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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:

wooden-clothes-pin-with-path-clothes-clip-1500_1566

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

 

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.

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

 

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.

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.

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

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.