Have you ever wondered who invented the jet ski?
The truth is that what is now the brand name of a personal watercraft manufactured by Kawasaki wasn’t actually invented by the corporation.
Here is the honest story about the creation of the jet ski.
Who Invented the Jet Ski?
Jet skis are the kind of personal watercrafts that only real adventure lovers will be able to fully appreciate. Of course, you would expect the inventor of such a unique way of getting around to be a daredevil and explorer as well.
And you would be right.
Clayton Jacobson is the man who invented the jet ski and introduced it to the world back with the help of Kawasaki in 1973. In the 1960s, he was working on his father-in-law and focused on building a banking career. But there were other things that also filled the young man’s life.
Jacobson liked to call himself ‘the modern-day Viking’ as both of his parents were Norwegian immigrants. Maybe that's why whenever Clayton needed to relieve stress, he would build motorcycles and cars, race hot rods, and race dirtbikes in the desert.
He also got into bodybuilding, at one point, and that was one of the main reasons why Clayton’s avoided most protective gear – he just wanted to show off his muscles.
Nobody got surprised when the aspiring banker fell off his bike...
Looking for a ‘Softer Landing’
Thankfully, Mr. Jacobson got off with a few bruises. That was the day when Clayton realized that picking gravel out of his wounds was not a fan activity at all. A lot of people might have dropped their extreme hobby after such an accident, but Mr. Jacobson had a better idea.
He started looking for a place where it would be ‘softer to land’. And that’s when the man turned to water.
In the 1950s, a motorcycle maker from the UK named Vincent already came up with a model of a ‘water scooter’ with a propeller. But Amanda (that’s how Vincent would gently call the watercraft) came with a seat.
Clayton’s invention used a jet pump, had to be ridden while standing, and had an aluminum body. Throughout the years, Mr. Jacobson would improve the design and create a few prototypes. In fact, he fell in love with his creation and even quit his day job to be able to spend more time perfecting the watercraft.
A ‘Power-Driven Aquatic Vehicle’
In 1966, Clayton Jacobson filed a patent for what he referred to as a ‘power-driven aquatic vehicle’. He then started showing the invention to different manufacturers with hope that someone would like the idea.
The first agreement that Jacobson signed was with Bombardier. However, the watercraft never actually got going (perhaps, because the company was more interested in a version with a seat). Clayton started looking for another manufacturer that could bring his creation to life.
And that’s when Kawasaki appeared on the horizon.
The Decade-Long Dispute
Years after, one of the Kawasaki employees would admit that the first jet skis were like wild horses and you needed quite some time to get used to them. But once that finally happened, you were actually able to have some fun while riding the watercraft.
The first Kawasaki jet ski models were released in 1973. Those were stand-up watercrafts that weighed 220 pounds (and had the color of pea soup).
Over the years, other companies started introducing their own jet skis. Very soon jet-ski racing became incredibly popular. In order to differentiate themselves from the competition, Kawasaki started running advertisements saying that they were the ones (not the former fan of dirt bikes) who invented the watercraft.
That was the beginning of a decade-long dispute between Clayton Jacobson and Kawasaki.
Did Kawasaki Invent the Jet Ski?
In 1979, Jacobson filed a lawsuit against Kawasaki. According to Jacobson, the company’s employees should not be credited for the creation of the jet ski. Furthermore, the man claimed that Kawasaki didn’t lawfully obtain the patents in Japan.
At one point, Clayton was awarded $21 million (even though he demanded more), but the award was overturned only 2 months later due to ‘insufficient evidence’.
Over a decade has passed, and Clayton Jacobson finally settled with Kawasaki’s American subsidiary. The man got awarded a couple of million dollars which might seem alright, but not when taking into consideration how much the company actually made from their jet skis throughout the years.
Together with the reward, Jacobson had to issue a statement where he acknowledged that Kawasaki contributed a lot to the development of the watercraft. Kawasaki, in its turn, accepted that Clayton Jacobson is ‘widely known as the creator of a stand-up watercraft’ and that ‘without this invention, it wouldn’t have been possible to develop Kawasaki’s world-known jet skis’.
Why Jet Ski?
Even though Clayton was the one to invent the prototype of a small personal watercraft, he wasn’t the person who came up with the name ‘jet ski’.
In the 70s, Kawasaki would call the invention ‘water jet’ and ‘power ski’. At one point, they settled on the name ‘jet ski’.
It seemed to be easy-to-remember and quite logical – after all, these watercrafts are propellered by high-speed jets of water that shoot out of the back of the model. They can also leap and make sharp turns and that is similar to snowboarding (not exactly skiing, but you get the idea).
Of course, Kawasaki managed to make quite a sum on their jet skis. But they are not as popular in the United States now as they used to be. Only 6-7% of the market share in the US belongs to Jet Ski; Sea-Doo (Bombardier) and Waverunner (Yamaha Motor) play a more important role in the American personal watercraft industry.
With that being said, Sea-Doos and Waverunners will forever be called 'Jet Skis' by the absolute majority of people.
Where Is Clayton Jacobson Now?
In 2013, Mr. Jacobson got his autobiography published by his son, Clayton Jacobson III. He decided to title the book ‘Jet Ski Inventor Autobiography’ and tell the whole story from his perspective. The author also shares all his life adventures; in fact, only a small part of the autobiography is dedicated to the whole jet ski drama.
The creator of what he liked to call ‘the motorcycle of the water’ died at the age of 88 on August 18, 2022.
Clayton Jacobson passed away in his home in Australia – that’s where he moved to about a quarter of a century ago after riding his jet skis in the Pacific Ocean and even a section of the Colorado River.
The man was being treated for skin cancer (always wear your sunscreen when having the time of your life on a jet ski!). He died from pneumonia which was caused by the aggressive treatment.
Clayton Jacobson always wanted his funeral to be as close to a traditional Viking ceremony as possible. He was cremated and then sent off to Valhalla in a pair of Levi’s jeans and with his Buck knife.
So, now you know who invented the jet ski.
This was a story about a giant corporation and an adventurous man who just liked to have fun. And that was definitely something that he managed to succeed in.