Archive | December, 2016

Fogging

24 Dec

One of the handy things about coming back to Mum’s for Christmas is the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about Douglas’s inventions. We’ve been going through old photographs and I’ve been asking questions. Someone who has been reading this blog asked me why I don’t just use the business records and files, but, you see, there aren’t any. Not one file or one set of accounts left. They have all been lost, damaged and/or destroyed in various moves and other life events and so all the paperwork we have is in that box I showed you on the first post. Therefore one of my main sources of information is my mother, who worked alongside Douglas in his business for a number of years. After more than 20 years since the early days, her memory is good but not complete, so not all of her information is as useful as I’d like it to be! To begin with, I asked her about Terry Bilboe, the man in the article about the dog armour. Here’s how the conversation went:

So, tell me about Terry Bilboe. How did he get involved?

Well, I don’t really remember how we met him, but I think maybe we were looking for someone to do fabrications for us.

Fabrications?

Yes, making plates for the armour that we would then assemble. He liked Douglas because his son was a cricket fan.

??

Yes, well Douglas was doing his cricket bat at the time.

Cricket bat? I didn’t know he was doing a cricket bat.

Oh yes, he did that for years. And of course Douglas would tell anyone he met about everything he was doing, so Terry I think wanted to get in on the cricket bat, but said he’d help to market the dog armour.

Was he a marketing person?

No, I think he was a bit bored with his manufacturing company and was looking for something to do.

And did he sell any?

No.

So what happened?

Well, that was it. Nothing happened. He didn’t sell any.

So, nothing else happened?

Nothing happened.

We’ve had quite a few dead-end conversations like this, because Terry Bilboe wasn’t the only man who came to visit Douglas, thinking he’d like to get involved, and then ending up being yet another disappointing story where nothing much happened. Douglas, as you can probably tell by now, had a lot of profile in the press, and if you were interested in new business ideas or opportunities, he was an eye-catching proposition. Douglas’s public profile continued for several years, and rooting through the photographs, we found these, taken at a filming session at the Millennium Dome when it was being built. It’s for the show What Will They Think of Next? with Carol Vorderman, and it must have been 1998.

 

Douglas with Carol V standing.jpgOne of the men who approached Douglas off the back of this kind of publicity, was a man whom I shall call X. Oh, you don’t want to write about that nasty man, said my Mum as we came across photos of an exhibition at the NEC where we were showcasing the dog boots. I most certainly do, was the only reply, isn’t he the man who ran off with our sewing machines? It turns out that wasn’t quite the way it went.

X came to visit Douglas several times after seeing the dog boots on TV. If you remember, Douglas was successfully making and selling the armoured boots to the prison and police services, but had struggled to break into the domestic market. We had had lots of individual letters from people wanting boots for their own dogs, but had failed to find a company who would buy enough from us to make them worthwhile to make properly. X promised to change all of that. He said that he would buy them from us and sell them on, in large enough numbers that we could buy the tools and materials and really crack on, and to prove he was serious, he paid for a stand at an inventions fair at the NEC to exhibit the boots. Here’s Douglas and I manning the stand:

Me and Douglas at NEC exhibition.jpg

Mum and Douglas decided he was serious, and made the preparations to manufacture the boots on a proper scale. They hired extra staff, part-bought new sewing machines, had special knives and templates and tools made, got all the materials in and started making domestic dog boots in earnest, to the colours and sizes that X requested.

We started to send the boots out to X, who paid for some of them, but said when he began to receive invoices from us that his company was registered in the USA so we didn’t need to charge him VAT. Mum was curious about this and asked our accountant if it was ok. After a while, the accountant got back to her and said that actually, it wasn’t ok, and that VAT should be charged as normal. They added VAT back onto the invoices and continued to send out the completed boots. About a week later, they began to receive long faxes from X, complaining about a boot that wasn’t finished properly, another that had a bit missing, and so on. And when I say long, I mean 28 pages long. And two hours later, another one, 15 pages. Friday afternoon, another fax, pages and pages, Friday evening, pages and pages of complaints and niggles and who knows what else. The rolls of fax paper would run out and when replaced, would almost immediately run out again. It was an assault.

Mum and Douglas and their small team didn’t have time to even read these faxes, let alone begin to track down the mistakes he had accused them of. They couldn’t understand what was going on. Eventually they stopped sending boots to X, stopped further production, laid off the new staff and returned the sewing machines. Later they learnt that the faxes were a known technique for bamboozling someone, ‘fogging’, because if you take someone to court over something, you would have had to have gone through every single line of every single communication before you could make your claim, which would take months, and cost lots in legal costs, and by paying at least some of the invoices, X had made it much harder to sue him for the rest of the money owed. They decided that it was easier to just swallow the loss and accept that on this occasion, they had been subject to some sort of scam. That was the end of the dog boots for Buchanan Design.

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Boots for dogs

18 Dec

Well, so Christmas week is upon us, and it seems only right that I give you all a little Christmas present. Back in 1993, there was a major disturbance at Wymott prison in Lancashire, and during the riot several prison dogs were injured when they got glass and other sharp objects in their paws. Head of HM Prison Dogs Service, Steve Allen, decided it was time to better protect prison dogs, and set out to look for someone to help in solve the problem. Two year later, in 1995, a small article appeared in the Prison Service News July/August edition, with the headline ‘Prison Dogs get the Boot!’ He had found his man, the boots were now a reality. And their creator? Douglas Buchanan, of course. Here’s his prison dog boot design:

dog-boot

And here’s a prison dog wearing them:

heel-boy-and-try-not-to-scuff

The boots had to solve several design problems. Firstly, dog feet splay in and out as they walk – you can replicate the motion by spreading your fingers as you open your hand and lay it flat on a table, and then lift it up again- the fingers naturally draw back in. Most fabric only stretches in one direction, i.e. in a straight line, and won’t cope with spreading in all directions at once. It’s similar to the grain in a tree, the threads are laid just one way, and couldn’t cope with the movement of a dog’s foot, so would rip, slip or get into tight, uncomfortable rucks. The answer, eventually, was Neoprene, which is wet-suit material. Neoprene is made differently to normal fabric so is able to spread in all directions at once, and is also, as a bonus, tough and water resistant, so could be worn in all weathers.

Secondly, the soles. If you watch a dog walking on a smooth surface, you can see that they naturally slip a bit (or a lot, if they’re running, especially if they then try to turn a corner!). When making boots for dogs, you have to try to replicate the same amount of natural slippage, otherwise the dog just doesn’t understand why its feet are suddenly just sticking to the floor in a strange way and can’t walk in them. Douglas went through lots of different rubber samples to find something that could cope with different conditions, wouldn’t get cut up by glass etc, and would be just slippy enough that the dog could walk normally. He then added metal plates and padding to the insides of the boots to make them truly protective.

Finally, sizing. Like humans, dogs come in different shapes and sizes, and were going to need different size boots. They also, peculiarly, usually have smaller feet on their back legs than at the front, so most dogs take two different sizes of boot. After some deliberation – how many sizes is a useful number to have? 2? 20? 100? – Douglas came up with nine different sizes, with most larger dogs like Alsatians, taking a six, seven or eight in size. Our domestic models, our pet dogs Bertie the labrador and Perdita the pointer, took a size four/five and five/six respectively. Perdita loathed the boots and always walked as though she was trying to step out of them, high-stepping like a dressage money, however Bertie was always chilled out and didn’t mind them so much – here he is getting his close up.

bertie-dog-boot-filming

They were a huge success with the prison service, and we made thousands of boots for their dogs for some years. When I spoke to the Prison News magazine this year, they said that boots for prison dogs were standard issue now, very commonplace. We stopped making them years ago, but I’m so pleased that Douglas’s original idea has gone on to protect thousands of dogs over the years. He was always a dog lover.

However, the story does not stop there. Being a somewhat quirky idea, the idea of boots for dogs attracted quite a bit of media attention and, after appearing on TV, Douglas started to receive hundreds of letters from individual dog owners asking for boots for their dogs, often including paw prints, drawings and photos of the dogs, and details of all the individual ailments of their beloved pooches – allergies, chewing and sucking problems, injuries that wouldn’t heal… the list went on. He started to make a domestic version and we began a sort of impromptu mail order, sending them out to individuals who had written or phoned in, including to one person who had simply addressed their request to Mr Inventor, Ludlow. They were about to pale into insignificance, however, when our next client phoned.ones-boots-are-made-for-walkies

Yep, the Queen bought some boots for her corgis. Douglas mostly dealt with her staff, however, one day the Queen’s dog keeper did phone and say to Douglas that someone wanted to talk to him. ‘The voice!’ he said later. ‘That voice came onto the phone!’ The Queen herself told him that she thought his dog boots were marvellous. And, from one queen to another… this one always made me smile.

dog-in-boots-for-danny-la-rue

Danny La Rue! So, surely, this was it, the big time, fortune made. Well… as always, not so much. It turns out that it is very expensive to make a product that has so many different parts (off the top of my head, six parts per boot, so 12 for a pair, or 24 for a full set) that are all cut out, hand sewn and finished… in nine different sizes. We had to buy industrial sewing machines capable of sewing the thick, complicated fabrics, tools to cut out all the different shapes of Neoprene, rubber and more, wages to staff to sew them all together, and we could still only make so many in a day. To make the quantities needed to make enough to make some profit, we needed major investment in tools and staff time upfront. And we just couldn’t get either the investment or big enough orders to make it worthwhile. No company would buy enough of these quirky things, and replying individually to hundreds of dog owners was too time intensive to be worth the small amount that people were prepared to pay for them. There is an atmosphere in this country that loves a fun idea, that enjoys laughing at it, and then, ultimately, would rather stick with the way things are than look in anyway strange, new or different. Dog boots, whilst embraced by the prison service as useful equipment, were just a step too comical-looking for everyone else. Even now, all these years later, if you see a dog in boots, I bet your first instinct is to giggle.

ive-heard-of-puss-in-boots

 

All the stuff I don’t know

10 Dec

The interesting thing about writing about something that was part of my life for so long, is not just how the stories embed themselves into life, but also just how much information is missing. Take the dog armour. I’m not talking about armour for dogs, although… anyway, I’m actually talking about armour for police people who worked with dangerous dogs. Back in 1992/3 Douglas designed these:

wrist-armour-front-left

And these:

leg-guards

These are wrist and leg guards to wear if you know you have to go out and catch or handle a dangerous dog. Here’s our friend Gary who tested the training arm protectors from last week, in full gear:

gary-in-dog-armour-1992

Now, the thing about this armour is that I actually don’t know much about it. I know Douglas designed it for use by the police dog teams, probably because he had already started talking to them about the training sleeves, but I don’t know much more than that. That’s the thing about being a young teenager when the nitty gritty of these deals is being talked about. I know it existed, I know we sold some, I know how it feels to wear them, because of course I tried it on (and that’s my hand in the top photo just today) and I can tell you how they fit together (metal plates shaped and riveted together with nylon rivets so they flex as needed), but I don’t know how they came about, I don’t know how many we sold, I don’t know much at all. They are just part of the mythology of our family life, in the way that you remember other family stories; such as when Cousin Such-and-Such fell off the trampoline, or when Uncle Thingy was drunk at Christmas. We had the dog armour. My stepbrother used to play in it (although he comments that he realises now how unusual that was), at the time it was normal for us and I didn’t pay much attention.

So, quite a bit of this project is about turning detective as I try to fill in the gaps. My mum was a keen documenter of our lives in general, and it is her that I can thank for the photos above, as well as the fact that she kept a file of press cuttings, sometimes labelled. She got fed up of the inventions at some point, and stopped working with my stepfather to go and earn some money to keep us all alive, but fortunately, she was diligent enough to have kept this:

christine-jennings-dog-armour-article

So, we learn from this article that the metal is titanium (of course, it’s one of the lightest, toughest metals around), we learn that it is being made and pitched to the police rather than commissioned by them, and it also introduces the character of Terry Bilboe. I remember his name, but can’t say that I remember his face particularly. However, I do know that Terry is part of a long list of partners/licensees who took Douglas’s products at one point or another and tried to make a go of them. This is important, because, whilst Douglas was brimming with ideas, each idea takes so much work to get made and sold that you have to decide what to do – do you just stick with one idea and push it and push it until it either works and sells or you admit defeat, or do you make lots of ideas and keep throwing them into the world in a less determined way in the hopes that something sticks? James Dyson, for example, took the former approach, reputedly taking 17 years from having his initial idea for a vacuum cleaner, to actually having a factory that made and sold them and made a profit. 17 years. You have to be really single-minded and sure to make that happen (and I wonder what he did for money throughout that time – did he have a day job?). Douglas was never going to be that kind of person, he always had eight more ideas up his sleeve, and one of the ways to cope with that is to strike a deal with someone to licence one idea and do the legwork on it while you get on with other ideas, agreeing to take a cut of any profits accordingly. Terry Bilboe and his company Allsop Engineering, clearly took that risk with Douglas and the dog proof armour. I have no idea how it went. I don’t know at what point they stopped working together. I don’t know if it was amicable. I wonder what happened to him. I wonder if he would talk to me if I could find him. I wonder if I can find him. My list of ‘wonder ifs’ grows, and I’m adding his name. Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell you the whole of this story.

How much do you trust it to work?

1 Dec

‘You just have to show them who’s boss,’ said my mother firmly, stepping towards the van parked next to our garage. This was late November, 1991.

‘I’m the boss!’ she shouted at the occupant, who immediately hit the side of the van with a massive thump and an even bigger volley of barks, causing the van to sway and rock. We both took a hasty step backwards. The policeman with us chuckled and said a quiet command to the dog inside as he unlocked the van door. The dog instantly calmed down and leapt gracefully from the van when the door opened, sitting neatly at its trainer’s feet and awaiting further instruction.

They were in our back garden to test out one of Douglas’s ideas: a training sleeve for police dogs. At the time, when training a police dog (which takes years) to chase down and catch a perpetrator, the trainer would wrap their arm in strips of leather and then train the dog to chase them down and bite them on the arm to detain them as they would a real life criminal until their colleague could handcuff the person and take them away. Police dogs are big, their bites are potentially very painful, especially when they are learning to moderate their grip, and the leather straps would get heavy with saliva, leaving the trainer with a soggy, bruised arm, not to mention other bruises as they are knocked to the ground by over-enthusiastic trainee dogs. Douglas, a dog lover, had seen this training process in action and thought that he could do better. He designed a metal cone, shaped to cover the elbow, with an opening at each end that could be slipped onto the forearm like a sleeve, covered it in foam and a washable fabric case (to stop the dog’s teeth from breaking on the metal) and attached lengths of rope along the cover to give the dog something to grip.

dog-training-sleeves

This should both protect the arm and not hurt the dog, and be light enough that you could wear it for hours at a time without getting tired. The cover could be removed and washed to stop it from getting smelly. All very well in theory, but there comes a moment in every period of research and development when someone has to test it out. To begin with you can simulate testing conditions, replicating the crushing and tearing effects of a dog’s mouth with tools that you can control and using a dummy for the arm, but at some point, you have to put your trust in the idea and the craftsmanship and decide that you’re going to let a large dog loose on a real person wearing the sleeve to find out what would happen. And someone has to put their hand up and face a dog rushing towards them with an unknown contraption on their arm.

This was the day. Three policemen and one dog turned up, and, after some jostling amongst themselves, one man put himself forward for the first try. Meet Gary Evans (I’d love to talk to him about this now) and his canine colleague, testing the training sleeve in our back garden, November 1991.

gary-dog-training-sleeve-smoke-garden

gary-dog-training-sleeve-garden-1gary-dog-training-sleeve-garden-3gary-dog-training-sleeve-garden-2

We were relieved to find that the sleeve worked perfectly (but probably not as relieved as Gary). It worked so well that the Metropolitan police bought at least 54 sets for its dog handling team to train with, a good amount of work for our small workshop team. There they are below getting ready to be sent off. They formed part of a larger suite of armour for dog handlers that Douglas developed – I’ll write more about that next time.

54-sets-of-dog-training-sleeves

P.S. Mum let Gary put the dog back into the van without saying another word to it. We knew who was boss.