Bill Hamilton

26/7/1899 - 30/3/1978

Record updated 29-Jun-09

Inventor of the waterjet propulsion system, Bill Hamilton was also a very talented racing driver though business comitments meant that his appearances on track were few.

Bill Hamilton
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.

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 on the South Island, New Zealand. 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).

In 1923 Bill and his parents travelled to England. Here he bought an Isle of Man Sunbeam motorcar, and met Peggy Wills, who he married in October 1923. They returned together to New Zealand. He built his first workshop at Irishmans Creek the following year.

Bill entered the Sunbeam at the New Zealand Motor Cup races in Auckland in 1925 and won the 50-mile race at an average speed of 81.5 mph. He 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.

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.

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.

In 1930 he drove a 4½ litre Bentley at the Easter Brooklands meeting. He entered and won all three races.

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.