Archive | March, 2017

On rigidity and eye-catching ideas

21 Mar

One of the the things I liked best about growing up in Douglas’s household was the sense of infinite possibility that comes from looking at the world and saying, I don’t like that, how can I make it better? The idea that, just because something is a particular way now, doesn’t mean it was always that way, doesn’t mean it has to be that way, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better, and, most importantly, that it is within our power to apply our skills and experience to change it. If something doesn’t work, why not try doing it differently? It doesn’t matter who’s got the idea, or if it doesn’t work, but why not give something new a try? It turns out that this is not necessarily how many people grow up, and as I get older I realise it gets me into trouble in my own work as I ask questions such as ‘well, what are we trying to do here?’ and ‘couldn’t we try something else?’ and get shut down by confused, or worse, fearful expressions of people who have not had this sense of possibility instilled in them from such an early age. I realise that many people are tied to routine, structure, history, safety in a way that I am not, and that much of that comes from watching Douglas work. Having spoken to some other inventors in the past couple of weeks, I think this openness is inherent to the inventing spirit; Trevor Baylis for example said, very simply, ‘everyone is an inventor’ and talked about his very practical approach to just building and trying new ideas out until something stuck, and when I met Mark Sheahan, director of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors last week, he said he gets all sorts of people coming to his invention clinics, and he doesn’t mind who it is or what the discussion is about, he is always only interested in the how good the idea is and how to make it better. These are people who accept anything, no matter how crazy-looking, as a potentially viable proposition and take the time to explore it further before they accept or reject something fully. However I read this article earlier this week about how most businesses claim to embrace innovation but actually shut down creativity whenever they see it, mostly due to fear of the unfamiliar, and that resonated with me because it is something I have witnessed and experienced since I first set foot in Douglas’s workshop and saw the reaction to his work by businesses all over the world. Last week I wrote about golf putters from exactly this angle, and there is more to say about the golf world, but this week I am going to take a pause to look at another couple of Douglas’s ideas that are a bit more fun.

I am not going to write much about Douglas’s personal life, because I don’t want to intrude  or comment on the lives of his living family members, but I think it is safe to say that Douglas liked having a family, married very young, and had several children. One of the things he insisted on was having dinner altogether as a family every night, and this continued right into his later life. Sitting around the dinner table we all had to share what had happened to us during the day, which seems to be an improvement on the quizzes and factual questions that his older children report as being standard dinner table fare during their early years. My memories of conversations with Douglas during meal times include frequent discussions of his work, sometimes fun, sometimes deeply boring, but in a very democratic way; he often asked for suggestions for names for his new ideas, took all suggestions seriously, and didn’t mind explaining how something worked, although you had to be prepared for the robust criticism if your suggestion didn’t stand up to closer inspection. I still think of him when I drive, because he took time to explain to me how an engine worked, including how to use gears and the clutch, and every time I eat toast, because of an imaginary toast-cooling machine we came up with one day over breakfast, complete with spinning motor, string and presumably some form of clips to keep the toast in place. These conversations, of course, weren’t just confined to the dinner table, and going out and about on errands with Douglas could often turn into musings on how the world worked, as well as complaints about things that could be improved. We often found ourselves in car parks and I remember Douglas, a short man, saying that our car needed a flag or tag of some kind so that we could find it easily within the sea of similar cars. Visual signs and jokes were a recurring theme in Douglas’s repertoire; he worked for some years as a sign-writer and maker, designed sets for the stage, and, as a young boy, got thrown out of the Boys Brigade in Glasgow because he wore his sash horizontally round his waist (on purpose as a protest) when everyone else in the parade worn theirs diagonally across from their shoulders. My mum laughs to think of this, ‘how clever he was,’ she says, ‘that one horizontal line would have really looked upsetting next to all the others.’

Douglas never made a car flag, although I wish someone would, but he did experiment with other flags. Here’s a design he had for a directional flag:

Directional flag

On the face of it, it doesn’t look that radical, but actually, once you start to look at flags and pennants, you realise that there isn’t anything else much like that around in the real world. He also designed something similar that did away with the rigid pole altogether:

Aero Flag

Once again, I look around at flags and similar and don’t see anything quite like it, although the USA has more of a tradition of inflatable characters than we do here in the UK. Douglas had been messing around with the ideas of rigidity and air for some time, partly because we did exhibitions for his work and he had to design the display materials, including how to pack and carry things, and flags with poles are a nuisance to carry, pack and put up/take down, so you can see how the inflatable flag-with-no-pole idea came up. I also found this amongst his sketches:

Table top umbrella

It’s not very easy to read, but it is a simple sketch for a table top umbrella. When I was a teenager, we lived at the top of a hill with a patio that looked out over the beautiful views, and we would eat outside at the patio table whenever possible. We had a large and somewhat showy table parasol named Cleopatra for her extravagant layers of fringing that rustled in the breeze, but she was heavy and cumbersome to put up, so I am sure that this would have been in the back of Douglas’s mind when he was thinking about this; the daily effort of hoisting Cleopatra into place in time for dinner. He did a lot of sketching whilst on holiday, and mum favoured sunny beaches, so it wasn’t long before the idea combined with his surroundings to come up with this:

Beachbrella

I’m sad that this idea never got further than this sketch, as I’d actually like to have seen this one in the flesh. After battling heavy, rigid, unforgiving Cleopatra myself for several years, I’d be curious to see if this idea could have actually worked or if it would have simply been another bit of play that ended up as merely an interesting flop. But then, I would say that.

 

The Buchanan Putter (Golf, part one)

14 Mar

There are disagreements about when the game now known as golf originated, however, according to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews it started in Scotland in the 1400s. The first time it is documented is in 1457 when an Act of Scottish Parliament bans golf as a hobby because it is a distraction from men practicing archery, which they needed to learn for military purposes. The earliest celebrity to play golf was Mary Queen of Scots, who was criticised for playing golf the day after her husband Darnley was murdered. The game increased in popularity across the rest of the UK once the railways opened up the Scottish highlands to Victoria and Albert and the rest of high society, and the game has since spread across the globe, being particularly popular in the USA. Rules around the game, including what type of clubs and balls could be used, really started to firm up by the 1930s, and these days the game is very strictly regulated, and worth billions of dollars.

Despite being Scottish, Douglas was never into golf. Neither was anyone else in the family, and I can only assume that Douglas first started to look at golf clubs because his patent agent (also called Douglas) liked golf and may have mentioned it at some point. I could be wrong, after all, Douglas was interested in sport generally and did design different tennis rackets, a bicycle frame and a cricket bat, so maybe golf was simply part of that general interest. Anyway, the fact that Douglas didn’t play the game itself meant that he came at it from a completely fresh perspective, and actually looked at golf from a mechanical point of view, i.e. how does the body interact with a golf club? What does a golf club actually DO? Could it do it better?

Douglas’s starting point was the golf putter. The putter is the specialist golf club used for the last few hits to get the ball into the hole after you have got it close as possible with your long distance driver. While you want a driver that will give you speed and distance, you want a putter that will provide accuracy and precision. As the American Golf website puts it, ‘driver for show, putt for dough,’ because putting is often the difference between winning and losing. A classic putter looks something like this:

stock-photo-golf-putter-on-white-background-184893572

Douglas’s first drafts in 1996, of course, looked quite different.

Early putter

It is obviously different in a couple of ways, including the handle which is a fat tube all the way up, and gives it its unusual appearance. Here is the finished Buchanan putter on display at its press launch with Mum (right) and Douglas in the late 1990s:

Golf presentation board group shot

The fat shaft, made of fibreglass, was designed specifically so that the handle forces your hands into holding it in a particular way, meaning that the swing comes from your shoulders rather than your wrists, which is as it should be. It also releases tension, which gets rid of the dreaded golfer ‘yips’, relaxing you into a smoother shot. Finally, the rigid walls of the tube carry the feel of the ball from the gold sweet-spot in the face of the putter up the slim neck all the way to your hands, meaning that, unlike traditional putters that are flexible and padded, you can actually feel the ball, thus leading to increased accuracy. In testing, this putter really worked, and often won blind accuracy tests against hundreds of putters, including tests with the official USA golf body, the US PGA. It also conforms to the R&A‘s very fussy rules of golf, which meant that it could be sold and players could use it in professional games. However, the golf world did not react well to something that didn’t look the way they expected it to look. Take this article, for example:

 

Doug strikes Gold with his tension-free putterDespite the optimistic headline, the very first thing John Newton mentions when he sees the putter is that he thinks it looks like ‘a piece of drainpipe with a clubhead attached’ and says that his ‘reaction was probably similar to everyone first setting eyes on this particular object. It was, shall we say, of amusement.’ He admits, however, that he ‘never got as far as laughing, though, because despite its looks, the putter performed remarkably well.’ The rest of the article talks about how well the putter works, how the science of it is correct and how it really did increase accuracy, but note the ending: ‘The response from people whom I have asked to try the Buchanan putters has been positive, but the one thing they all have commented on has been the unconventional look…. Its’s amazing how golfers seem more worried about what others think of the look of their equipment rather than focusing on its performance.’ And herein lies the rub. Newton is not the only one to feel like this. In this, nicely balanced, article from the FT, the journalist reacts in exactly the same way: ‘The Buchanan putter is, to put it mildly, different. At first glance, it might be taken for an inverted microphone. But looks are not the priority: what matters is the feel.’

Designed for a precision putt

Unfortunately, the golf community in general was not as open-minded as the FT journalist, and the reactions were more as John Newton predicted. Take, for example, this little snippet:

Storm is lowest of the low

Yes, that is a golfer being ridiculed for using Douglas’s putter in public. When Douglas set up his putter company and exhibited at golf exhibitions around the world, he tried to put a positive spin on the putter’s very different look:

Your world as you know it is about to change

But, ultimately, the putter in this iteration was never going to persuade the conservative golf-playing public and they just didn’t sell. He was going to have to come at it from a different angle.

In his own words

7 Mar

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Douglas’s death, and I find that today I am struggling to think of anything to tell you. So, in a break from the usual, I’m going to let Douglas speak for himself.

Best Frank in colour

Douglas really loved birds, and in fact the afternoon he died he and mum had been watching birds outside his window. This is Frank, a crow that Douglas drew, based on the community of jackdaws that lived near one of their houses. Frank was going to star in a series of children’ books that Douglas never quite got round to writing. Douglas loved to write, and had written plays that were performed by his local drama group back in the 1980s. In 2006 he decided that he should start a blog about what it was like to be an inventor. The blog never happened, but I have the first draft post that he wrote. So, here’s Douglas in his own words (spelling mistakes and erratic punctuation all his own):

_________
8th Sept 2006

I thought I would start a blog. It may be read by 14 people with the possibily of the paper from the download stuffed into a crack in the wall of a Hebridean croft or shredded and used as bedding by Henrietta the Hamster in West Brom    at least I can console myself its done some good

I am an inventor. It is my idea, no, the purpose of this blog is to give the world @ large (and Henrietta the Hamster, of West Brom) a flavour of the life I lead. There are several types of inventor   you could be a gifted amateur operating from a garden shed or one of a large research team or midway like me with a small workforce of 1 and a large workshop/studio

Let’s start with today. Up @ 6.30 Breakfast @ 7.00 Bowl of muesli toasted rye bread and honey. Let me just stop there why is it that American shops only stock clear runny honey spread it on the toast or bread and 3 minutes later there is a small sticky stream of honey running up your arm and now your fingers are covered in the stuff   Little rant over, back to breakfast, as I was saying. Toast & honey a glass of milk and I mustn’t forget the pills 5 in the morning    Reason:- Parkinson’s disease, but we will talk about this another time, suffice to say its a bit of a bugger    Back to the table pick up a banana & chuck it into old fashioned leather brief case (really must clean it out soon) At this point my wife Pat could well appear and I am off to work in the trusty Citroen Zantia estate I drive the 7 miles or so to work. I used to use the bicycle but its too dangerous   I am convinced most drivers have never seen a bike before, either that or I am invisible.

Arrive @ 8.10     Lyn had arrived @ 8.00 I shall tell you about Lyn another time   she is a real treasure. The workshop which I rent consists of a foyer with a round table & four chairs and a reasonable carpet     Right follow me we will go up stairs   thats the loo on your left   By the way when you walked through the front door there was another loo on your right    Follow me along the passage     the book keepers office on your left and my office/studio in front, yes its an airy room with windows on 3 sides a drawing board a computer and another round table with 4 chairs and two desks and a CD player which I play constantly the same track sometimes over & over again  I am playing Breaking Benjamin We are not alone and have been for some weeks there are 3 really good tracks, no idea what their called

Phone calls

Down stairs thro the large fire door you are now confronted with a long corridor   First door on left a room with a press, a bending machine (for sheet) and a set of hand rollers and adjoining is an underused office    Continuing down the passageway Kitchen/canteen on your right on your left 4 computerised sewing machines

Sewing machines

and a bloody great big green net from floor to ceiling enclosing 20sqr metres  Up to July this year we were testing golf clubs which I designed and the large red steel lump in the middle is a, I should say was a robotic arm  the ball was struck with a head speed of Appx 100mph and a special camera takes 2 shots within a nano second and gives you a computer read out of the shot distance – height-hook-fade spin, a nice piece of kit but the system has gone to Canada that’s another story

I think we will pause here and continue the workshop tour another time that is if you are still interested.
_______

Normal service will resume next week.