Archive | Inventions RSS feed for this section

The person sail

1 Jan

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

person-windsurf-rough-sketches

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

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

fish-and-sail

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

person-with-sail

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

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

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

person-sail-notes-more

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

Finally, he does a proper drawing:

sail

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

Boots for dogs

18 Dec

Well, so Christmas week is upon us, and it seems only right that I give you all a little Christmas present. Back in 1993, there was a major disturbance at Wymott prison in Lancashire, and during the riot several prison dogs were injured when they got glass and other sharp objects in their paws. Head of HM Prison Dogs Service, Steve Allen, decided it was time to better protect prison dogs, and set out to look for someone to help in solve the problem. Two year later, in 1995, a small article appeared in the Prison Service News July/August edition, with the headline ‘Prison Dogs get the Boot!’ He had found his man, the boots were now a reality. And their creator? Douglas Buchanan, of course. Here’s his prison dog boot design:

dog-boot

And here’s a prison dog wearing them:

heel-boy-and-try-not-to-scuff

The boots had to solve several design problems. Firstly, dog feet splay in and out as they walk – you can replicate the motion by spreading your fingers as you open your hand and lay it flat on a table, and then lift it up again- the fingers naturally draw back in. Most fabric only stretches in one direction, i.e. in a straight line, and won’t cope with spreading in all directions at once. It’s similar to the grain in a tree, the threads are laid just one way, and couldn’t cope with the movement of a dog’s foot, so would rip, slip or get into tight, uncomfortable rucks. The answer, eventually, was Neoprene, which is wet-suit material. Neoprene is made differently to normal fabric so is able to spread in all directions at once, and is also, as a bonus, tough and water resistant, so could be worn in all weathers.

Secondly, the soles. If you watch a dog walking on a smooth surface, you can see that they naturally slip a bit (or a lot, if they’re running, especially if they then try to turn a corner!). When making boots for dogs, you have to try to replicate the same amount of natural slippage, otherwise the dog just doesn’t understand why its feet are suddenly just sticking to the floor in a strange way and can’t walk in them. Douglas went through lots of different rubber samples to find something that could cope with different conditions, wouldn’t get cut up by glass etc, and would be just slippy enough that the dog could walk normally. He then added metal plates and padding to the insides of the boots to make them truly protective.

Finally, sizing. Like humans, dogs come in different shapes and sizes, and were going to need different size boots. They also, peculiarly, usually have smaller feet on their back legs than at the front, so most dogs take two different sizes of boot. After some deliberation – how many sizes is a useful number to have? 2? 20? 100? – Douglas came up with nine different sizes, with most larger dogs like Alsatians, taking a six, seven or eight in size. Our domestic models, our pet dogs Bertie the labrador and Perdita the pointer, took a size four/five and five/six respectively. Perdita loathed the boots and always walked as though she was trying to step out of them, high-stepping like a dressage money, however Bertie was always chilled out and didn’t mind them so much – here he is getting his close up.

bertie-dog-boot-filming

They were a huge success with the prison service, and we made thousands of boots for their dogs for some years. When I spoke to the Prison News magazine this year, they said that boots for prison dogs were standard issue now, very commonplace. We stopped making them years ago, but I’m so pleased that Douglas’s original idea has gone on to protect thousands of dogs over the years. He was always a dog lover.

However, the story does not stop there. Being a somewhat quirky idea, the idea of boots for dogs attracted quite a bit of media attention and, after appearing on TV, Douglas started to receive hundreds of letters from individual dog owners asking for boots for their dogs, often including paw prints, drawings and photos of the dogs, and details of all the individual ailments of their beloved pooches – allergies, chewing and sucking problems, injuries that wouldn’t heal… the list went on. He started to make a domestic version and we began a sort of impromptu mail order, sending them out to individuals who had written or phoned in, including to one person who had simply addressed their request to Mr Inventor, Ludlow. They were about to pale into insignificance, however, when our next client phoned.ones-boots-are-made-for-walkies

Yep, the Queen bought some boots for her corgis. Douglas mostly dealt with her staff, however, one day the Queen’s dog keeper did phone and say to Douglas that someone wanted to talk to him. ‘The voice!’ he said later. ‘That voice came onto the phone!’ The Queen herself told him that she thought his dog boots were marvellous. And, from one queen to another… this one always made me smile.

dog-in-boots-for-danny-la-rue

Danny La Rue! So, surely, this was it, the big time, fortune made. Well… as always, not so much. It turns out that it is very expensive to make a product that has so many different parts (off the top of my head, six parts per boot, so 12 for a pair, or 24 for a full set) that are all cut out, hand sewn and finished… in nine different sizes. We had to buy industrial sewing machines capable of sewing the thick, complicated fabrics, tools to cut out all the different shapes of Neoprene, rubber and more, wages to staff to sew them all together, and we could still only make so many in a day. To make the quantities needed to make enough to make some profit, we needed major investment in tools and staff time upfront. And we just couldn’t get either the investment or big enough orders to make it worthwhile. No company would buy enough of these quirky things, and replying individually to hundreds of dog owners was too time intensive to be worth the small amount that people were prepared to pay for them. There is an atmosphere in this country that loves a fun idea, that enjoys laughing at it, and then, ultimately, would rather stick with the way things are than look in anyway strange, new or different. Dog boots, whilst embraced by the prison service as useful equipment, were just a step too comical-looking for everyone else. Even now, all these years later, if you see a dog in boots, I bet your first instinct is to giggle.

ive-heard-of-puss-in-boots

 

All the stuff I don’t know

10 Dec

The interesting thing about writing about something that was part of my life for so long, is not just how the stories embed themselves into life, but also just how much information is missing. Take the dog armour. I’m not talking about armour for dogs, although… anyway, I’m actually talking about armour for police people who worked with dangerous dogs. Back in 1992/3 Douglas designed these:

wrist-armour-front-left

And these:

leg-guards

These are wrist and leg guards to wear if you know you have to go out and catch or handle a dangerous dog. Here’s our friend Gary who tested the training arm protectors from last week, in full gear:

gary-in-dog-armour-1992

Now, the thing about this armour is that I actually don’t know much about it. I know Douglas designed it for use by the police dog teams, probably because he had already started talking to them about the training sleeves, but I don’t know much more than that. That’s the thing about being a young teenager when the nitty gritty of these deals is being talked about. I know it existed, I know we sold some, I know how it feels to wear them, because of course I tried it on (and that’s my hand in the top photo just today) and I can tell you how they fit together (metal plates shaped and riveted together with nylon rivets so they flex as needed), but I don’t know how they came about, I don’t know how many we sold, I don’t know much at all. They are just part of the mythology of our family life, in the way that you remember other family stories; such as when Cousin Such-and-Such fell off the trampoline, or when Uncle Thingy was drunk at Christmas. We had the dog armour. My stepbrother used to play in it (although he comments that he realises now how unusual that was), at the time it was normal for us and I didn’t pay much attention.

So, quite a bit of this project is about turning detective as I try to fill in the gaps. My mum was a keen documenter of our lives in general, and it is her that I can thank for the photos above, as well as the fact that she kept a file of press cuttings, sometimes labelled. She got fed up of the inventions at some point, and stopped working with my stepfather to go and earn some money to keep us all alive, but fortunately, she was diligent enough to have kept this:

christine-jennings-dog-armour-article

So, we learn from this article that the metal is titanium (of course, it’s one of the lightest, toughest metals around), we learn that it is being made and pitched to the police rather than commissioned by them, and it also introduces the character of Terry Bilboe. I remember his name, but can’t say that I remember his face particularly. However, I do know that Terry is part of a long list of partners/licensees who took Douglas’s products at one point or another and tried to make a go of them. This is important, because, whilst Douglas was brimming with ideas, each idea takes so much work to get made and sold that you have to decide what to do – do you just stick with one idea and push it and push it until it either works and sells or you admit defeat, or do you make lots of ideas and keep throwing them into the world in a less determined way in the hopes that something sticks? James Dyson, for example, took the former approach, reputedly taking 17 years from having his initial idea for a vacuum cleaner, to actually having a factory that made and sold them and made a profit. 17 years. You have to be really single-minded and sure to make that happen (and I wonder what he did for money throughout that time – did he have a day job?). Douglas was never going to be that kind of person, he always had eight more ideas up his sleeve, and one of the ways to cope with that is to strike a deal with someone to licence one idea and do the legwork on it while you get on with other ideas, agreeing to take a cut of any profits accordingly. Terry Bilboe and his company Allsop Engineering, clearly took that risk with Douglas and the dog proof armour. I have no idea how it went. I don’t know at what point they stopped working together. I don’t know if it was amicable. I wonder what happened to him. I wonder if he would talk to me if I could find him. I wonder if I can find him. My list of ‘wonder ifs’ grows, and I’m adding his name. Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell you the whole of this story.

How much do you trust it to work?

1 Dec

‘You just have to show them who’s boss,’ said my mother firmly, stepping towards the van parked next to our garage. This was late November, 1991.

‘I’m the boss!’ she shouted at the occupant, who immediately hit the side of the van with a massive thump and an even bigger volley of barks, causing the van to sway and rock. We both took a hasty step backwards. The policeman with us chuckled and said a quiet command to the dog inside as he unlocked the van door. The dog instantly calmed down and leapt gracefully from the van when the door opened, sitting neatly at its trainer’s feet and awaiting further instruction.

They were in our back garden to test out one of Douglas’s ideas: a training sleeve for police dogs. At the time, when training a police dog (which takes years) to chase down and catch a perpetrator, the trainer would wrap their arm in strips of leather and then train the dog to chase them down and bite them on the arm to detain them as they would a real life criminal until their colleague could handcuff the person and take them away. Police dogs are big, their bites are potentially very painful, especially when they are learning to moderate their grip, and the leather straps would get heavy with saliva, leaving the trainer with a soggy, bruised arm, not to mention other bruises as they are knocked to the ground by over-enthusiastic trainee dogs. Douglas, a dog lover, had seen this training process in action and thought that he could do better. He designed a metal cone, shaped to cover the elbow, with an opening at each end that could be slipped onto the forearm like a sleeve, covered it in foam and a washable fabric case (to stop the dog’s teeth from breaking on the metal) and attached lengths of rope along the cover to give the dog something to grip.

dog-training-sleeves

This should both protect the arm and not hurt the dog, and be light enough that you could wear it for hours at a time without getting tired. The cover could be removed and washed to stop it from getting smelly. All very well in theory, but there comes a moment in every period of research and development when someone has to test it out. To begin with you can simulate testing conditions, replicating the crushing and tearing effects of a dog’s mouth with tools that you can control and using a dummy for the arm, but at some point, you have to put your trust in the idea and the craftsmanship and decide that you’re going to let a large dog loose on a real person wearing the sleeve to find out what would happen. And someone has to put their hand up and face a dog rushing towards them with an unknown contraption on their arm.

This was the day. Three policemen and one dog turned up, and, after some jostling amongst themselves, one man put himself forward for the first try. Meet Gary Evans (I’d love to talk to him about this now) and his canine colleague, testing the training sleeve in our back garden, November 1991.

gary-dog-training-sleeve-smoke-garden

gary-dog-training-sleeve-garden-1gary-dog-training-sleeve-garden-3gary-dog-training-sleeve-garden-2

We were relieved to find that the sleeve worked perfectly (but probably not as relieved as Gary). It worked so well that the Metropolitan police bought at least 54 sets for its dog handling team to train with, a good amount of work for our small workshop team. There they are below getting ready to be sent off. They formed part of a larger suite of armour for dog handlers that Douglas developed – I’ll write more about that next time.

54-sets-of-dog-training-sleeves

P.S. Mum let Gary put the dog back into the van without saying another word to it. We knew who was boss.

Bread and butter money

26 Nov

police-buckles

I have been trying to track down photographer Kippa Matthews because I’d like to get permission to use this picture, preferably an original version rather than this one clipped out of a 1993 paper. What I’ve learnt is that all of the photo archivists I have spoken to, at both tabloid and broadsheet papers, are friendly and helpful and interested, but their records are far from complete, especially from the pre-internet years. So far, I have been unable to find out who owns 90% of the press cutting photos I would like to use, including the one of Douglas in his armour on the About page of this blog. If you own any of these photos, please get in touch – I’ve been looking for you.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to get hold of this photo for a slightly esoteric reason. Not because I am interested in Quaddus Ali or gang attacks, but because the photo is one of the last remaining images we have of something that fed our family throughout my teenage years: the quick release buckle. Douglas designed and made thousands and thousands of buckles for the Metropolitan police for several years, and they provided a good source of income whilst he was developing other ideas. But what is so special about this buckle that they needed an inventor to design it?

A normal belt buckle looks something like this:

50mm-2-solid-brass-belt-buckle-buc008-3798-p

Anyone who has had to do up a belt with one of these buckles in a hurry will know that it can be quite tricky to get the prong to go through the correct hole in the leather strap and you often have to fiddle with it for a few seconds to get it right. That’s fine for a normal pair of trousers, but not for the other type of belt that the Metropolitan Police regularly use: the equipment belt. The one with the handcuffs and truncheon and radio on it. If you are a police person sitting in an office you don’t necessarily wear all of that gear to do your desk work – it’s heavy and annoying and gets in the way – but if you need to respond to a call you want to be able to put your equipment belt on in a hurry as you’re running out of the door. Previous equipment belts had looked something like this:

35 You’ll have seen that type of clasp before, it’s used on all sorts of things from child seat belts to airplanes. And it’s very quick to get on. However, what the police were finding is that enterprising criminals and other rascals would come up to a police person wearing one of these on the street, reach out and Pop! release the buckle before scampering off, leaving the police person with a belt of heavy and expensive equipment crashing round their ankles. This had to stop!

Douglas made a buckle that looked at first glance a lot like the traditional buckle in shape (you can see them if you look closely at the photograph at the top), however, the buckle was just a front, literally, as it had a hook hidden on the back that fitted into a partner plate on the other side of the belt, meaning that whilst it looked normal, it was actually very quick to put on – you just hooked it together – but much more difficult for someone else to figure out if they were looking at it whilst it was on. He teamed up with a leather specialist to make a leather belt that conformed to the current police standards, which meant that when tested, the belt would be strong enough to pull up a person if they fell over a cliff. I love the idea of police officers whipping off their belts to rescue people in such a fashion, and I wonder if the same standard is still true… Either way, we lived on the profits from these buckles, as well as all the standard dress uniform buckles Douglas also sold to the Met, for years, and they helped to establish a relationship with the police and prison services that made some of Douglas’s other ideas possible.

Spectangles

5 Nov

I must phone Jake and tell him I’ve found some that aren’t pink, I thought this morning, when I unearthed these.  spectangles-nowThese strange creatures are Spectangles, they are the first of Douglas’s inventions that I saw and, whilst many of his other ideas are much more show-boaty, these probably made more money than most of rest of them, although never very much.

The first time I met my future step-father, one of those awkward moments when two people recently together meet each other’s children, was in a car park off an A road somewhere in south Shropshire. Mum and I pulled up and Douglas sprang out of his car, a small, wiry man with shoulder length hair, beard, cheery smile, loud shirt and something round his neck that looked like an unusual necklace. It was in fact a small device to hold your glasses, and Douglas wore one because, as a glasses wearer, it was useful, and the self-promotion didn’t hurt. This would have been in 1990, and at the time Douglas had a contract with Polaroid to make cords for glasses in his small workshop. These are not them below, but you get the idea.

1pc-66cm-sunglasses-neck-cord-strap-eyeglass-glasses-string-drop-proof-lanyard-holder-adjustable_640x640_e19262fd-1006-462e-ad19-9bf12c1a7e9d_largeTraditional glasses cords slide over the arms of your glasses and mean that you can wear the glasses round your neck. Douglas, however, thought that he could do better. With normal cords, the glasses hang badly, clunk around and get in the way, or damaged, and people often just tuck their glasses into the top of their jumper instead (Douglas’s own chosen method). After losing a pair of glasses too many when they fell out of his T-shirt-neck running down some stairs, he got started on a new design, and thus, the Spectangle was born. Using the same hypoallergenic plastic as for the cords, the Spectangle was a pendant with a hole lined with flexible flaps that would hold the arm of your glasses in place, meaning no more accidents. They really worked. Douglas I think wore one almost every day for the rest of his life, and Mum wore one often. By the time I was a teenager he had persuaded the Lakeland catalogue to sell them and I spent many hours in the school holidays working in his workshop with his other staff to cut out and put them together, measuring the cords, clamping the loops and hooks in place, assembling the pendants and pressing them together until they clipped in place before stringing them onto the cords and counting them into bundles. We must have made and sold thousands, and it was with great excitement that I saw my first complete stranger wearing one in the outside world one day. Success at last!

However, fashions change and Lakeland eventually stopped selling them as the arms of glasses got bigger and their customers stopped buying the Spectangle. During leaner times, Mum did her best to sell them locally, on a market stall, and at craft and inventor exhibitions, but eventually we had to admit defeat and the Spectangle was shelved.

Or so I thought. Going through Douglas’s notebooks this year, I found some sketches for newer designs, as well as ideas for expanding the range, including this one from 2009. This one was never made, but I like the fact that he continued to think about the problem, and came up with new ways to solve it.

arrowhead-spectangle-2009