By Les Watkins
“Insomnia is an inventor’s best friend”.
They are the words of Dennis Linton – an innovative engineer who, time and time again, has personally found they are absolutely true.
Uninvited ideas often flit through his head during sleepless hours after midnight and get developed into designs for imaginative products.
At least one of them, a lightweight hydraulic jack Mr Linton made at his two-man Albany factory, Hydraulic Force Tools Manufacturing has helped save several lives.
Without it the death toll would have been greater in Christchurch’s devastating earthquake in February 2011.
Twelve of these super-strong alloy jacks, six 50-tonners and six 25 tonners, were in the package of specialist equipment this versatile veteran supplied to the fire service’s Urban Search and Rescue organisation.
“And they were invaluable in the early rescues from destroyed big buildings,” says Christchurch USAR deputy task force leader Ralph Moore.
“Without them rescuers couldn’t have reached many of the victims trapped in the CTV building, for instance, or the Pyne Gould Corporation building. Those victims would undoubtedly have died.”
One of the most harrowing rescues made possible by the jacks was at the Pyne Gould building where a woman medic used a borrowed hacksaw and a carpenter’s knife, to amputate a 52-year-old man’s legs above the knee in order to free him.
“Our people had the jacks as temporary supports so that when the next aftershock came – and there were plenty of them – more stuff wouldn’t come down on them,” says Mr Moore.
“They had to wriggle on their bellies through tunnels only 300mm or 400mm high to reach those needing help.”
Doctors also risked their lives that way. Brisbane-based urologist Dr Stuart Philip, who was originally from Hastings, was in the team tending that 52-year-old man.
He and a female urologist from Melbourne, both in Christchurch for a conference, went with a local anesthetist to the back of the building where the man was trapped under a huge concrete beam.
The beam was too heavy to be lifted and the double amputation was their only hope of saving the man’s life. The anesthetist sedated him with morphine and ketamine and – because the space around his legs was tiny and she was the smallest – the woman performed the 15-minute operation.
The man had further surgery at Christchurch Hospital before being transferred to Waikato Hospital.”
“In a way I do everything backwards,” says Mr Linton.
“I design things entirely in my head, often after waking in the early hours, and don’t even put them down on paper. Then I make them as I go along.”
His jacks are as strong as the steel ones made overseas and, he says, they are half the weight. “And the prices are comparable,” he points out.
“What’s more I’m the only one in Australasia making light-weight, high-quality hydraulic tool equipment.”
He has specialised in hydraulic products for more than 40 years and they have a wide range of uses.
One, for example, brings greater precision and safety to the felling of giant trees – with jacks placed in cubes cut into their bases steering the fall to the chosen spot.
Another tightens the rigging on ocean-going yachts while others are designed to split wood or even rocks.
New Zealand USAR volunteers took his jacks to assist after the recent earthquake in Japan but they were not used as everything was flattened – with nothing left to lift.
However, other products from this Albany factory are now being used in the US and Australia as well as throughout the Pacific Islands.
“I’ve been designing and making things nearly all my life,” he says. “I started when I was about eight by building a doll’s house for my sister.
“My mother used to boast that when I was a month old I was smart enough to teach her the best way to fix my nappy with a pin.”
His eyes are twinkling as he adds: “I somehow suspect she might have been exaggerating.”