Field: Seismic Engineering. Organisation: Robinson Seismic Limited.

Dr William (Bill) Robinson cannot be accused of being boring! Over the years, he has studied and worked in a variety of disciplines, although he is best known for his development of the base isolation technique used in seismic engineering.

Nothing happens easily. Try, try, try.

He had not been expected to achieve academically when at school, but to both his and his college’s surprise, he came top of the school in Year 11 maths, which made him realise he could aim for university. He gained a Bachelor in Mechanical Engineering at Auckland University, then a Master’s degree in Aeronautics.

Bill moved to the University of Illinois in the USA where he changed direction and completed a PhD in physical metallurgy, writing his thesis on ultrasonics techniques. He followed this with two years at the University of Sussex (UK) as a research fellow in solid state physics. This is where he learnt one of the laws of science – that sometimes experiments won’t give the results wanted and that you just have to walk away and tackle a new challenge.

After moving back to New Zealand, Bill worked for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, becoming Director of the physics and engineering laboratories in 1984.

In 1974 he developed the lead rubber bearing to use in base isolation. The first building in the world to be mounted on lead rubber bearings was the William Clayton building in Wellington.

Bill’s approach is that you start something, get successful with it, and then move on to something else. For example, while structures were being erected using his base isolation techniques, he was in the Antarctic with the Scott Polar Research Institute, experimenting on glacier and sea ice. He studied the waves that build up when vehicles drive or fly across the ice and tried to develop a technique for measuring gravitational waves. However, after many experiments, he failed to measure this to the degree he wanted.

Bill has been recognised for his innovative work – he has a Fellowship and gold medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand and a Distinguished Fellowship from The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand

Robinson Seismic, founded by Bill in 1995, is recognised around the world as a leading and innovative company in seismic development.

This article is based on information current in 2007.

Dr Bill Robinson passed away on 17th August 2011, there is a tribute from the New Zealand Royal Society to Dr Robinson here.

    Published 21 July 2007, Updated 24 August 2011