What does an inventor do with his day?

19 Nov


Every inventor needs a place to do their inventing, and so here is Douglas in his workshop in Ludlow in the mid-1990s. The workshop unit itself was on the ground floor of a converted mill and consisted of three rooms; two of them were essentially garage-type space – concrete floors, no natural light except through the concertina doors – and they contained all his larger machines, often littered with a sprinkling of metal dust and off-cuts. The room in the picture is the ‘studio’ or main office space, also with a concrete floor, but with a couple of old rugs to make it feel a bit warmer. There was no heating except for ancient portable gas heaters and it was often very cold, especially in the little tiny toilet cubicle in one corner. The studio itself was an extension and actual hung over the mill race, meaning you could always hear rushing water and, occasionally, see kingfishers from the window.

Unlike the mad-inventor stereotype lurking in a shed in the middle of the night, Douglas always took his work seriously and treated it like a business and a full time job, in the sense that he arrived every day Monday to Friday at work at about 8.30am and stayed there until 5 or 5.30pm every day. At the time of this photograph he had two or three local women working for him, helping to make things like the Spectangles, as well as belt buckles, jewellery and other items, and one or two local engineeringly-minded men who helped with the rougher end of the metal working and machinery wrangling. Many of the ideas that they worked on often began life as a drawing in a notebook and Douglas took notebooks everywhere, including on holiday, working up thoughts over and over again until they became enough of a whole idea that they could be drawn up properly, and turned into real objects.

Once he had an idea on paper, the process would begin with sourcing materials to make his initial designs. I spent some time doing a summer job for him and my main task involved phoning around suppliers to get a specific size of spring, plastic with certain qualities, or sheet metal of different thicknesses. Even in the 1990s, Douglas could feel the manufacturing industry in the UK collapsing and it was getting harder and harder to source Douglas’s chosen materials, mostly metals and plastics. I spent many boring hours organising his catalogues of products and trying to label them so he could find what he might need and phoning around for new suppliers. The internet changed things later, but at the time, searching could be slow, and you often had to order more of something than you needed in order for a company to deal with you.

Once Douglas had his materials, he needed to work out how to make a tool that would shape them into the pieces he needed. The workshop at that time probably had about 6 hand presses (see below), each of which Douglas could use to cut, shape and punch metal, plastic and fabric into the shapes he needed. Each tool head for the press could take several days to make, including quite a lot of standing at the bench by the window, filing metal (squeak, squeak, squeak) and then adjustments to get the pressure and measurements right.  You can see a pretty good video of how to adjust a manual press here: http://www.directindustry.com/prod/maeder-pressen/product-14224-424328.html (press the video button), imagine making endless small adjustments until your item was just so.cstonsideOnce the tool was up and running, the pieces could be made and tested, and, one at a time,  the tool heads could be changed and the next piece made, and then the next. A Spectangle, for example, would need an individual press action to make the hooks on the strings, another action to fix the hook to the string, another to make the clip for the loops, an action to cut out the three layers of the pendants, another action to press them together, an action to shape the pendant loop and then a final action to press that onto the pendant before you could string them together by hand. Each item could take a long time to make. Only when it was completely assembled could you be sure of whether or not it worked, and that was the point at which he could say, yes, or nope, back to the drawing board, and the cycle would start again. Each product often took years to perfect, although more straightforward items like belt buckles could be done more quickly. All of this development work would have to be done before you had sold a single item, so all of the time and materials had to be paid for before you were sure it would work, and that anyone would want it.

So, making was only part of the job. A good section of all those notebooks in the box include pages and pages of notes and phone numbers, like this:


Pages and pages of potential leads, potential sources for materials or services, and, on the right (hard to read), a list of items posted out and to whom. For all the fun/boredom of the drawing, the making, the remaking, the playing with metals, the solving of problems, the main activity I remember Douglas doing for his work was making phone calls. He was a determined and charismatic cold caller, able to navigate his way up company chains to the decision-maker to try to sell his ideas. How he was received at the other end, particularly in the UK, is another story, but for now here he is, in full glamour, the inventor in action. All he needed was one phone call to lead to a sale for all of the time, money and effort of each development to work. But how many phone calls must you make for that to happen?




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