbine. This “power station” generated barely three-quarters of a kilowatt but it was enough to light the house and to run a small lathe, a drill and an emery wheel his father had bought for him—his first workshop, a favourite place to tinker.
In contrast, Hamilton found entering the school system quite a shock. Waihi School near Winchester was tolerable but the starched discipline and rigid boarding-school rules at Christ’s College in Christchurch were oppressive. Though by now he had made sense of a lot of things, some puzzles remained unsolvable. Why, for example, was the school’s carpentry workshop, with all its wonderful tools, shut at all times except the weekly carpentry lesson? It seemed such a waste.
The misery lasted only a year, because in 1916 his half-brother Cyril was killed in action in the Sinai Desert and Hamilton was pulled out of school to manage the family farm. Five years later he struck out on his own. With a loan from his father he bought the 9500 ha Irishman Creek station in the heart of the Mackenzie Country. It was there, among tussocks and between the lakes Pukaki and Tekapo, that he unleashed his creativity and problem-solving aptitude, allowing his unschooled engineering genius to flourish.
In 1923, Hamilton accompanied his parents on a trip to England. He returned home with a wife, Peggy—a lifelong match, both at work and in adventures.
It was difficult to carve a life and a living out of the desert landscape of the Mackenzie—the soil was poor and wind-swept and the winters harsh—but the challenge of it all only helped Hamilton’s latent mechanical talents unfold and flourish. He built another micro-hydro scheme, but this time his priorities were different: the plant powered the workshop and the house was still lit with candles. However he already had his eyes on a 17.5 kW hydro plant made by the same company that later supplied the turbines for the Manapouri power scheme. He dug up a water race and scavenged pipes from a West Coast mine to install the larger turbine, and in May 1927 the turbine lit up both the house and the workshop, creating a beacon of brightness in the dark Mackenzie night.
But these home comforts were short-lived. The winter that followed was one of the harshest on record and as the turbine was clogged with ice, the lights began to dim. Then, as winter tightened its grip, the water race froze solid and life at Irishman Creek became a struggle to keep warm. In her letter home Peggy wrote:
(We) are sitting…with our feet in the oven. I have never experienced anything like it. I spilt some boiling water on the stairs and when I came down two minutes later it was ice. Bread, milk and all foodstuffs are frozen and have to be thawed every morning. It is the worst for the children, and baby in particular. It is so hard to keep them warm in the morning.
The ice was so thick on Irishman Creek that a four-tonne coal truck crossed it without a hitch, and no amount of bashing with crowbars would make the water in the race flow again. But Hamilton identified the problem—the turbine intake simply had to be deeper underwater, well below the ice level. With the first signs of a thaw he set to work. However, the solution required major earthworks, and the machinery available was inadequate.
“It’s like digging out the dam with saltspoons,” Hamilton complained to his wife after another day with little progress. But every problem simply provoked a solution—he needed better tools and so he made them. This set a pattern for all of Hamilton’s future projects, and as they became more ambitious, they were accompanied by a stream of inventions, many of which are still in use today.
Such as the scoop that Hamilton invented, which was as revolutionary as it was efficient. The first scoop, and the new dam, were completed in just three months.The scoop, a mechanical bucket which innovatively cut the soil and efficiently spread the load, along with other earth-moving machinery Hamilton designed and manufactured, proved a saving grace for the family and its employees in the Depression years that followed. Contracts for earth-moving jobs began to flow in, first from local farmers, then from the government. While the economy slumped, Hamilton’s business boomed.
The first big contract was the Hermitage aerodrome in Mt Cook, and more airstrips soon followed: Gore, Haast, Kerikeri and Great Barrier Island, then stop-banks in Karamea, roads in Spirits Bay, a coal-stripping job in Mataura. The first five scoops were built at Irishman Creek and as their reputation spread they were soon licensed to an English manufacturer.
Meanwhile, Hamilton continued to produce pioneering designs; a shingle loader with a vibrating screen; a “travelling” water sprinkler; a haylift for stacking hay; an air compressor; an air-conditioning unit for his daughter June, who suffered from hay fever; a machine for scraping, planing and polishing the outdoor ice rink into mirror-like perfection.
The Irishman Creek workshop was now more a manufacturing plant than a farm shed, and men who gravitated towards it (usually retrained farm labourers) toiled over prototypes that the market snapped up as soon as they were completed. The workers, quietly and reverently, began to refer to Bill Hamilton as The Boss.
Alf Dick, a farm hand who became one of Hamilton’s leading men, recalled: “The Boss was always quiet. He’d never growl at you, yet we were all rather in awe of him and took a lot of notice of what he said. If you were doing a job and he saw you were going the wrong way about it he’d never say more than, ‘I’ll think you’ll find yourself in trouble that way,’ and he was always right.”
As the business steadied, Hamilton was able to indulge his other passion—the quest for speed. During his first trip to England, about the same time he met Peggy, he bought himself a 1913 Sunbeam racing car, a four-cylinder 3.3-litre wonder which he promptly set out to strip and overhaul in time for the New Zealand Motor Cup held at Muriwai Beach in February 1925. He comfortably won the 80 km race with an average speed of 131 km/h, and the same day he set the Australasian Speed Record, reaching 100 mph (160 km/h). He competed for several more years, establishing the Australasian speed record again in 1928 when he clocked 175 km/h on the Oreti Beach near Invercargill.
During their visit to England in 1929, Peggy Hamilton bought a 4.5-litre Bentley, which Hamilton promptly set about modifying, using the facilities at Bentley’s own workshop. Instead of souping-up the car, he focused on its suspension, realising that on the rough track where he was about to compete, this would be more critical than supercharging the engine. Again, he was right. Entering the Bentley in the Brooklands Easter Meeting, he won all three races and the London papers proclaimed him “an unknown star”.
The war came and brought with it an end to idle pursuits. The Irishman Creek workshop became an ammunition factory, also turning out spare parts for Bren gun carriers, rifles, machine guns and trench mortars. There were up to 17 men labouring in the workshop, and to make the most of limited space and machinery, Hamilton had them working night shifts as well. Peggy recalled how, in the dark Mackenzie night, the flashes of welding arcs could be seen from many kilometres away. Irishman Creek became an industrial village, with its own store and schoolhouse, though like Hamilton himself, the men working there had no formal engineering training. Yet through intuitive understanding and common sense they surmounted technical challenges that, like the rifle parts, required great precision.
In Wild Irishman, Peggy wrote:
“In the evening he never relaxed by the fire, but worked hard and usually until a very late hour in the workshop or drawing office, and when at last he came in he would sit for hours absorbed in his drawings, working out some new scheme, oblivious to the time. On every shelf, edge or table I would find small scraps of paper, opened-up envelopes, anything that could be scribbled on with drawings of his ideas as they came to him.”
The earth-moving machinery business was a runaway success. By 1943, Hamilton had added to his line of products a loader-dozer, an excavator, a floor crane and a range of hydraulic pumps. The end of the war heralded even greater demand for the machines—most of which were to be used in agriculture and rebuilding economies ruined by war.
The Irishman Creek workshop was getting too small, its 17.5 kW power plant inadequate, and so in 1945 Bill opened a factory in Christchurch, C.W.F. Hamilton & Co, which specialised in bulldozers, scrapers, excavators and hydraulics. Within a short time he was employing some 400 people. The projects the company undertook under Hamilton’s leadership resulted in major engineering feats, even by today’s standards, such as the first ski rope tow up the Coronet Peak, the chair lifts and the Queenstown gondola and the arched Kawarau Bridge—nearly 120 m long and 40 m above the river, built to 6 mm tolerances. The business was also responsible for the intake gates used in many of the country’s hydro schemes: Waipapa, Benmore, Manapouri and Aviemore, where the acceptable tolerances ran in tenths of a millimetre.
By the early 1950s, with his son Jon at the helm of the company, Bill Hamilton began withdrawing from the business. Not to retire, but to retreat and tinker in the quietude of his Irishman Creek workshop. He had an idea he wanted to pursue, one that harked back to the days of his bamboo-and-canvas canoe and the dog harnessed to pull it back upstream.
It started innocently enough, with an ordinary outboard-driven boat, and an aircraft propeller at the stern to be used when the water became too shallow for the outboard—an attempt which was both comical and frustrating. The craft made some headway up the Dobson River but, as Peggy recounted, “the efficiency was low, the noise and draught terrible”. And the spinning airscrew presented a constant danger of decapitation.
After a few more futile attempts, Hamilton turned his mind towards water-jet propulsion. The idea was not new. In 1661, two English inventors, James Hayes and Thomas Toogood, toyed with it, and even as Captain James Cook was navigating the world, another of his countrymen, James Rumsey, designed a steam-driven jet unit that drew in water at the bow of a boat and ejected it at the stern. In the 1860s the British Admiralty experimented extensively with jet propulsion for use in its gunboats, and both the Swedes and the Germans tried a decade later.
The first steam-powered jet lifeboat was commissioned in Britain in 1888, but it was not considered a success and by 1900 the idea of water-jet propulsion was almost universally dismissed as “inherently inefficient”. In every test conducted the conventional propeller outperformed a water-jet, delivering more speed for less horsepower.
George Davison, a marine engineer who became Hamilton’s close associate and the manager of the Hamilton marine division, would later explain the principle of jet propulsion in a most graphic way: “Newton’s Third Law states, ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. The reader will know the recoil of a rifle as the bullet speeds from the barrel. Has he ever felt the thrust when holding a powerful firehose? This is the reactionary force that is harnessed to propel the jet aircraft—and the Hamilton Turbocraft.”
Hamilton’s first jet boat, named Whio, was a four-metre plywood craft with a 100-E Ford engine powering a centrifugal pump using bevel gears. The pump sucked water through the grille in the boat’s hull and expelled it out an elbow nozzle at the stern. The jet’s outlet was below the waterline and the boat could be steered by pivoting the nozzle. But the steering was clumsy, the power transfer inefficient. After a test ride on the Waitaki, Peggy wrote that this:
cockleshell of a boat…[had a] maximum speed of only 11mph, which made the slightest ripple in the river seem a major rapid; but at least she was making headway against the river.
More tinkering in the workshop and experiments on the Irishman Creek dam resulted in two conceptual breakthroughs. The first came in 1954 from Alf Dick. He had originally worked for the Hamiltons as a farm hand but, at the age of 15, was quickly lured into the world of engineering by Hamilton’s open-door policy. What if, Dick proposed, the jet nozzle was placed just above the water rather than beneath it? (Apparently, being of slight build, Dick had learned a thing or two about jet propulsion while handling the station’s high-pressure fire hoses.)
Hamilton seems to have dismissed the comment, though it must have percolated in his mind because the next time Dick saw the prototype boat, two weeks later, its thruster was above the waterline, with obvious success. The speed increased by 10 km/h and the craft’s response to steering was instantaneous.
The second major improvement came in 1956 through input from George Davison, who simplified and streamlined the existing design. He removed the noisy bevel gear drive and changed it to a direct shaft. Then he dispensed with the centrifugal pump and replaced it with an axial-flow one, adding a second impeller for extra thrust. Within a year of more trials and tweaks the boat was capable of doing 80km/h, travelling across water less than 10 cm deep and turning about, at full speed, within the space of its own length. This last manoeuvre, which today makes thousands of tourists squeal with adrenalin-induced glee, became known as the “Hamilton spin”. Hamilton and his team had accomplished what the best European engineers had failed to do—to overcome the “inherent inefficiency” of water-jet propulsion—all from a shed in the Mackenzie.
Hamilton named his boats after riverine fish—Rainbow, Quinnat and Chinook—names that conjured images of power and grace against fast currents. The modern jet boat was complete.
What followed was an era of exploration, first ascents and previously impossible journeys. Again, Bill Hamilton, by far the most experienced jet boat driver, led the way. Guy Mannering, son of the noted mountaineer George, was an early convert and, as a Christchurch commercial photographer, was responsible for much of the Hamilton jet boat’s early publicity.
According to him, Hamilton’s greatest achievement “was not so much that he gave us the jet boat but that he showed us what to do with it”.
A small group of enthusiasts formed around Hamilton and together they travelled the country, notching up first ascents of rivers, refining both the jet boat design and their own skills as they pitched themselves against increasingly wilder white water. They climbed the Clutha and the Buller, all of the East Coast salmon rivers—the Waiau, Hurunui, Waimakariri, Rakaia and Rangitata. Then they headed north, where the jet boat earned instant acclaim when Bill and Peggy Hamilton ascended the 234 km Whanganui River in just nine hours, four times faster than any other boat before. In just three years of boating with Hamilton, Guy Mannering clocked some 25,000 river kilometres, becoming one of the first experts in motoring against whitewater.
After this shakedown period, the jet boat and its drivers were ready to tackle the world’s most challenging rivers. The greatest show of all came in 1960, when the joint New Zealand-American expedition attempted to run the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River, upstream. Hamilton would have been there himself, but had broken his arm while boating the Matukituki River just months earlier, so his son Jon and Mannering went instead.
In four US-manufactured 5.4 m boats, each fitted with a 185 hp engine and a three-stage jet unit, they ran the river downstream first, laying caches of fuel and test-driving against all major rapids over 10 days. Then, after final tune-ups of the engines and jet units, they left Lake Mead and turned upstream to take on 539 km of some of the most furious whitewater on the planet.
In 1869, John Wesley Powell made the first descent of the river and portaged most of its major rapids. After completing the three-month journey, he wrote in The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons: “No man could take a boat into those rapids and survive.” But Jon Hamilton, Guy Mannering and their American companions set out, not just to survive the rapids, but to run against them, into the 50 km/h current and mountains of whitewater.
In a letter to a friend, Mannering wrote:
The trip up the river was the highlight of my life. I drove at the rapids sometimes as if in a dream, heart pumping and engine thumping, looking ahead at the ridiculous step-ladder of muddy water; climbing up it incredulously not believing that any of this could really, or was really happening. Vulcan Rapid (Lava Falls) was the greatest thing on the river. We used fifty gallons [189 litres] of gasoline in the engines to get the boats over the hill, it is 400 yards long and rises about 20 feet in that distance.
It took Jon Hamilton two days to take four boats over the Vulcan Rapid, spending as much as half an hour to climb up individual standing waves.
The passage earned the Kiwi an honorary place next to Wesley Powell’s original oar-boat at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the jet boat, whether as a tool or toy, became a new object of desire.
After the Colorado, a string of landmark river journeys confirmed the boat’s status as a revolutionary new means of river transport. The Hamilton-Mannering duo, with help from other New Zealand drivers, took jet boats up the Zaire and the Mekong, and later, as part of an Australian geological survey, up the many unexplored tributaries of the Sepik in Papua New Guinea. Then, after some initial exploration on the Sun Kosi river in Nepal, Sir Edmund Hillary proposed a jet boat pilgrimage up India’s holy river, the Ganges.
And so, in 1977, in what became known as the “Ocean to Sky” expedition, three jet boats led by Jon Hamilton left the Ganges delta in the Bay of Bengal and headed upstream towards the source. They travelled some 1800 km to Nandprayang, climbing 1166 m over that distance, until a three-metre waterfall barricaded further progress. From there, Sir Ed led the rest of the way on foot, climbing to the summit of Nar Parbat, completing the pilgrimage and, in the process, linking the ocean with the sky, the delta with the source.
Bill Hamilton did not take part in any of these international adventures, and we know little about his final years at Irishman Creek. He retired from the company in 1965 and in 1974 was knighted for “valuable services to manufacturing”. After his death on March 30, 1978, he was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame (1990) and the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame (2004).
If you asked those who worked with him, they would remember The Boss for his uncommon calm and composure, his practical jokes, the aura of pipe smoke and concentration that surrounded him, and the generosity with which he let others “have a go”, whether in his workshop or in his boat.
Today, the Hamilton jets are used around the world in everything from recreational craft to frigates and ferries. But while the man who invented them became the personification of Kiwi ingenuity, he remained unaffected by either fame or fortune, dismissive of his own achievements and the first to praise his co-workers and associates.
“I do not claim to have invented marine jet propulsion,” he once said. “The honour belongs to a gentleman named Archimedes, who lived some years ago.”