Originally posted by Dieter Adam 31 July 2023
This is the story of Charles Johnson of Auckland, as told in the recent (July 2023) edition of BOATING NZ. It’s also more than that – it’s a story about missed opportunity, and it is tempting to see it as an(other) example of the often-quoted malaise of New Zealand engineers and manufacturers being much more successful technically than commercially.
Charles, together with his father and brothers, established B. Johnson & Sons, Manufacturing Motor Engineers in Parnell in 1921 and ran it until the company was sold in the early 1970s. By the sound of it, Charles and his brothers were typical kiwi engineers, applying their considerable skills to all sorts of problems. Being keen boaties, that included Charles – in his spare time – building a small boat that included two innovations – retractable wheels (using a hand-cranking mechanism), and a stern leg drive. He even filed for a patent for the latter in 1940. As with many inventions, the question of ‘who got there first’ is moot. Arguably, and ironically, ‘the other’ Johnson brothers, founders of the Johnson Brothers Motor Company (Johnson Outboards), built the first concept prototypes in the USA in 1930, but technical difficulties and the Great Depression meant the idea never went into production. (https://www.mlaoc.ca/uploads/1/0/5/9/10597650/100_years_since_johnson_outboards_were_born-_part_ii_-_mlaoc_newsletter-june_2022.pptx.pdf )
Charles Johnson apparently didn’t have any plans to commercialise his invention as such. This being war time, the concept was offered to the British War Office’s Ministry of Supply, but nothing ever came of it. And, as far as ‘the official record’ is concerned’, the inventor of the sterndrive is Charles D. Strang Jr., a top Mercury Marine engineer who died in 2018. (https://propspeed.com/media/news/news-item/2021/02/18/father-of-the-sterndrive-passes-at-96 )
What about New Zealand engineers / inventors and manufacturers not being particularly adept at turning technically brilliant concepts into commercial success? Is it truth, or an urban myth?
The short answer is – we don’t know. Any valid answer would have to be expressed in terms of R&D efficiency / R&D effectiveness / R&D productivity – all used as terms or measures to capture the return on investment for R&D expenditure. Not only are those measures fraught with difficulty (https://mck.co/476efdr ; https://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/events/2007/workshop12032007/veugelers_en.pdf ), we also don’t seem to have any of the relevant data available in New Zealand, at least not for private sector R&D, which, as we have shown in a recent article, makes up the bulk of all R&D investment in the area of high-value manufacturing (machinery and equipment). On top of that, we know that there is a large – but unknown – amount of investment of time and money going into innovation activities that never is recorded in the firm’s accounts, especially in smaller manufacturing companies. The Productivity Commission published a paper on the issue in 2015 (https://bit.ly/3KcXx2k ) but didn’t manage to shed much light on the subject.
What we DO know is that there are a number of well-known examples of ‘kiwi ingenuity’ leading to commercial success, from Gallagher to RocketLab, and even including another major innovation in boat / ship propulsion systems (Hamilton Jet). We also know that the ability to constantly come up with smart new engineering innovations in product and process – some small, some big – is a critical component in the global competitive positioning of many New Zealand manufacturers.