Some 150 years ago, New Zealand’s pioneering settlers worked mines and laboured in cleared fields and flax-covered swamp fringes to make a living from the land. But despite being an ocean or two away from the heart of the Industrial Revolution, they didn’t have to go far for a new quartz crusher or a replacement flax-dresser blade.
That was in part down to two engineers from Gloucestershire – Alfred and George Price. In 1868 the brothers set up an engineering works at Onehunga in Auckland. There they set about designing a machine to speed up the laborious process of extracting fibre from the tough leaves of the flax plant to make rope. With parts cast using sand from a nearby beach for moulds, the flax-milling machine transformed what was one of the country's first export industries. A&G Price then moved south to the thriving goldmining town of Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula, and from a new workshop and foundry it sent out crushers and ore feeders, stamper batteries and pumps, boilers and steam engines.
Inevitably, the firm soon found timbermen among its customers. An early visitor to colonial New Zealand, the English historian James Froude, had been struck by the North Island’s vast kauri forests. He was of the opinion that the massive trees produced “the best timber for all purposes which grows anywhere on the globe.” It was fine-grained, tough, and durable, didn’t splinter, split, or warp, and was easily worked. Yet once felled, the mighty kauri was a formidable object to manoeuvre in rugged bush country using nothing more than levers cut from saplings.
A&G Price's answer was to adapt a shipwright's timber jack first employed in eighteenth-century yards. A variant of the story has Auckland miller Ebenezer Gibbons redesigning a North American timber jack and ordering prototypes from a local blacksmith. Either way, the path led to A&G Price, which made gradual improvements to the device, culminating in a robust, powerful, and lightweight jack that found lasting favour among gangs working in the heavily timbered North Island forests. In all, the firm built some 25,000 timber jacks, making it one of the colony's earliest mass-produced items. Price's jacks found their way to the East Indies, the Pacific Islands, and the west coast of America, and some even had a new lease of life helping Londoners rebuild their city after the Blitz of World War Two.
Despite A&G Price's success, and its record of bringing to market products that helped reshape New Zealand industries, today's researchers and policy makers would be unlikely to give the firm many points for innovation. That is because innovation these days is assessed largely by measuring investment in research and development, and because high-tech industries get a disproportionate amount of attention. Alfred and George Price operated differently – they were essentially low-tech, they engaged in trial and error and incremental improvement, and they involved users in product design.
This issue of the Business Review argues that we need to better understand how innovation works in traditional industries if we are to play to our economic strengths. It also has something to say about kauri that would have caught the ear of Froude.
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