Archive | January, 2017

Can you solve our problem?

31 Jan

As I’ve mentioned before, Douglas, being relatively well-known in the press, attracted all sorts of attention, both good and bad. One of the stories that haunts me the most is about a young man with multiple sclerosis and his father who came to visit Douglas a couple of times back in 1997. They had a problem that they were hoping Douglas could help them to solve. The young man was in his twenties, and was doing his best to live a full and active life despite his condition. He used crutches, not being confined to a wheelchair, and loved to play football. However, the crutches he was using were not up to the job. Here’s your classic crutch:

drevena-podpazni-berle-bpd-96-ab

This is a nice-looking version of the traditional crutch, which first took its present form during World War I; a time when the world suddenly had need of a lot of crutches. The design hasn’t changed much since. There is one other iteration, which looks like this:

elbow_crutches_with_comfy_handles_large

Our visitor used the first kind of crutch, because they are more robust than the second, but they weren’t really up to the job. They caused massive bruising under his arms from him using them to run around on the field, and they kept breaking under the impact of the game, including hitting the football, so they had to keep replacing them. There is limited padding, limited options to adjust them, and very little flex or strength in their design. He and his father hoped that Douglas could design a crutch that could cope with his lifestyle, because he was going to have to use them for the rest of his life. Douglas came up with some initial ideas:

one-arm-crutch-draft

crutch-with-interchangeable-handle

You can see that he was thinking about shock absorbing, about padding or more comfortable handles, about angles and how the body moves. He also had a go at the traditional underarm crutch:

 

crutch

 

His crutch was made of fibreglass rather than wood or metal, wasn’t just a straight line, and also included length adjusters so that you could match the crutch to your height. I personally also really like the cheery colours.

What breaks my heart about this story is that it ends here. Why? It ends here because the father and son, ordinary people, could not pay for further development needed beyond these initial sketches. Like all creative industries, there is a difficult path to walk between doing something because it’s fun, or important, and giving away your skills and knowledge for free. To develop this idea would have taken months of work, including buying materials, making tools, testing, re-designing, testing again and more, before being able to make one that worked. After that, what do you do? As the inventor, is it worth investing all that time and money and energy into something when you only have a guaranteed market of one person with a small budget? Do you take a chance in case you can persuade others to buy it afterwards? You’d have to invest in marketing, time in sales calls and meetings, time answering the question ‘why is this better than what we have already?’. Douglas had to walk away from this.

However, going through Douglas’s sketchbooks, I found this drawing from years later:

living-crutch

Clearly, the idea had stayed with Douglas and he had continued to think about it long after the clients had disappeared. What’s particularly interesting to me is the date. Douglas was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, and by 2010 he was still relatively fit and well, but had been coping with a life-altering disease for several years, as well as having a small car accident that fractured a vertebrae and put him into hospital briefly. He recovered from the accident pretty well, but bodies and aids and designs that helped rather than hindered people began to crop up more in his working life as he, consciously or not, began to look at the world from the point of view of someone with vulnerabilities. I’d really love to see this crutch made and tested, because I think it could genuinely improve the lives of many people who rely on them in both the short and long term. Such a shame that, once again, something as unforgiving and all-encompassing as money should get in the way of a more perfect world.

Pretty things

24 Jan

When I think about Douglas, I think about metal. Metal was his material of choice and was his first go-to for making his ideas real. Metal is really versatile, you can bend it, mould it, melt it, cut and shape it, stamp it, stick it to other things, and more. Both the workshop and our house seemed filled with metal (notoriously he once filled a squirrel hole in our loft with it), and nothing to me seems more like Douglas than a collection like this:metal-things

This is a gathering of some of his jewellery from over the years, Douglas at play. Let’s take a closer look.

pure-fabricationsThese are prototypes of what I think are brooch pins Douglas made for a company named something like Pure Fabrication. I’m fairly sure they don’t exist any more, but I like the fun and energy of these, showing Douglas on a whimsical day.

jaspar-conran-earrings-cufflink

These are a pair of earrings and a cufflink that Douglas made for Jasper Conran in the early 1990s. Glass beads stitched to a fabric backing. Douglas sometimes incorporated beads into other designs, like these sketches of buckles here:

beaded-buckles

And a couple of real-life incorporations:

bead-buckle-silverbrass-moulded-bead-buckle

Then there is this, that he made for Betty Jackson:

Bette Jackson necklace.jpgThis necklace is made from aluminium wire twisted to look like spaghetti, and they came with matching bracelets and brooches. I know, because I made a lot of the twisted wire sections, sitting in the workshop learning how to shape the metal into twists that were tight but not too tight. Some of them were sprayed with gold, and others were left silver. I wear this one a lot, and get a lot of comments about it still. Not all of his jewellery is wearable, however. Take a look at this:

armour-braceletI really love this bracelet. I like it’s semi-organic shapes, it’s post-apocalyptic armour chic. However the thing is so enormously heavy that it is impossible to wear for more than  a few minutes before you want to throw it across the room. This was a common problem with Douglas’s jewellery ideas, not all of them were practical. However, he did make me some lighter, very pretty and wearable pieces like these:

torque-and-bracelet-rachelThe silver needs a bit of a clean, but I wore them a lot. He also made me some pendants. Here are two of them:

racehl-pendants

All of these items are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the jewellery that Douglas made throughout his life. We know he did work for Bruce Oldfield, but we don’t know what, we also know that he made a necklace worn by Cher, as well as lots of individual buckles for high-end shoe maker John Lobb, and we are sure there was more. When Mum and I were going through Douglas’s things at Christmas, we found this:

liberty-box And inside:

douglas-liberty-jewellery

Looking at them, we are pretty sure they are Douglas’s designs, with several key giveaways – the organic shapes, the coloured coating on the metal, the different metal blobs stuck onto a contrasting background, the impractical size and weight… perhaps someone from Liberty’s will know more about them.

Knife Proof Armour

18 Jan

One of Douglas’s most iconic inventions, for me at least, is his knife proof armour. I asked Mum how Douglas got involved with the police on this, and apparently his second wife’s cousin worked for the Metropolitan Police’s Scientific Department (there’s a whole TV series right there…) and he wondered if Douglas could help. Mum remembers visiting the department (in Isleworth?) and watching the cousin explain the problem. She says he stood next to a bench on which was a piece of flesh simulant (I’d post a picture of this stuff but Googling for it produces nothing but pictures of guns and porn, so, sorry about that, imagine a large block of pinkish plasticine and you’re not far off), on which he had piled four separate armour samples, one on top of the other. She said he casually, almost without looking, took a large knife and stabbed all the way through all four layers into the simulant below. ‘No good,’ he said.

Now, many of you may think that the police have armour already, I mean, what about bullet proof vests? Well, a bullet proof vest is made of layers of a fabric called Kevlar, usually about 30 layers inside a fabric cover. It’s pretty good for stopping bullets, but absolutely hopeless for stopping a knife or needle (at the time people were stabbing the police with dirty needles as well as knives). In fact, the fabric in the vest, which is shiny and slippy, lines the wound, meaning that a knife penetrates further than it would without the vest, actually causing more damage. In addition, Kevlar vests are heavy, bulky and quite rigid from the tightly packed fabric and are therefore uncomfortable to wear, particularly for women.

Douglas took the problem away and had a think about it. Very little remains of Douglas’s sketches for the armour, but I did find this very, very early doodle which I recognise instantly.

armour-plates-3

You can see him thinking about interlocking tiles, thinking about what shapes fit together and how they might be joined. Here are a couple of other ideas:

armour-plates-2

armour-plates-1

What eventually came out of this process wasn’t far from these sketches at all, a series of titanium plates held together with nylon rivets inserted through holes. You’ve already seen a few of them on the dog armour leg protectors. Look closely and you can see the flexible blue rivets, which start as lengths of nylon cut into pieces, then moulded at one end into a mushroom shape, then inserted into the holes of the overlapping plates from the inside to the outside, and then a grey washer is slipped over the end to grip in place and the excess nylon is trimmed to fit. You can see the larger plates on the outside, and then the smaller rectangular plates on the inside that overlap across the joins of the large plates, ensuring full coverage with no cracks or joins where a needle could find its way through.

leg-guards

Here’s Douglas wearing the full vest in a press article:

police-queue-for-full-metal-jacket

Titanium is light and strong, it’s what they build planes with, so it’s perfect for vests. The rivets are flexible, meaning the vest bends to suit your shape, making it relatively comfortable to wear. The strength of the metal made it almost bulletproof too (and for years we had some flattened bullets in a little bag in a drawer that had been fired at the vest in tests) and combined with a few layers of Kevlar it was just as bullet proof as the original bullet proof vests, as well as knife and needle proof. Rows of little holes punched into the plates also acted to catch knife tips, meaning that if you were stabbed the knife wouldn’t slip down on impact and accidentally cut you somewhere else. It was, and probably still is, some of the best armour in existence. It got some great press attention, including this:

250-vest-could-have-saved-hero-pat

Exactly what happened with Ross and Catherall and the armour contract is a story for another day, but there was an interesting sideways development that I did not see coming at the time. Douglas was approached by Sainsbury’s for some armour, because it turns out that staff in their butchery department sometimes suffered from slash wounds to their stomach and thighs from accidents dealing with meat carcasses, and Sainsbury’s wanted safety equipment for them. Douglas lengthened the original vest to include a thigh-length skirt, and off they went to protect butchers. Here’s Douglas wearing the long apron version (nothing to do with the salmon story!):

Douglas Buchanan armour Times.jpg

This blog is going to be a book!

17 Jan

So, a pause from my usual posts this week, because, big news, this blog is going to be a book! The publishers Unbound have launched our campaign this week, and I am really excited about the possibility of making this book a reality. Here’s the link: https://unbound.com/books/underwater-bike, please support it if you can!

The animal catcher

8 Jan

noose30n-1-web

This is a noose. I don’t know about you, but the idea of putting my head into one of these is not particularly appetising. Now, imagine that you are in the middle of a fight with some threatening creatures who are larger than you, outnumber you and are doing their best to corner you. One of them waves a stick with a noose on it in your direction. Are you likely to voluntarily put your head into it? No, of course not.

Well, a noose was, and probably still is, the standard method for trying to catch a dangerous dog. Here’s that picture of Metropolitan Police dog handler Gary Evans wearing Douglas’s dog armour again:

gary-in-dog-armour-1992

That’s a standard dog catching pole in his hands. Trying to persuade a dangerous dog, probably on the defensive and in distress that it should put it’s head into one of those was slow and difficult, and caused the dog further distress as well as more opportunity for either the dog or the humans to get hurt, or for the dog to escape. Douglas took a look at it and knew that he could do better. He began to sketch new ideas. Here’s his notebook in October 1992:

dog-catcher-sketches

There are a couple of problems that he was trying to overcome. Firstly, the non-appeal of the noose. Secondly, you don’t want to strangle the dog you’re trying to capture, that’s not the aim of the dog team. They needed something firm and strong but also gentle. He threw out the noose idea and began to think along new lines. Here he is a month later:

animal-catcher-early-sketch

The shape was coming together, so it was time to further develop the mechanism:

Animal catcher mech early sketch.jpg

The idea was that if you had a rigid pole with horns that were controlled by a cable through the handle, you could grab at the dog quickly and efficiently and pull the moveable horns closed. As the idea developed, one horn became fixed, making the whole structure stronger. The added gearing meant that even if you pulled really hard on the handle, the horns would not over-close, never strangling the dog. Here’s Douglas with a prototype in this article a couple of years later:

inventor-douglas-gest-us-big-break

It really worked! Bertie, lazy and tolerant, tried it out many times, but even he would not have submitted if he had been in any pain at all. Douglas also realised that the same principle could work on other things.

cuffs

Here’s a sketch of a proposal for handcuffs, because handcuffs have a similar problem to a noose, in that they can easily be pulled too tight, causing pain and injury to people wearing them. Douglas’s cuffs would not over-close, meaning they would be safe to use.

We still have one of the animal catchers, and while filming it just before Christmas, I dared the filmmakers to try it out on my hand. Despite having sat in a shed for a good ten years, the mechanism still worked, and the filmmaking team were able to capture my hand between the horns and pull the mechanism as hard as they could without causing me any pain.

 

 

The person sail

1 Jan

It’s the turn of the year, and I thought about doing all sorts of different things for this blog post; an origin story, a story about Douglas’s death, something meaningful in one way or another to mark the new year. But actually, I’ve decided instead to show you another idea that Douglas had. Some of the scans of the pencil drawings are not very clear, my apologies but it’s the best my scanner can do. My first sighting was on this page here:

person-windsurf-rough-sketches

See that sketch on the right? It turns up again here:

human-wind-surf-rough-sketchesIt looks to me like a sail, with a person lying underneath it. The notes read ‘operates in best @snorkel depths’ and ‘pre-shaped sail.’ Here’s another one (it’s faint, apologies for the very poor copy):

fish-and-sail

It’s tricky to see, but you can make out a fish at the top. The note reads ‘sail fish (kind of)’ and then underneath is a person in the same position, arms outstretched to the left, just under a water line. The arrow points to a mast. The title reads ‘La Grandella Beach Tues 15th June 04’ so this is clearly a little light holiday sketching.  The idea took hold, and he worked it up more thoroughly:

person-with-sail

The notes begin to show his thought process, including ideas for the mechanics and things to think about; ‘the mast is sprung loaded’, ‘using a ring pull to raise it’, ‘is that how wind surf works?’. ‘Try a simple fixed sail first’. ‘A lighter person would mean that it travelled faster’. Questions include, ‘will it work without a keel?’

By 3rd July, he’s worked it out a bit more:

person-sail-notesThe note on the right shows doubt: ‘This probably won’t work  If it does it may slowly  It will take some/a lot of power to move the human body under water’ but he’s added a keel filled with stones, a fibre glass mast, and noted that ‘the swimmer may have to rest stomach in’. The development continues the next day:

person-sail-notes-more

He’s started thinking about the maths: ‘at this stage do not know area of sail, approx 1m high’, and added controls to the handles ‘the grips work like a fishing line they twist the cord tightens and loosens to control the sail’. The tick on the right suggests that he likes it.

Finally, he does a proper drawing:

sail

He’s added steering gear (on the drawing on the right, beneath the handles bars) and more notes ‘bending mast with sail’, ‘scalloped sails’ s/s wire rope link’,’wrong (more fin area)’ but there it is, a person sail. As far as I know, this is as far as this idea went, although I may well be wrong. Happy New Year!