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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


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:


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.


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.

Let’s talk about patents

7 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


24 Dec

One of the handy things about coming back to Mum’s for Christmas is the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about Douglas’s inventions. We’ve been going through old photographs and I’ve been asking questions. Someone who has been reading this blog asked me why I don’t just use the business records and files, but, you see, there aren’t any. Not one file or one set of accounts left. They have all been lost, damaged and/or destroyed in various moves and other life events and so all the paperwork we have is in that box I showed you on the first post. Therefore one of my main sources of information is my mother, who worked alongside Douglas in his business for a number of years. After more than 20 years since the early days, her memory is good but not complete, so not all of her information is as useful as I’d like it to be! To begin with, I asked her about Terry Bilboe, the man in the article about the dog armour. Here’s how the conversation went:

So, tell me about Terry Bilboe. How did he get involved?

Well, I don’t really remember how we met him, but I think maybe we were looking for someone to do fabrications for us.


Yes, making plates for the armour that we would then assemble. He liked Douglas because his son was a cricket fan.


Yes, well Douglas was doing his cricket bat at the time.

Cricket bat? I didn’t know he was doing a cricket bat.

Oh yes, he did that for years. And of course Douglas would tell anyone he met about everything he was doing, so Terry I think wanted to get in on the cricket bat, but said he’d help to market the dog armour.

Was he a marketing person?

No, I think he was a bit bored with his manufacturing company and was looking for something to do.

And did he sell any?


So what happened?

Well, that was it. Nothing happened. He didn’t sell any.

So, nothing else happened?

Nothing happened.

We’ve had quite a few dead-end conversations like this, because Terry Bilboe wasn’t the only man who came to visit Douglas, thinking he’d like to get involved, and then ending up being yet another disappointing story where nothing much happened. Douglas, as you can probably tell by now, had a lot of profile in the press, and if you were interested in new business ideas or opportunities, he was an eye-catching proposition. Douglas’s public profile continued for several years, and rooting through the photographs, we found these, taken at a filming session at the Millennium Dome when it was being built. It’s for the show What Will They Think of Next? with Carol Vorderman, and it must have been 1998.


Douglas with Carol V standing.jpgOne of the men who approached Douglas off the back of this kind of publicity, was a man whom I shall call X. Oh, you don’t want to write about that nasty man, said my Mum as we came across photos of an exhibition at the NEC where we were showcasing the dog boots. I most certainly do, was the only reply, isn’t he the man who ran off with our sewing machines? It turns out that wasn’t quite the way it went.

X came to visit Douglas several times after seeing the dog boots on TV. If you remember, Douglas was successfully making and selling the armoured boots to the prison and police services, but had struggled to break into the domestic market. We had had lots of individual letters from people wanting boots for their own dogs, but had failed to find a company who would buy enough from us to make them worthwhile to make properly. X promised to change all of that. He said that he would buy them from us and sell them on, in large enough numbers that we could buy the tools and materials and really crack on, and to prove he was serious, he paid for a stand at an inventions fair at the NEC to exhibit the boots. Here’s Douglas and I manning the stand:

Me and Douglas at NEC exhibition.jpg

Mum and Douglas decided he was serious, and made the preparations to manufacture the boots on a proper scale. They hired extra staff, part-bought new sewing machines, had special knives and templates and tools made, got all the materials in and started making domestic dog boots in earnest, to the colours and sizes that X requested.

We started to send the boots out to X, who paid for some of them, but said when he began to receive invoices from us that his company was registered in the USA so we didn’t need to charge him VAT. Mum was curious about this and asked our accountant if it was ok. After a while, the accountant got back to her and said that actually, it wasn’t ok, and that VAT should be charged as normal. They added VAT back onto the invoices and continued to send out the completed boots. About a week later, they began to receive long faxes from X, complaining about a boot that wasn’t finished properly, another that had a bit missing, and so on. And when I say long, I mean 28 pages long. And two hours later, another one, 15 pages. Friday afternoon, another fax, pages and pages, Friday evening, pages and pages of complaints and niggles and who knows what else. The rolls of fax paper would run out and when replaced, would almost immediately run out again. It was an assault.

Mum and Douglas and their small team didn’t have time to even read these faxes, let alone begin to track down the mistakes he had accused them of. They couldn’t understand what was going on. Eventually they stopped sending boots to X, stopped further production, laid off the new staff and returned the sewing machines. Later they learnt that the faxes were a known technique for bamboozling someone, ‘fogging’, because if you take someone to court over something, you would have had to have gone through every single line of every single communication before you could make your claim, which would take months, and cost lots in legal costs, and by paying at least some of the invoices, X had made it much harder to sue him for the rest of the money owed. They decided that it was easier to just swallow the loss and accept that on this occasion, they had been subject to some sort of scam. That was the end of the dog boots for Buchanan Design.

What does an inventor do with his day?

19 Nov


Every inventor needs a place to do their inventing, and so here is Douglas in his workshop in Ludlow in the mid-1990s. The workshop unit itself was on the ground floor of a converted mill and consisted of three rooms; two of them were essentially garage-type space – concrete floors, no natural light except through the concertina doors – and they contained all his larger machines, often littered with a sprinkling of metal dust and off-cuts. The room in the picture is the ‘studio’ or main office space, also with a concrete floor, but with a couple of old rugs to make it feel a bit warmer. There was no heating except for ancient portable gas heaters and it was often very cold, especially in the little tiny toilet cubicle in one corner. The studio itself was an extension and actual hung over the mill race, meaning you could always hear rushing water and, occasionally, see kingfishers from the window.

Unlike the mad-inventor stereotype lurking in a shed in the middle of the night, Douglas always took his work seriously and treated it like a business and a full time job, in the sense that he arrived every day Monday to Friday at work at about 8.30am and stayed there until 5 or 5.30pm every day. At the time of this photograph he had two or three local women working for him, helping to make things like the Spectangles, as well as belt buckles, jewellery and other items, and one or two local engineeringly-minded men who helped with the rougher end of the metal working and machinery wrangling. Many of the ideas that they worked on often began life as a drawing in a notebook and Douglas took notebooks everywhere, including on holiday, working up thoughts over and over again until they became enough of a whole idea that they could be drawn up properly, and turned into real objects.

Once he had an idea on paper, the process would begin with sourcing materials to make his initial designs. I spent some time doing a summer job for him and my main task involved phoning around suppliers to get a specific size of spring, plastic with certain qualities, or sheet metal of different thicknesses. Even in the 1990s, Douglas could feel the manufacturing industry in the UK collapsing and it was getting harder and harder to source Douglas’s chosen materials, mostly metals and plastics. I spent many boring hours organising his catalogues of products and trying to label them so he could find what he might need and phoning around for new suppliers. The internet changed things later, but at the time, searching could be slow, and you often had to order more of something than you needed in order for a company to deal with you.

Once Douglas had his materials, he needed to work out how to make a tool that would shape them into the pieces he needed. The workshop at that time probably had about 6 hand presses (see below), each of which Douglas could use to cut, shape and punch metal, plastic and fabric into the shapes he needed. Each tool head for the press could take several days to make, including quite a lot of standing at the bench by the window, filing metal (squeak, squeak, squeak) and then adjustments to get the pressure and measurements right.  You can see a pretty good video of how to adjust a manual press here: (press the video button), imagine making endless small adjustments until your item was just so.cstonsideOnce the tool was up and running, the pieces could be made and tested, and, one at a time,  the tool heads could be changed and the next piece made, and then the next. A Spectangle, for example, would need an individual press action to make the hooks on the strings, another action to fix the hook to the string, another to make the clip for the loops, an action to cut out the three layers of the pendants, another action to press them together, an action to shape the pendant loop and then a final action to press that onto the pendant before you could string them together by hand. Each item could take a long time to make. Only when it was completely assembled could you be sure of whether or not it worked, and that was the point at which he could say, yes, or nope, back to the drawing board, and the cycle would start again. Each product often took years to perfect, although more straightforward items like belt buckles could be done more quickly. All of this development work would have to be done before you had sold a single item, so all of the time and materials had to be paid for before you were sure it would work, and that anyone would want it.

So, making was only part of the job. A good section of all those notebooks in the box include pages and pages of notes and phone numbers, like this:


Pages and pages of potential leads, potential sources for materials or services, and, on the right (hard to read), a list of items posted out and to whom. For all the fun/boredom of the drawing, the making, the remaking, the playing with metals, the solving of problems, the main activity I remember Douglas doing for his work was making phone calls. He was a determined and charismatic cold caller, able to navigate his way up company chains to the decision-maker to try to sell his ideas. How he was received at the other end, particularly in the UK, is another story, but for now here he is, in full glamour, the inventor in action. All he needed was one phone call to lead to a sale for all of the time, money and effort of each development to work. But how many phone calls must you make for that to happen?




3 Nov

2016-11-03-15-19-40It seems strange that this is all that is left of my stepfather, who was such a loud and alive person, but here it is, a box of notebooks. I can tell just by looking at it that we don’t have all of them, over the years many of them were lost, damaged, thrown out, abandoned and so this incomplete set is what I have left to work with. It took a few days to go through all of the paper in here, cataloguing each page, working out what was there and what the gaps were. Going through them was a revelation, because, although I had often seen Douglas with a notebook in his hand, I never actually knew what was in them until now. Some of the drawings are damaged and defaced as Douglas, suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s in the later years, cut pages out, drew over drawings and scribbled half-formed sentences over old designs. However, many are intact, and what they show is how Douglas solved problems, played with ideas and worked out how to make his inventions work. He wrote little notes to himself, practiced names, criticised and praised ideas, worked out measurements and drafted and re-drafted shapes. It was clear that he had a tremendous amount of fun doing his work, as well as playing too. Here’s an idea for toilet roll with curved perforations – anyone want to tell me if it would work or not??