The notion that a Kiwi can make anything with a piece of wire is a flattering myth, but as a recipe for making our nation great, it may have outlived its usefulness.
On June 22, 1928, the Ellesmere Guardian provided a valuable guide for Canterbury readers on how to turn an old kerosene tin into a useful receptacle for carrying poultry food and suchlike.
"Take a piece of No 8 gauge fencing wire, about six feet long, and measuring the centre, proceed to wind it around a piece of three-quarter-inch pipe, or a broom handle..."
After a couple of fiddly steps involving right-angle bends and hooking the wire to the top of the tin, hey presto: a bucket whose "handle will be found a boon, as it is somewhat elastic and gives a good grip, and is far preferable to the single wire, which cuts into the fingers".
There you have it, New Zealand's No 8 fencing wire ethos in its purest form.
Look around your farm to see what's lying around (kerosene tin).
Get a bit of No 8 fencing wire (with a conveniently bendable gauge of just over 4mm) and twist it imaginatively to produce something functional, yet elegant. With strong fingers and an innovative spirit you can do anything! Over the decades, the legend has grown.
In 1911, when the Tasman town of Brightwater put in its first five street lights, a farmer provided the electricity from a converted waterwheel in his flourmill, and the lights were switched off and on each day by a flock of chooks: as they roosted at dusk their weight would close an electric circuit connected to the perch and when they clucked off at dawn the circuit would break, snuffing the street lights. And on it goes.
Farmer Richard Pearse flew a pioneering plane into a hedge.
Veterinarian Colin Murdoch invented a tranquilliser dart.
Farmers Bill Gallagher and Bill Hamilton invented an electric fence and a jetboat respectively.
In modern times it's a catechism of trade names - A J Hackett, Aquada, Navman, Trade Me, Martin Jetpack, Rex Bionics.
No 8 rhetoric spreads like foot-and-mouth. In 2004, Labour's Marian Hobbs spoke of getting misty-eyed in flying home to a society "built on No 8 fencing wire". In 2006, UnitedFuture ninny Gordon Copeland fretted that a risk-averse attitude would "smother" the Kiwi "No 8 wire creative spirit".
At the annual rural jamboree Fieldays, No 8 is celebrated in an invention competition (last year's winner was a 12-year-old girl who converted a golf cart into a transporter for "pigtail" fence standards) and in an art competition whose entries must be constructed from wire.
Past winners have included a child's cot, a giant tiki and a beautifully intricate stag's head.
But like many things fresh from the farm, there's a slight whiff of manure about the No 8-wire narrative and the notion that there's a cool invention in every garden shed just waiting to be commercialised.
Fact is there are inventors everywhere in the world. New Zealanders might be able to coil wire around a broom but that doesn't mean we're on the cusp of inventing something to knock the iPhone off its perch and make us all rich.
We score relatively well on one marker of innovative tendencies: scientific papers.
In 2008 we bashed out 1330 per million population, almost double the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
But for some reason, all that cleverness isn't translating into inventions. In 2008, New Zealanders filed 11 "triadic patents" per million population (that's a patent filed simultaneously in Europe, Japan and the United States).
This rate is a pathetic one-third of the OECD average.
The poor result may be connected to the fact New Zealand spends about 1.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development - far below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. For all the chirruping from government and business leaders about the need for New Zealand to "move up the value chain" (that is, take cheap materials and turn them into expensive hi-tech products), 70 per cent of the country's earnings still come from selling relatively unprocessed primary products, such as trees or wool or lumps of frozen sheep.
IMPROVISATION VS INNOVATION
So why isn't the No 8 spirit saving us? Business commentator Rod Oram says making do was essential in colonial days when spare parts and services were far, far away. "You had to be able to improvise and I think it was immensely valuable."
But improvisation isn't the same as innovation. Being able to bash up something in the shed to solve a pressing problem is "admirable", says Oram. "But it's not commercial." If we want to make export dollars, we need to dream up products and services that are "scaleable and replicable", says Oram, and that seldom happens in a garden shed.
Oram reckons the phrase "No 8" itself is going out of vogue in the serious business community, even though the Government has sunk millions in a venture-capital fund called "No 8 Ventures", which has backed the Martin Jetpack and Rex Bionics.
(The fund, says Oram, is currently "living down to its name".)
Sometimes, says Oram, the No 8 ethos is positively dangerous.
He believes a she'll-be-right, make-it-up-as-you-go attitude was at the heart of the Pike River mine tragedy. Reading the royal commission report on the mine "made me so angry", says Oram.
An unwise piece of Kiwi cost-cutting improvisation during construction meant a ventilation fan was placed deep inside the mine rather than at the surface.
"There's a very good reason why no-one else in the world had put ventilation machinery inside a mine. In an accident you wipe out the very equipment that's meant to keep your mine safe. "That was pure No 8. It's insane."
It seems, then, that a "No 8" ethos won't make us rich and it can even be lethal.
Yet it would be a terrible shame to excise the strand of our national identity that has brought us jetpacks, aquatic cars and chicken-controlled streetlights.
Fortunately, we don't need to: No 8 still has its place.
MAKING DO WITH BUGGER-ALL
Oscar-winning movie art director Kim Sinclair, who from his Auckland base has worked on blockbusters including Avatar, Cast Away and The Legend of Zorro, as well as numerous lower-budget Kiwi films, says years of working with multi-country crews have allowed him to watch different nationalities work and play.
He confirms that the ability to make do with bugger-all is indeed distinctively Kiwi and, most of the time, it wins respect.
"We end up in this weird club with the South Africans and to a lesser degree the Canadians - a kind of colonial hit squad," says Sinclair. "Frugality and making do with what you've got are colonial things. We're not as urbanised.
"We don't have to go back very far to find farmers in our ancestors. We haven't lost touch with those values." Those values came in handy when Sinclair was building the "bio-link chamber" for Avatar, where star Sam Worthington lies in a hi-tech coffin surrounded by spacey technology.
The problem? The background set had a saucer-sized gap in it, "and we needed something cool for the hole".
In the US, says Sinclair, "some guy would have been paid to design something which would have been prototyped and criticised and modified and rebuilt and finished and installed", at considerable expense.
"That process is great," says Sinclair, but this was Wellington not Los Angeles, so one of his team went down to the Miramar service station and bought six waterproof Dolphin torches for about $6 each, and pulled them apart.
The torches' lenses filled the hole perfectly.
"You see it in the movie and no-one knows it's a floating torch."
Similarly, when Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai was being filmed in Taranaki, shipping containers of the right grass were imported from Thailand to make 19th-century Japanese thatched roofs but the ceilings were made out of cheap reed sunbathing mats which an observant designer spotted for sale in The Warehouse.
In the States, says Sinclair, props departments see their job as spending money, so they figure the more they spend the better the job they must be doing.
Kiwis, imbued with the No 8 spirit and used to tiny budgets, just want to solve problems and if they can solve them cheaply that's even better.
Foreign directors and actors are often strangely in awe of Kiwis' DIY abilities. On the set of Cast Away, when Sinclair taught Tom Hanks how to plait, "he said: you're a genius!
"And I thought, not really - it's just that in LA, they don't teach people how to plait."
Sinclair agrees the No 8 ethos that has served him so well is about improvisation, rather than the true innovation New Zealand's economy needs.
But he'd argue that flexibility, lateral thinking and problem-solving will always be valuable.
Rather than an art director plugging a hole in a film set with a $6 torch, it might be a technology entrepreneur milling a piece of titanium rather than waiting for an off-the-shelf part.
In 19th-century New Zealand, No 8 wire was so important daily papers carried prominent ads for each shipment.
"NOW LANDED," shouted The Hawke's Bay Herald of March 15, 1883. "50 TONS ACORN BRAND PATENT ROUND STEEL WIRE, OILED, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10".
These days, we don't need to talk about it in capital letters.
But somewhere, whether it's in the back of a shot of a Hollywood movie, or the raw material for piece of Fieldays art, or even just stretched between some fenceposts to help keep some sheep in their place, there'll always be a place for a bit of No 8.
- Sunday Star Times
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