Wednesday, August 10, 2011

150 years of patents in New Zealand

It’s now 150 years since the New Zealand Patent Office (as it then was) issued NZ Patent No. 1 to A.G. Purchas and J. Ninnis for an invention titled “An invention for the preparation of the fibre of the Phormium tenax and other plants for manufacturing purposes”.

Phormium Tenax, better known as harakeke or swamp flax, was a useful material from which to manufacture rope and woven fabric.  Processing flax to extract its natural fibre was apparently a labour-intensive process.  The traditional Maori method used mussel shells to strip away fibre manually from the upper leaf surface.

The patent covered a plant fibre dressing process and leaf-stripping machine.  The patentees built a mill (hopefully AFTER filing their patent application) on the banks of a stream.  Harakeke leaves were stripped by grooved iron beating plates.  Stream water circulated by the mill wheel removed plant waste.

Mechanical stripping machines could produce 250 kg (550 lb) of fibre in the time it took a worker to manually produce just 1 kg.

Times have moved on.  There are better sources of rope these days.  However it is good to see there is still at least one working flax stripping machine in New Zealand.  It’s a museum piece still supplying stripped flax to furniture makers and to others for packing and Maori crafts.

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