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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.

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:


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.

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:


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):


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:


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:


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:


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!