Bill Robinson (scientist)

Last updated

Bill Robinson

William Henry Robinson

(1938-10-02)2 October 1938
Auckland, New Zealand
Died17 August 2011(2011-08-17) (aged 72)
Christchurch, New Zealand
Known forInvention of the lead rubber bearing
Awards Rutherford Medal (1999), Companion of the Queen's Service Order (2007)
Scientific career
Fields Seismic engineering, sea ice
InstitutionsRobinson Seismic Ltd.; Physics & Engineering Laboratory (DSIR)

William Henry Robinson QSO (2 October 1938 – 17 August 2011) was a New Zealand scientist and seismic engineer who invented the lead rubber bearing seismic isolation device. He grew up in West Auckland, New Zealand. He earned a Masters at the Ardmore School of Engineering, then a PhD in Physical Metallurgy at the University of Illinois. Robinson was director of the DSIR's Physics and Engineering Laboratory between 1985 and 1991. He continued to invent and develop seismic isolation devices, travel and lecture until his early 70s.

Auckland Metropolitan area in North Island, New Zealand

Auckland is a city in the North Island of New Zealand. The most populous urban area in the country, Auckland has an urban population of around 1,628,900. It is located in the Auckland Region—the area governed by Auckland Council—which includes outlying rural areas and the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, resulting in a total population of 1,695,900. Auckland is a diverse, multicultural and cosmopolitan city, home to the largest Polynesian population in the world. A Māori-language name for Auckland is Tāmaki or Tāmaki Makaurau, meaning "Tāmaki with a hundred lovers", in reference to the desirability of its fertile land at the hub of waterways in all directions.

Metallurgy domain of materials science that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metals

Metallurgy is a domain of materials science and engineering that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, their inter-metallic compounds, and their mixtures, which are called alloys. Metallurgy is used to separate metals from their ore. Metallurgy is also the technology of metals: the way in which science is applied to the production of metals, and the engineering of metal components for usage in products for consumers and manufacturers. The production of metals involves the processing of ores to extract the metal they contain, and the mixture of metals, sometimes with other elements, to produce alloys. Metallurgy is distinguished from the craft of metalworking, although metalworking relies on metallurgy, as medicine relies on medical science, for technical advancement. The science of metallurgy is subdivided into chemical metallurgy and physical metallurgy.

The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) is a now-defunct government science agency in New Zealand, founded in 1926 and broken into Crown Research Institutes in 1992.


Life's work

Robinson is most well known for his invention of the lead rubber bearing (LRB) seismic isolation device. He designed the LRB in 1974 while working as a scientist for DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Zealand). As he was a public service employee when he invented the device, the LRB patent was owned by the state. The LRB is used under more than US$100 billion worth of structures around the world [1] , including New Zealand's Te Papa Tongarewa (National Museum of New Zealand), the new Wellington Hospital, Victoria University Library and Parliament Buildings. Most significant bridges in NZ use base isolation technology.

Wellington Hospital, New Zealand Hospital in Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington Hospital is the main hospital in Wellington, New Zealand, located south of the city centre in the suburb of Newtown. It is the main hospital run by Capital & Coast District Health Board (C&CDHB), which serves Wellington City, Porirua and the Kapiti Coast District. Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt are served by the separate Hutt Valley DHB and a separate hospital, Hutt Hospital, in the Lower Hutt suburb of Boulcott.

Victoria University of Wellington public university in New Zealand

Victoria University of Wellington is a university in Wellington, New Zealand. It was established in 1897 by Act of Parliament, and was a constituent college of the University of New Zealand.

New Zealand Parliament Buildings house the New Zealand Parliament and are on a 45,000 square metre site at the northern end of Lambton Quay, Wellington. They consist of the Edwardian neoclassical-style Parliament House (1922); the Parliamentary Library (1899); the executive wing, called "The Beehive" (1977); and Bowen House, in use since 1991. Whilst most of the individual buildings are outstanding for different reasons, the overall setting that has been achieved "has little aesthetic or architectural coherence".

LRBs are also under the Bhuj Hospital (India) and the C-1 building (Tokyo)—the largest building in the world that is protected by these devices. The Christchurch Women's Hospital is the only building in that city that uses LRBs and it was able to continue operating without any problems throughout the devastating earthquakes that occurred between September 2010 and June 2011.

2011 Christchurch earthquake February 2011 earthquake in New Zealand

An Mw 6.2 earthquake occurred in Christchurch on 22 February 2011 at 12:51 p.m. local time. The earthquake struck the Canterbury Region in New Zealand's South Island and was centred 6.7 kilometres (4.2 mi) south-east of the centre of Christchurch, at the time New Zealand's second-most populous city. The earthquake caused widespread damage across Christchurch, killing 185 people in the nation's fifth-deadliest disaster.

During the severe 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, the LRB-protected University of Southern California Teaching Hospital remained operational while the ten other hospitals in the area were so badly damaged that they had to be evacuated.

1994 Northridge earthquake Earthquake

The 1994 Northridge earthquake was a moment magnitude 6.7, blind thrust earthquake that occurred on January 17, 1994, at 4:30:55 a.m. PST in the San Fernando Valley region of the County of Los Angeles. Its epicenter was in Reseda, a neighborhood in the north-central area of the San Fernando Valley. The quake had a duration of approximately 10–20 seconds, and its peak ground acceleration of 1.8g (16.7 m/s2) was the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America. Strong ground motion was felt as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada, about 220 miles (360 km) from the epicenter. The peak ground velocity at the Rinaldi Receiving Station was 183 cm/s, the fastest ever recorded.

University of Southern California Private research university in Los Angeles, California, United States

The University of Southern California is a private research university in Los Angeles, California. Founded in 1880, it is the oldest private research university in California. For the 2018–19 academic year, there were 20,000 students enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs. USC also has 27,500 graduate and professional students in a number of different programs, including business, law, engineering, social work, occupational therapy, pharmacy, and medicine. It is the largest private employer in the city of Los Angeles and generates $8 billion in economic impact on Los Angeles and California.

The William Clayton building in Wellington, New Zealand, was the first in the world to be base isolated with LRBs. It was built by the then Ministry of Works and Development.

The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications Computer Centre came through the 1995 Kobe quake unscathed and remained fully operational. This significant building is one that is pointed to as an example of how the lead rubber bearing technology saves a building and its contents. Following the Kobe quake there was a large uptake of seismic isolation technology and in particular the Lead Rubber Bearing in Japan.

Kobe Designated city in Kansai, Japan

Kobe is the sixth-largest city in Japan and the capital city of Hyōgo Prefecture. It is located on the southern side of the main island of Honshū, on the north shore of Osaka Bay and about 30 km (19 mi) west of Osaka. With a population around 1.5 million, the city is part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area along with Osaka and Kyoto.

The second region in which these devices have been well used is California, following the Los Angeles and Northridge earthquake in 1994. The first use of an LRB in the USA was in 1984. Base isolators have since been inserted under more than 100 bridges and 70 buildings in the USA. Building codes in that country require all new hospitals to implement base isolation technology to ensure that they can continue functioning after a major quake.

In more recent years severe earthquakes in India and Turkey have generated interest in seismic isolation technology and many new buildings and bridges are being fitted with seismic isolation.

The costs of using base isolation for large structures have been found to be recouped in only a few years as insurance premiums are reduced so dramatically.

Robinson also invented the Roball and the Roglider base isolation systems for medium-weight and low rise buildings [2] , and the Lead Extrusion Damper, among other seismic isolation devices. He was founder, director and chief engineer of the world-leading seismic engineering company Robinson Seismic Ltd., which continues to test and manufacture his devices. In 1993 Robinson was co-author of An Introduction to Seismic Isolation, along with Ivan Skinner and Graeme McVerry. [3]


After completing a Masters in Mechanical Engineering at Ardmore (Auckland University, 1958–61), Robinson did a PhD in Physical Metallurgy at the University of Illinois, titled "High Temperature Internal Friction (Damping) in Potassium Chloride" (1962–65). In spite of having no aptitude for languages, he spent a summer learning German so that he could do the course reading for his PhD. Following this he became a Research Fellow in Physics at the University of Sussex (1966–67).

After returning to New Zealand in 1967 Robinson joined the DSIR Physics and Engineering Laboratory (PEL) as a scientist. His work included developing experimental techniques using ultrasonics in solid state physics and initiating a research programme in the Antarctic on sea ice (where he spent a few summers between 1978–89). He also worked at the Scott Polar Research Institute in 1981–2 (Cambridge, UK). He later became Director of PEL (1985–91) and showed particular foresight in giving his full support to the new field of the High Temperature Superconductivity programme.

At the age of 52, Robinson suffered from a near-fatal stroke, spending 4 and a half months in hospital rehabilitation. His "indomitable spirit" [2] enabled him to re-learn how to walk, write and drive, and within six months of the stroke he was back at work as a scientist. In 1995 he founded Robinson Seismic Ltd. to promote, develop and manufacture his seismic protection devices. He semi-retired during his 60s, spending most of his time on a lifestyle farm overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but continued to lecture, travel and develop his seismic engineering ideas part-time.

Robinson married in his early 20s and had three children.


Robinson was a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. He was awarded: the Rutherford Medal (the Royal Society Gold Medal for Technology, 1999); an Honorary DSc from Victoria University of Wellington (1995); the Hutton Medal (NZ Institute of Physics, 1992); the ER Coopers Medal for Engineering Research (NZ Royal Society, 1991); the Michaelus Medal for Physics (University of Otago, 1976). He was appointed a Companion of the Queen's Service Order in the 2007 Queen's Birthday Honours. The Robinson Research Institute was formed at Victoria University of Wellington in 2014, and "named to honour the late Dr Bill Robinson—inspirational scientist, seismic engineer and early champion of HTS [high-temperature superconductivity] technology". [2]

On 2 October 2019, Google honoured Robinson by celebrating what would have been his 81st birthday with a Google Doodle. [4]

Related Research Articles

Peak ground acceleration (PGA) is equal to the maximum ground acceleration that occurred during earthquake shaking at a location. PGA is equal to the amplitude of the largest absolute acceleration recorded on an accelerogram at a site during a particular earthquake. Earthquake shaking generally occurs in all three directions. Therefore, PGA is often split into the horizontal and vertical components. Horizontal PGAs are generally larger than those in the vertical direction but this is not always true, especially close to large earthquakes. PGA is an important parameter for earthquake engineering, The design basis earthquake ground motion (DBEGM) is often defined in terms of PGA.

Ernest Marsden British physicist

Sir Ernest Marsden was an English-New Zealand physicist. He is recognised internationally for his contributions to science while working under Ernest Rutherford, which led to the discovery of new theories on the structure of the atom. In Marsden's later work in New Zealand, he became a significant member of the scientific community, while maintaining close links to the United Kingdom.

Earthquake engineering interdisciplinary branch of engineering

Earthquake engineering is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that designs and analyzes structures, such as buildings and bridges, with earthquakes in mind. Its overall goal is to make such structures more resistant to earthquakes. An earthquake engineer aims to construct structures that will not be damaged in minor shaking and will avoid serious damage or collapse in a major earthquake. Earthquake engineering is the scientific field concerned with protecting society, the natural environment, and the man-made environment from earthquakes by limiting the seismic risk to socio-economically acceptable levels. Traditionally, it has been narrowly defined as the study of the behavior of structures and geo-structures subject to seismic loading; it is considered as a subset of structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, applied physics, etc. However, the tremendous costs experienced in recent earthquakes have led to an expansion of its scope to encompass disciplines from the wider field of civil engineering, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, and from the social sciences, especially sociology, political science, economics, and finance.

Bruce Bolt seismologist and academic

Bruce Alan Bolt was an Australian-born American seismologist and a professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Bolt was known as pioneer of engineering seismology. He served for 15 years on the California Seismic Safety Commission leading public debate on earthquake safety in that state, and acted as a consultant on major projects throughout the world. As well, Bolt published a number of popular and technical books on seismology.

Seismic base isolation means of protecting a structure against earthquake;collection of structural elements which should substantially decouple a superstructure from its substructure resting on a shaking ground thus protecting a building, non-building structures integrity

Seismic base isolation, also known as base isolation or base isolation system, is one of the most popular means of protecting a structure against earthquake forces. It is a collection of structural elements which should substantially decouple a superstructure from its substructure resting on a shaking ground thus protecting a building or non-building structure's integrity.

Vibration control

In earthquake engineering, vibration control is a set of technical means aimed to mitigate seismic impacts in building and non-building structures.

Wellington Town Hall concert hall and municipal complex in Wellington, New Zealand

The Wellington Town Hall is a concert hall and part of the municipal complex in Wellington, New Zealand, which opened in December 1904. It has been closed to the public since the 2013 Seddon earthquake, and it is currently undergoing extensive strengthening work.

Earthquake-resistant structures are structures designed to protect buildings from earthquakes. While no structure can be entirely immune to damage from earthquakes, the goal of earthquake-resistant construction is to erect structures that fare better during seismic activity than their conventional counterparts. According to building codes, earthquake-resistant structures are intended to withstand the largest earthquake of a certain probability that is likely to occur at their location.This means the loss of life should be minimized by preventing collapse of the buildings for rare earthquakes while the loss of the functionality should be limited for more frequent ones.

2010 Canterbury earthquake September 2010 earthquake in New Zealand

The 2010 Canterbury earthquake struck the South Island of New Zealand with a moment magnitude of 7.1 at 4:35 am local time on 4 September, and had a maximum perceived intensity of X (Extreme) on the Mercalli intensity scale. Some damaging aftershocks followed the main event, the strongest of which was a magnitude 6.3 shock known as the Christchurch earthquake that occurred nearly six months later on 22 February 2011. Because this aftershock was centred very close to Christchurch, it was much more destructive and resulted in the deaths of 185 people.

Thomas Athol Rafter was a New Zealand teacher and nuclear chemist.

Robert Cecil Hayes was a New Zealand astronomer, seismologist and organist. He was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 19 January 1900.

2013 Seddon earthquake

The 2013 Seddon earthquake measured 6.5 on the Mww scale and was centred in New Zealand's Cook Strait, around 20 kilometres (12 mi) east of the town of Seddon in Marlborough. The earthquake struck at 5:09:30 pm on Sunday 21 July 2013 at a depth of 13 kilometres (8 mi), according to Geonet. The United States Geological Survey also measured the quake at 6.5, at a depth of 17 kilometres (11 mi). The quake caused moderate damage in the wider Marlborough area and Wellington, the nation's capital city 55 kilometres (34 mi) north of the epicentre. Only minor injuries were reported. Several aftershocks occurred during 21–29 July.

2013 Lake Grassmere earthquake

The 2013 Lake Grassmere earthquake was a magnitude 6.6 earthquake that occurred at 2:31:05 pm (NZST) on Friday 16 August 2013. The epicentre was located about 10 km south-east of Seddon, under Lake Grassmere, with a focal depth of 8 km. The earthquake caused significant land damage in the local area, with landslips blocking roads, including the main highway between Blenheim and Christchurch. Buildings in Seddon were damaged, with some being declared uninhabitable. The earthquake was widely felt in both the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

Ivan Lyall Holmes was a New Zealand structural engineer whose advances in concrete masonry building methods in the 1950s and 1960s were central to the avant-garde style of modernist architecture known as New Brutalism which emerged in the 1950s. It was epitomised locally in the work of architects such as Miles Warren, Maurice Mahoney and Paul Pascoe.

Nigel Priestley New Zealand earthquake engineer

Michael John Nigel Priestley was a New Zealand earthquake engineer. He made significant contributions to the design and retrofit of concrete structures, and developed the first displacement-based method of seismic design.

Martha Kane Savage is a New Zealand geology academic,and as of 2018, is a full professor at the Victoria University of Wellington.

Timothy Haskell

Timothy George Haskell is a New Zealand scientist.

Michael Constantinou

Michael C. Constantinou is an American structural engineer who is currently a Samuel P. Capen Professor and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at the University at Buffalo, State University (UB).


  1. "Tribute to Dr Bill Robinson FRSNZ". Royal Society of New Zealand. 18 August 2011. Archived from the original on 3 June 2012. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  2. 1 2 3 "Bill Robinson | Robinson Research Institute". Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  3. Published by John Wiley & Sons, 1993, England.
  4. "Bill Robinson's 81st Birthday". Google. Retrieved 1 October 2019.