PICKENS COUNTY — Kayaking has a 5,000-year history. Over the years, cultures who lived by water progressed from stretching hides or bark over wood or bone frames to more modern construction involving composites and fiberglass.
But in the early 1970s, the materials and construction of kayaks took a giant leap forward …
Meet Bill Masters: Inventor, engineer, designer and entrepreneur — and he was born right here, in Pickens.
By any account, Masters is a pretty interesting guy — he’s been called not only “the father of modern kayaking” but “the father of 3D printing” as well.
All 3D printing uses a laminate structure and slicing algorithm to layer material. In fact, 80 percent of today’s 3D printing technologies work with extrusion, which basically works by stacking layers of resin cured by UV light.
Masters started work on his new manufacturing process in the early 80s, comparing the idea to using a straw to deposit “spit wads.”
As he put it, “When you shoot a lot of wads, they begin to take shape. If you can control the direction of the wads and the motion of the device shooting them, you can produce any desired shape.”
According to the Masters, the idea for 3D printing occurred to him one night, camping on the Chattooga River.
“I was lying on the riverbank looking up at the stars, and I realized you could take one star and make that your seed point,” he said. “You could add stars from any direction, until you had the shape you wanted.”
He spent years refining his idea and filed a patent for his Computer Automated Manufacturing Process and System on July 2 1984. This filing is on record at the USPTO as the first 3D printing patent in history — it was the first of three patents belonging to Masters that laid the foundation for the 3D printing systems used today.
When Masters introduced his 3D printing technology at CAD/CAM conferences on the late 1980s, he was met with little success. Undeterred, he founded Perception Systems to handle research and development on his technology.
Does the name “Perception” sound familiar? Well, for Liberty residents at least, it should …
George Sayour, a paddling expert writing for About Sports, wrote an article called “How Perception Kayaks changed the kayaking industry”
The article notes that today’s kayak industry has a range of OEMs large and small, but it all began 30 years ago, with Masters working on the idea of plastic roto-molded kayaks.
He started Perception with $50 — yes, fifty dollars — in Liberty.
How does a kid from Pickens end up being labeled “the father of modern kayaking?” Well, Masters says it all started back when he was a student at Clemson and he accepted a broken kayak as payment for fixing a friend’s car.
The repaired the kayak and his workmanship attracted the attention of other kayakers running the area’s whitewater, he said.
An enthusiast from the first time he paddled down the Chattooga, Masters spent 10 days in 1972 working on his first handmade kayak in the back of an old mortuary.
His prototype drew interest from other kayakers and Masters sold it for $90.
In August 1974, Masters and his partner, Don Hamilton, launched their first kayak manufacturing company, Fiberglass Technology, in Liberty. The company produced an average of 150 boats per year.
In 1976, Masters changed to the name of the company to Perception Kayaks.
Within five years, this three-man operation would become the largest kayak manufacturer in the United States. As Perception grew with the kayak market, it expanded operations internationally to Chester, England in 1982 and New Zealand in 1986. Along the way, Masters developed and registered 30 plus patents in boat design, plastics manufacturing, computers and heat transfer and used these patents to keep Perception at the forefront of the industry.
Perception also offered Masters the opportunity to refine his ideas about process engineering and corporate culture. The company had an honor code and maintained a company book, a history of learning, which documented lessons learned in product development and manufacturing. Masters expected his employees to read the book, absorb its lessons and make their own contributions.
Perception continued to grow throughout the 80s and into the 90s, producing successful lines of kayaks and canoes. As early as 1984, however, Masters had begun to speak openly about vacating his role as president of the company he founded. The year 1984 also saw the launch of Aquaterra, a touring kayak division, which was eventually folded into the Perception lineup.
In 1987, Perception’s sales manager, Joe Pulliam, left Perception to work for Blue Hole Canoe and eventually founded Dagger Canoe. Dagger emerged as the first serious competition for Perception, although Pulliam had a two-year non-compete agreement that initially kept Dagger out of kayaks and in canoes. In 1990 Dagger introduced its first kayak, the Response.
Masters would eventually exit Perception altogether when he sold the company to Crescent Capital, which then acquired Dagger, and both companies were put under the Watermark Paddlesports holding company. Watermark was eventually acquired by Confluence Holdings, an industry platform consolidating multiple kayak and canoe brands.
Throughout his career, Masters has been honored with dozens of awards and recognitions — including the Order of the Palmetto in 2016.
But does that mean he’s done?
Nope, not even close.
Now Masters is the latest inductee into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame (IWHoF) as a member of the Pioneer 2017 class.
Masters will be grouped with 39 individuals from 12 countries in the IWHoF who have all made significant contributions to whitewater related activities.
“I certainly appreciate this induction, it’s great to be recognized as an innovator,” Masters said. “It was awesome being an integral part of growing the industry with our ideas and design culture.”
Not too shabby for a kid from Pickens, Masters. Not too shabby at all.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.