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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.

 

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

 

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.