Sir William Hamilton OBE
(1899 – 1978) “Innovator, not imitator”
As well as giving his name to the company he founded in 1939, C.W.F.(Bill) Hamilton left a legacy of combining sound engineering practices with innovation and excellence. As a small boy he had dreamed of a boat that would carry him up the swift flowing rivers of his homeland. Such foresight was typical of this distinguished New Zealand inventor and innovator.
In 1954 his dream became a reality, and in the 50 years since the Hamilton waterjet has revolutionised the world of conventional boating.
A humble man, Sir William often claimed that it was not he who invented the waterjet – that honour he attributed to the great mind of Archimedes. His greatest achievement was to improve the idea and make it work in the specialised field of boat propulsion.
Charles William Feilden Hamilton was born at Ashwick Station near Fairlie (South Island, New Zealand) on July 26, 1899. He was educated at Waihi School, Winchester, and later at Christ’s College, Christchurch. But it was to Ashwick that he owed the education that encouraged his naturally inventive mind. The land provided him with the opportunity to best exploit his unique style of mechanical genius.
In 1921 Bill Hamilton bought the 10,000 hectare Irishman Creek Station, one of the most notable sheep and cattle runs in the Mackenzie Country (Central Otago). Here he quickly established his first workshop – forerunner to the Hamilton Group of Companies.
His first project was the construction of a two hectare dam for a hydro-electric plant to provide power for the station’s homestead and workshop. Conventional earth moving scoops proved inadequate so, in typical Hamilton fashion, he invented his own more efficient model. This scoop, the “I.C. Excavator”, was used extensively for local contract work, with several more being manufactured and sold in New Zealand and Britain.
Essentially a self-taught engineer, Sir William spent countless evenings at his drawing board doodling and designing. While he approached problems in an unorthodox way, he always produced machines consistent with the best engineering practices.
The Irishman Creek workshop also became an important machining and engineering training facility during the Second World War. Here Sir William taught many unskilled men to do high-precision work, with the workshop producing munitions as well as earthmoving equipment.
Towards the end of the war, Sir William was required to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life. The increasing demand for agricultural and earthmoving equipment and machinery presented him with the choice of working within the limitations imposed at Irishman Creek, or expanding. Never one to ignore a challenge, he decided to rent a small works building in Bath Street, Christchurch and match the keen demand for his machines.
Steady expansion continued, and in 1948 Sir William purchased a 10 hectare site at Middleton, Christchurch. A 465 square meter factory was constructed for the production of bulldozers, scrapers, excavators and hydraulic machinery.
The shift to Christchurch allowed the Irishman Creek workshop to become solely a research and development centre. This provided the opportunity to devote resources to the development of the Hamilton waterjet. Sir William’s first jetboat was a 3.6 meter (12 foot) plywood hull with a 100 E Ford engine, and the jet a centrifugal type pump. This craft was tested on the Irishman Creek dam and water race before successfully, if somewhat slowly, travelling up the Waitaki River in early 1954. From then on Sir William and his team gradually improved the design of the waterjet, adding greater efficiency, power and speed.
Continual improvements in the waterjet design, particularly the shift to a multi-stage axial flow pumping system, allowed boats to travel to places that had never been accessible before. In 1960, Sir William’s son Jon was a key member of the Colorado River expedition team – the first to travel up through the Grand Canyon. Over the next 20 years other ground-breaking trips were made up the Sun Kosi (Nepal), Sepik (Papua New Guinea), Zaire, Ganges and Amazon Rivers, and jetboats became widely used for flood relief, surveying and recreation.
Before his death in 1978, Bill Hamilton was recognised for his services to manufacturing with a knighthood. In 1990 he was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2004 he was inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame.
“Wild Irishman” – the story of Bill Hamilton, by Peggy Hamilton
Published by A.H. & A.W. Reed [ISBN 0 589 01294 0]
“Hamilton’s Jet” – the Biography of an Icon, by John Walsh
Published by C.W.F Hamilton & Co. [ISBN 978-0-473-28990-4]
“The Jet Boat – The making of a New Zealand Legend” – by Anne & Les Bloxham
Published by A.H. & A.W. Reed [ISBN 0 589 01453 6]
Sir William Chronology
Charles William Fielden (Bill) Hamilton is born on July 26 at Ashwick Station, South Canterbury, New Zealand. Son of William Fielden Hamilton and Cora Blackeney (nee Cannon), half-brother to Cyril Blackeney, brother to Leila and Catherine (Kitty) Hamilton.
Bill Hamilton attends Waihi School, then Christ’s College in Christchurch
Ashwick Station is subdivided and sold off. 820 acres were retained around the original homestead.
Cyril Blackeney, who had been managing Ashwick Station, was killed in action in August. Bill left his schooling at Christ’s College to manage Ashwick.
Bill Hamilton buys Irishman Creek Station in Central Otago for 16,000 pounds.
Bill and his parents travel to England. Here he buys an Isle of Man Sunbeam motorcar, and meets Peggy Wills, who he marries in October 1923. They return together to New Zealand.
Builds his first workshop at Irishman Creek, and buys his first lathe.
Bill enters the Sunbeam at the New Zealand Motor Cup races in Auckland. Wins this 50-mile race at an average speed of 81.5 mph. Also claimed the Australasian Speed record as the first time that 100 mph was officially attained in Australasia. Over the next several years Bill competed in many more races and again broke the Australasian speed record, with 109.09 mph for the flying mile in 1928.
Builds a generating plant complete with dam to provide electricity to the Irishman Creek homestead and workshop. However, this was damaged by severe frosts the following winter, so Bill begins constructing a larger dam using a new earth-scooping machine he had designed and built.
1928 – 1935
During the Depression Bill takes on contracting work to help pay off his debts. Through this work he designs a number of machines, including a shingle loader, a water sprinkler, a hay lift, an air compressor and an air conditioning plant.
Bill Hamilton enters a Bentley in three races at the Brooklands Easter Meeting in England, and creates a stir by winning them all.
1939 – 1943
Irishman Creek workshop expanded to produce munitions for the War effort while continuing to manufacture some earthmoving equipment.
Designs and builds a loader-dozer, hydraulic pumps and an excavator.
Opens an engineering business in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Helped design and build the first rope ski tow in New Zealand.
Bill rekindles his idea of a boat to navigate the shallow rivers near Irishman Creek Station. Initial designs use an air screw and retractable marine propeller, but these prove unsuccessful.
Constructs his first jet using a centrifugal pump driven by a bevel gear. This he fits to a 3.5 metre plywood boat powered by a Ford 10 engine.
Bill hires engineer George Davison to work with him to produce a more efficient jet unit design. With this added expertise Bill’s team makes rapid advances in waterjet propulsion systems.
Bill and Peggy travel to the US, there to make the first upstream passage of a 160km stretch of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.
Bill suffers a broken arm while jetboating in New Zealand and is unable to make a return trip to the Colorado River for a 740km expedition down and up. Bill’s son Jon is the only driver in the team able to tame the Colorado’s worst rapid, Vulcan Rapid (also known as Lava Falls), and leads the group to the first ever up run of the river.
William Hamilton is named on the Queen’s Honours list with an Order of the British Empire (OBE). Its citation read: “For very valuable service in the field of engineering and especially in the design and construction of the jet-propelled motorboat.”
Bill retires from the company.
William Hamilton is knighted for his “valuable services to manufacturing”.
On March 30, 1978, Sir Charles William Fielden (Bill) Hamilton dies at the age of 78.
Sir William Hamilton is inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
Sir William Hamilton is inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame.