Archive | February, 2017

My very favourite invention

28 Feb

People who know me will not be surprised when I say that this is a corner of my living room:

books-in-living-room

I REALLY love books. I devour them, inhale them, delight in them, wallow in them. My mother says that I was bored until I learnt to read, and she should know, because my mother is exactly the same. There were always books in the house when I was growing up and that didn’t change when my mum met Douglas and we eventually moved into his house. We brought furniture and books, books, books with us. Douglas too liked to read, mostly science fiction (there’s a surprise!), chortling away to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, or else frowning at the business pages of the newspaper. Here’s a gratuitous picture of him reading the paper, just because:

douglas-1995

My mum’s favourite place to read is in the bath. She has a bath every night, and often takes a book with her, propping it on one of those racks that you can hang across the bath to put the soap in. She used to wedge the pages open with a towel and the inevitable often happened, as the towel wouldn’t lie quite right, the book would wobble and take a plunge into the water, afterwards ending up sitting in the airing cupboard with wrinkly pages to dry out. It was only a matter of time before Douglas spotted the problem and started thinking that something could be done. He experimented with different ideas until, in 1995, the year that photo above was taken, he came up with this:

bookminda-sketch

After a few dinner table discussions, we decided to call it a Bookminda, and it does just that, holding your book open so you don’t have to. Here it is in real life:

bookminda-from-back

Made of aluminium, it has a coating that can be made any colour, or in contrasting colours. The arms, which are strangely lovely to touch because of the shape, are held tightly to the body so that they can be set in any position, but loosely enough that you can adjust them. Adjustable is important, and is something that most book holders on the market don’t do. It’s important because sometimes people like us read books like this:

beginning-of-book

From the beginning… to the end:

end-of-book

so the Bookminda needs to be able to adjust to the different thicknesses of the different stages of fat books, as well as thin books, magazines etc. The arms, as Douglas noted in the sketch above, are non-slip rubber, meaning the pages don’t slide through or pop out, even at page 628. I use mine all the time, including whilst cooking:

cookbook-bookminda

and studying:

law-book-bookminda

Of all the things that Douglas has made over the years, it is the one idea that has become an integral part of my everyday life. Everyone I have ever showed it to who likes to read has instantly wanted one. So, did it sell? Well…

Douglas did sell some. He sold some to QPD. Do you remember QPD? Quality Paperbacks Direct, they were a book catalogue that often turned up in the back pages of the weekend papers. (They are difficult to find on the internet these days as they have largely disappeared.) He also sold some to Waterstones, in their corporate dark blue. However, despite it clearly being a really, really good idea, Douglas came up against the very typical British corporate attitude to new ideas of any kind: fear of the unknown. I remember him coming home one evening to describe a conversation with a company to whom he had sent a sample of the Bookminda. ‘They asked me if it had a track record.’ A track record? It’s a new product! New products don’t have track records! We were indignant. The company, obviously, said no, because they only took a risk on products that had a clear history of sales. In hindsight, I wonder if Douglas’s somewhat maverick approach to sales (of which more in another post) may have put them off, but I can’t shake the idea that actually, for all we really love the idea of being a nation of innovators, we are, in reality, pretty conservative. When I emailed someone at the Institute of Patentees and Inventors about this project, he said that my book was vital ‘because Britain needs waking up to the importance of innovation and invention.’ It’s sometimes difficult for me to step back and see if my frustration that this wonderful idea of Douglas’s didn’t sell is because he was important to me or because it was, and is, a genuinely good idea, but then I remember what I was writing about when it comes to patents, combined with comments like this, and I have to come back to the conclusion that actually, as a country, we’re not that up for new things. Anyway, that’s for another time. Today I’ll end with a clipping showing the only photo I can find of Douglas with the Bookminda together (as well as a bonus Spectangle! I recognise the plate, so the photo was clearly taken in his workshop), from an article in The Times about the London International Inventors Fair of 1997. Note the tone of the article; that balance, once again, between trying not to laugh, and taking the ideas seriously. At least the journalist took more time to understand than the company that turned down a new idea because of its lack of track record.

grand-national-for-gadgeteers

 

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Hello, hello, hello.

21 Feb

Last week I, somewhat disingenuously, said that I hoped that Douglas didn’t make any weapons for the MOD because he didn’t like violence. It’s true that he didn’t like violence, and it’s true that I don’t know what he did for the MOD, but I do know that he made several designs over the years for the police that could be classified as weapons, or at the very least, aggressive. Here’s a clue:

6c7ae2db5c3c4d9f994b74999d7ef595

Police truncheons, sometimes called batons, were first officially recorded in the 1850s in the UK. Wooden sticks between 6 and 18 inches long, either painted or with a badge affixed, they were the official symbol that someone was a policeman, and as such carried a certain weight of authority over and above their heftiness as a weapon. 150 years later, British police were still using wooden truncheons as part of their uniform. However, the police force at the time was struggling with its image, after clashes and accusations of brutality and racism throughout the 1980s. Thatcherism and the brutal cuts had led to unrest and protest, not always handled well, which built on resentment already simmering, and new laws such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 which extended police stop and search rights, and the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 which laid the groundwork for the later Terrorism Act of 2000 did little to help the matter.  If you’re interested, you can read more about it here, but I will try not to get distracted by interesting social history, and focus instead on what Douglas did about it. In 1993, this little article appeared in the Shropshire Star:

telescopic-truncheon-preserves-the-image

Why would the police need a new truncheon? And why would it improve its community relations with a more ‘caring’ image?

Instinctively, if you pick up a straight truncheon, you are likely to use it to hit things. Try it, it feels like a weapon rather than a form of self defence. And yet self defence is what they are supposed to be used for. Sussex Police, for example, state in their policy that ‘Batons are issued to allow officers to perform their duties and defend themselves or others in accordance with the principles regarding the use of force.’ To defend themselves or others. In addition, wooden truncheons are heavy and awkward to carry, wear and handle, meaning that they could get left behind when getting out of the car or office to deal with a situation; at crucial moments the police officer wouldn’t have it to hand. Maybe after so long, it was time for a new version of the traditional truncheon. Douglas started drawing. I don’t have all of his sketches from that time, but I did find these:

truncheon-handle

 

truncheon-sketch

Douglas’s truncheon was made from lightweight metal rather than wood, was telescopic, meaning that it was easier to wear and carry but could still be useful, and the side handle gave greater scope for defence moves and turned it from an aggressive weapon into something more ‘friendly’. The fact that it could be adapted from one shape to the other was unique. Here’s Douglas demonstrating it:

douglas-with-truncheon-1993

douglas-with-truncheon-elbow-1993

You can read more about the use of batons here (the authors seem to be creepily interested in exactly what kind of wounds can be caused by each type of baton, but there’s also a lot of interesting information too, including the pros and cons of side handles versus straight batons, and why telescoping is a good thing). Looking at that page, and at what the police use now, it’s clear that the batons currently used by the police are not the one that Douglas designed; for example, the handles to side-handled truncheons appear to be screwed into place, whereas it’s clear that Douglas’s handle was not like that. Police having to use them complain about the side handle getting tangled in seatbelts so they have generally fallen out of favour, something that may not have happened if they had used Douglas’s adaptable design. In addition, current police batons seem to be telescoped like an aerial, with a smaller end nested into larger sections, whereas you can see from the photograph that Douglas’s baton had a larger end section. Once again, this shows that Douglas had a really good idea but for some reason or another it didn’t get made, or followed through. I am going to have to find out what happened to this idea. One thing I do know is that Douglas worked with the Met police’s Scientific Department for several years, so I’m going to have to delve into police history to find out how that worked, and why this truncheon didn’t get made and distributed to the police population.

Top secret, hush hush and totally 0n the QT.

14 Feb

Douglas didn’t just do design work for the prison and police services, he also did some work for the Ministry of Defence. To be honest, I have no idea what he did for them. I know he visited. I know he signed a confidentiality agreement. I really don’t know what they asked him to work on. He really did keep whatever secrets they asked him to keep. However, there were some ideas related to armies that Douglas did work on at home and that he talked about openly. Now Douglas, being unable to help himself, had lots of ideas and most of them were speculative, based on him spotting a problem and trying to solve it so I can only assume that these were not the top secret things and were simply Douglas thinking about how armies work and what problems they might have. At the (extremely unlikely) risk of getting in trouble with the M.O.D., here are a couple of Douglas’s ideas for armies. They are related to occupying new territory and the challenge of moving things around. Here’s the first one:

personal-equipment-transporter

In case you can’t read the notes clearly, his targets are:

  • Must be practical
  • Folding
  • Lightweight
  • Thin sections of … steel. If they bend they could be straightened. No exotic materials.
  • Wheels could be replaced by caterpillar tracks for …. conditions.
  • They must be capable of being joined together to act as stretcher or several could make a bridge.

He also drew a slightly adapted version:

p-e-t-2

It’s a bit faint to see, but it is basically an adapted version of the trailer that hooks over the shoulders and can be pulled more like a backpack with wheels, leaving your hands free. In addition to this, there was also something he called the A2B (names are tricky, you try coming up with a name for something new – a regular dinner time conversation point in the Buchanan household). Here it is:

atob-conveyor

I have no idea how or why this idea came to him, but here’s another sketch of it with notes:

a2b-hand-crank

Personally I can’t see much use for this in war situations, but then, I’ve been lucky enough not to need to know what it’s like. Douglas in general was not interested in war or weapons and wasn’t at all aggressive (other than being generally rude to incompetent staff in shops and restaurants) so I like to think that the work he did for the M.O.D. was all along these lines, aimed at solving logistical problems and aiding rescue situations. I hope I’m right.

Let’s talk about patents

7 Feb

Firstly, just to get it off my chest, I believe it’s pronounced pat-tents, as in patting a dog, rather than like those shiny leather shoes we all wanted when we were ten. It’s a personal bug-bear, and I’ll try not to mention it again… anyway…

A patent is a form of intellectual property protection, designed to allow you, the inventor, to profit from and protect your idea from being used by anyone else without permission. According to Wikipedia, ‘patent’ comes from the Latin patere, meaning ‘to lay open,’ as in to share something, which is ironic really, given that what you are actually doing is aiming to stop anyone else using your idea for their own gain. In reality, what having a patent means is that you can sue anyone who tries to copy you. In the UK it appears we first started dealing with patents in the middle ages, with the system gradually being refined over the years. I say refined, rather than improved, because by Victorian times it was such a mess that Charles Dickens felt the need to write a story about it, entitled A Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent. His protagonist describes visiting 35 different offices in order to get his patent approved, an exaggeration, but not a massive one. Julie Halls, in her book Inventions that Didn’t Change the World says that Dickens’s character accurately described how a lot of his contemporary inventor colleagues felt, although they visited a mere ten offices in reality.

The Victorians developed two responses to this. Firstly, a new service industry of professional patent agents sprang up; people who were often good draftsmen who could effectively draw and describe your invention as part of the process and were used to guiding people through the administrative maze. The other was a whole new way of registering designs, the Design Registry, for people who couldn’t afford or cope with the patent system and, even though substantial new inventions were supposed to use the patent system (based on the utility of the idea or produce) rather than the design registry (based on appearance or form of the product) many inventors simply registered their idea as a new design rather than a new patented invention just to avoid the longer process.

Things have evolved since then, but haven’t necessarily improved. These days, there are four different ways you can register your intellectual property: trademarks (for names and logos), patents (for inventions), designs (for appearances) and copyright (for creative output, including writing). You can see a really nice clear explanation of all of these on the Intellectual Property Office website if you are interested. The process seems so simple at first, but as you delve deeper into those pages, it becomes clear that the process is still anything but quick, straightforward, or, most importantly, cheap.

Timing
So, let’s say you’d invented something new. Oh, I don’t know, maybe some body armour. You’ve already invested a couple of years of your time and money researching and developing it, and you’re convinced that you’ve now got a pretty good product that is ready to sell. So far, you haven’t shown your product to anyone, but in order to get it out there into the marketplace, you’re going to have to start showing it off. It’s time to think about protecting your idea. Now let’s say, for argument’s sake (and we could get really technical and specific here, but let’s not), unlike the device you invented for holding spectacles, body armour is not a completely new idea; people have worn body armour before. But, you have invented an entirely new type of rivet to hold your body armour together, so you can protect this with a patent, like this one. You could also register your armour as a new design, perhaps, because while the function is the same as any armour (patent = function) its never looked like this before (form = design). Whatever path you choose, it’s going to take a while. Back to the patent.

Did you see the dates on that form? It took 18 months from filing a patent application to having it published. This time is taken up by the IPO doing a search of its records to make sure your idea is not like anyone else’s. After publishing, it took a further two years before the patent is granted. The IPO guidance suggests that you allow 5 years to complete the process, so Douglas’s application was fairly speedy at a mere 3 and a half years. After that, the time on your patent is limited, so the moment it is granted, you have a small window of time in which to exploit your idea under protection and then either choose to have it renewed or let it lapse. The IPO currently says that you need to renew after four years, so you’d better be ready to start your marketing campaign immediately, because four years to market a product from zero is very little time at all.

Regions
UK patents only cover the UK. That means that as long as you only plan to make or sell your product in the UK, you should be fine with just UK patent coverage. However, we live in a global world, and when it comes to manufacturing you need to think about the places where they might be able to make your idea more cheaply and quickly than you can here. China, Taiwan, Malaysia, these places should probably be covered by your patent if you really want to make sure that no one else can exploit your idea. Also, there aren’t that many large clients who might buy body armour in the UK, other than the police and the armed forces, so you might want to be able to sell your armour abroad, to places like the USA, Europe and so on. Thus, those countries should be covered too. There are two routes you can take. Either, you file patents individually in each country that you want included, or you can use the Patent Cooperation Treaty. There’s a useful page from the World Intellectual Property Office about the PCT, complete with flow-chart and timeline, showing that it takes more than 30 months to get your patent through the international part of the process before it hits local national offices. Which brings us on to fees.

Cost
How much does it cost to have a patent application granted? The short answer is, a lot. If you looked at the IPO link above, the guide suggests that it costs £280 to apply for a UK patent. In addition to that, it continually mentions patent agents, because in order to get your application as ready as possible, it’s a good idea to have someone who knows what they are doing making the application for you, including searching the registers to make sure that when the IPO searches the registers, you’ve already done your homework and they don’t find anyone else with the same idea. Patent agents cost money. If you want a lucrative career and you don’t mind detailed, precise work, become a patent agent. It can cost thousands to have a patent agent do some work for you. Let’s say that they charge you £5000 in fees for your UK application (this is an average guess. Some charge more, others less). Then, because you want to go abroad too, they charge you more to search international registers, let’s say £10,000. On top of that, allow for international fees, including the 3000 Swiss francs for the application, plus local office, agent and translation fees in the countries you wish to publish in. And let’s not forget, as at this moment, you haven’t sold a single item and may not have a single customer lined up. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all worth it. So far, you’ve paid out at least £25,000 and are having to wait five years before you can go ahead and make any return on the product you have already invested all that R&D time and money in.

Is it worth it?
Different people have different opinions on this. Some argue that by the time you’ve done the research and development phase, you are so far ahead of your competitors that you might as well just forge ahead without protection and use the element of surprise to your advantage when you suddenly launch your new product. Others argue that patent protection is worth it in terms of fending off rival manufacturers. However, let’s be clear, according to the IPO ‘protecting your intellectual property makes it easier to take legal action against anyone who steals or copies it.’ That’s not a lot, simply allowing you the right to sue. Suing someone comes with its own costs and effort and a small one-man band may not have the resources to sue anyone who comes along with a copy of their idea. It seems that this protection game is skewed entirely towards entities large enough to swallow the upfront costs as well as the staff team and pockets big enough to go out looking for anyone copying and taking them to court. It’s no wonder that these days very little patented innovation comes from anywhere other than companies and universities. No one else can cope with the process, time and costs involved. I may be wrong, but I think we’re less encouraging of innovation in this country than we’d like to admit.