Jet Ski is one of the most famous names in personal watercraft. Its competitors include the Yamaha WaveRunner, the Bombardier Sea-Doo and the Honda AquaTrax, but few of those names have caught on the way Jet Ski has. Even though the Sea-Doo outsells the Jet Ski, it’s the latter that has become a household name for any type of personal watercraft.
Many companies have tried to make water scooters and personal watercraft. In 1955, a British company made a water scooter named Amanda, but it failed to interest many buyers. An Italian company later introduced the Nautical Pleasure Cruiser, but it also failed to catch on.
The history of Jet Ski is a history riddled with claims of theft, trademark infringement and libel. It all began in Southern California, where Clayton Jacobson had moved from Minnesota as a young boy. Jacobson was an avid motocross racer and a skilled mechanic. In the Marines, he learned to work on jet engines. Although he worked in a bank, Jacobson most enjoyed tinkering with machines.
In 1961, he fell off a dirt bike during a casual race with friends. He stopped at an irrigation ditch to wash himself off and drink a beer. As he later told the Associated Press, “I was picking the gravel out of my skin and cleaning the blood off, and I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”
Jacobson became obsessed with the idea of creating a motorcycle that would run on the water. He quit his job to spend all his time working on his idea. His plans combined his knowledge of jet engines and motorcycle mechanics to create a machine that would propel riders across the water at top speed. He spent years working on it and developed his first prototype in 1965.
His original idea was a standup style of personal watercraft. Jacobson’s version differed from early water scooters by using a pump-jet engine instead of the outboard motor used by earlier water scooters.
In 1971, he filed a patent for his invention and went looking for a company to manufacture and market his invention. He first approached Bombardier, which made snowmobiles, but they weren’t interested. He talked to Kawasaki, which was well known for its motorcycles.
Jacobson signed a licensing agreement with Kawasaki to make and market standup Jet Skis. The company paid him $150,000. In 1973, the first Jet Skis began rolling off the production line and into the water.
Jacobson later signed licensing deals with other companies that had initially turned him down. His deals included the Bombardier Sea-Doo and the Yamaha WaveRunner.
First Sit-Down Models
Kawasaki marketed the Jet Ski as way to water ski without a boat. At the time, the new watercraft were primarily popular among people who enjoyed high-risk sports. Most people viewed them as exciting but dangerous. The company continued to experiment with different models to reach a wider audience.
In 1982, Kawasaki introduced the first sit-down Jet Ski. The new Jet Skis were more stable and had better safety features. These improvements made Jet Skis appealing to people who just wanted to have fun on the water. The new Jet Skis were marketed as enjoyable for any casual user. Some could carry two people, which added to the fun.
In the 1990s, Kawasaki continued to add safety features and features that reduced the environmental impact of Jet Skis. The company introduced a direct injection engine in 2000 and a four-stroke engine in 2003. Today’s Jet Skis are safer than earlier models.
Jet Ski Lawsuits
Kawasaki has not had many notable lawsuits challenging its use of the name Jet Ski. The company has faced several personal injury lawsuits regarding serious injuries caused by Jet Ski accidents and riders falling off the watercraft. The company has settled several large claims regarding these injuries.
Despite their safety innovations, Jet Skis are still high-risk watercraft. Many states have passed laws limiting their use to people over 16. Some states also require operators to get safety training before they can use them.
Jacobson Sues Kawasaki
In 1976, Jacobson sued Kawasaki for patent infringement. Jacobson said the company violated the 1971 licensing agreement by filing their own patents in 1975. His lawsuit accused Kawasaki of putting its own name on his ideas and then filing for patents. Kawasaki settled by paying him $3 million.
Jacobson, however, didn’t know that Kawasaki had also filed patents in Japan. In 1989, Jacobson again sued Kawasaki for stealing his idea and selling his invention in Japan.
A jury at the 1991 trial awarded him $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $13.5 million in punitive damages. It was a lot less than the $30 to $60 million he had requested.
Read more on trademarking common words and phrases.
Slander of Title
The 1989 suit accused Kawasaki of libel and ″slander of title.″ This meant that the company harmed Jacobson’s reputation by stealing his invention, and “slander of title” meant the company harmed his business interest in the Jet Ski.
Later, however, a federal judge overturned the verdict and the jury award. Judge John Davies of the U.S. Federal Court ruled, “The evidence of libel and slander of title was scanty and undeveloped.”
Riding the Waves
Jacobson, who is now 88, has not pursued litigation against Kawasaki. In 2013, he published his autobiography, Jet Ski Inventor. In a 2015 interview, he said he now prefers piloting his own plane to motorcycle racing or riding a Jet Ski. Jacobson’s name will always be linked to the excitement of riding the waves on a personal watercraft.