Archive | April, 2017

Mobility aids

30 Apr

You may or may not have noticed that there’s been a little gap in updating this blog. This is due to a couple of things, but one of the main reasons is that I have just had some surgery. The surgery for me felt pretty major, in that I have never had any before, and thus the whole experience was new and a bit scary, but in actual fact I was in and out within a day, and the doctors said with a shrug that they did my type of operation all the time. I’m recovering nicely, trying not to fiddle with my stitches, do too much and am, frankly, getting a bit bored, but it means that when I was thinking about what to write about this week, health and hospitals were on my mind.

Douglas had two major health issues that noticeably affected his later life. In 2002 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which was a massive blow, as the disease is relentless, incurable and never ends well. Symptoms that often occur, and that Douglas definitely had, included not only the tremors that everyone talks about, but more serious motor function problems that made walking and moving difficult, as well as losing the ability to write or draw, problems eating and digesting, loss of facial function (such as not being able to smile) and difficulty talking, mental health issues including depression, obsessive behaviour, and then onset of related dementia. A really cruel disease, and one that I would not wish on anyone. The medication is improving all the time, but is still not nearly enough, and the regime of pills and side effects can be punishing. (Feel free to donate to Parkinson’s UK at any time if you’re looking for a worthy cause, they are marvellous and well, well worth your money.) Obviously this affected Douglas’s ability to work, and looking through his notebooks I found increasing signs of his decline, including writing that is no longer legible, drawings that have lost quality, scribbles and inconsistencies that only increased with time. Here’s a heart-breaking snippet:

I have Parkinson's

In case you can’t read it, it says: ‘I have Parkinson’s. I need a device to assist me/I need a simple device to help me get in & out of bed.’

The second issue is that he had a car accident a couple of years after his diagnosis, which involved his car being hit by a car pulling out of a side road and was major enough that he was air-lifted to hospital with what turned out later to be a fractured spine. (You could also donate to the Midlands Air Ambulance. They are literally life-savers and beyond wonderful.) He had to spend a couple of nights in hospital, and he did not particularly enjoy it. He hated the food, there were problems with his Parkinson’s medication, and so the list went on. This clearly darkened his mood to the point that one of the papers I have  of Douglas’s is a handwritten complaint about the quality of the hospital newsletter. I pity any poor soul that may have received it!

However, apart from complaining, Douglas, ever the inventor, clearly took in his experiences and this little sketch emerged:

Back and foot supports

A disposable back and foot support for hospitals! Sitting in my hospital bed, I could see how these would be useful for people of different shapes and sizes and ailments using the same furniture. Talking to my mum about the subject, she says that Douglas had an ongoing interest in how the body related to the world, and we have seen that before in the crutch designs I wrote about a couple of months ago, as well as sports equipment such as the person sail. She describes them going to visit the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital to look at what equipment they had to assist people with amputations and other mobility issues, and a particular holiday in Lyme Regis when Douglas spent the whole day accosting people in wheelchairs to ask them about the chairs and how they were to use. Sadly, I don’t have any evidence of any thoughts he had about wheelchairs but I did find this drawing amongst his papers:

Conventional walking frame

It’s a conventional walking or Zimmer frame, and Douglas felt it could be improved. Here is his version:

Douglas walking frame

It includes sprung-loaded feet to cushion impact, as well as wheels that tuck away safely, and a collapsible frame so that it can be packed away and stored or transported easily. He also drew this:

Self standing walking stick

A self-standing walking stick with its own little tripod to solve that eternal problem of sticks that get propped on things and then fall over/slide around and become trip hazards or impossible for someone to bend down and pick up. I think they are both wonderful ideas, and I just wish there was some record of any wheelchair thoughts, as all of these could make a difference to the quality of life of people who need them, including Douglas who, by the end, was covered in cuts and bruises from falling over 30 or more times a day but refused to use a conventional walking frame because it ruined his image (!). Either that or because the design could have been improved.

Messing about with the familiar

11 Apr

Douglas did all the ironing in our house. I think this probably came about because Mum hates ironing, but Douglas wanted ironed shirts. Thus, he did the ironing. And, as we can probably guess by now, there’s nothing like leaving Douglas alone to think about things, i.e. standing at an ironing board with 10 or so shirts to do, for leading to some new idea or other popping up. When I looked through his notebooks I found lots of drawings relating to a very familiar household item. Here’s what it normally looks like:


The humble clothes peg, in all its glory. When you think about it, a clothes peg has to solve quite a few engineering problems. It has to be non-slip and strong enough to hold onto fabric that can be quite heavy when wet, and can get blown around in quite high breezes. However, it also has to be gentle enough that it doesn’t damage the fabric or leave too many marks, and it has to be easily operated, probably using just one hand. It has to stand up to repeated uses, is often stored with others without getting tangled up, and must be water resistant. Suddenly, it seems quite impressive. Douglas, however, thought he could do better:

Clothes peg doodles

I wondered if the motivation behind his ideas was that as his Parkinson’s disease set in, he was less able to use his hands, making ordinary tasks like opening a clothes peg more difficult than before. However, he might also just have decided that clothes peg design was not yet a closed book. Then, I came across a curious note amongst his doodles:

Clothes peg ideas

I don’t know how well you can read it, but the note at the top says ‘I have chosen the clothes peg because of the green effect and carbon footprint.’ It has never occurred to me to think about the carbon footprint of clothes pegs before, but suddenly I’m wondering! Anyway, the doodles coalesced into something more specific:

Clothes peg 3

Clothes peg 1

Made of aluminium (‘ali’) and with a hole so that if you wanted you could hang your shirt on the hanger through it, the completed clothes peg has a pinched grip for the fabric and then above that a shaped end that is designed to fit tightly enough on the washing line that the pegs don’t all slide together towards the middle, something that has happened to all of us at some time! The overlock arm keeps everything tight and strong against winds. I don’t know if he ever made any. The note at the top of the first doodles suggests that it was for Lakeland, who bought his Spectangle. I have to talk to Lakeland about their process for accepting new designs, and if he ever sent them one, but I have to say I’d have liked to have tried a prototype or two of these.

To finish, I’ll also show you a second clothes peg design that I found, that shows Douglas’s playful side. Drawn at about the same time (2010), here it is:

Clothes peg 2


The Viz Vizor

4 Apr

Back in the 1980s, Douglas did some work with or for the motor-racing industry. It’s well before my time, and I don’t know much about it, except that there was a photo of a racing car on his workshop wall that looked real rather than from a magazine, and he talked regularly about Bernie Ecclestone. Mum confirmed this later; oh yes, she said, he and Bernie regularly spoke on the phone in the early 1990s, although try as I might I cannot find a phone number for him now. I think Douglas worked for the Spirit Racing company, although maybe others as well, and he was probably involved in motorbike racing too, according to his step-son’s memories. Sunday afternoons in our house were dominated by the sounds of Formula One on the TV, motor-racing buzzing and roaring throughout the house, and the excited squeak of Murray Walker punctuated by comments from our sofa as Douglas reacted to crashes and close shaves. When he wasn’t watching the telly, he was outside tinkering with the lawnmower and the strimmer, or washing our fleet of ageing cars; hobbies that remained important to him all through his life.

This week’s invention comes from that world of motor racing, although this particular one it is not really to do with car engineering directly. Douglas was thinking about the promotions that come with the pageantry of the race, women in catsuits throwing gifts at the crowd. Always one for a bold statement or with a vision of how things look, he thought about branding and what could be branded, what might actually be useful when it comes to watching a motor race, and came up with this:

Viz Vizor fig 2

It’s a sun visor. What’s so special about that? Well, here’s the full design:

Viz vizor final pics

It’s a visor that, rather than being one fixed piece, can be flipped down to cover your eyes like sunglasses, the perfect item for watching a race out in the open air. (I like the model’s hooked nose!) It’s also lightweight, relatively cheap and easy to produce, and can be branded any way you would like. Douglas, in his prototype, for example, did one with a Land Rover logo:

Vizor landrover logo

This idea knocked around in Douglas’s head for years. It’s certainly something I remember from when I was working in his workshop in the mid-1990s, but if you notice the date on the drawings, they are from 2011-2012. These were real crunch years for Douglas, as his Parkinson’s worsened, and they were the years that he really tried to sell ideas he was particularly fond of and thought might really work; the last chance saloon. The Viz Vizor idea got dusted off and sent out to anyone he thought might be interested, including Land Rover, accompanied by letters such as this:

Vizor letter to Landmark

This is a fairly typical Douglas letter, and will have followed a conversation or two on the phone to the mysterious Manuella, once he had worked out whom, within the company, would be the person to send his ideas to. He types the way he writes by hand (with flair but with poor grammar!) and rather than just describing the Viz Vizor, it’s a typo – the second paragraph ‘tired little sigh’ etc refers to the aero-flag that I described in the last post. The idea never went further than this, he never made any, beyond a prototype or two, and no company bought or made them or gave them out at races. Maybe the world of motor-racing had moved on by the time Douglas sent the idea out, maybe what worked in the 1980s just wasn’t relevant in 2012.