Tag Archives: armour

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.


Knife Proof Armour

18 Jan

One of Douglas’s most iconic inventions, for me at least, is his knife proof armour. I asked Mum how Douglas got involved with the police on this, and apparently his second wife’s cousin worked for the Metropolitan Police’s Scientific Department (there’s a whole TV series right there…) and he wondered if Douglas could help. Mum remembers visiting the department (in Isleworth?) and watching the cousin explain the problem. She says he stood next to a bench on which was a piece of flesh simulant (I’d post a picture of this stuff but Googling for it produces nothing but pictures of guns and porn, so, sorry about that, imagine a large block of pinkish plasticine and you’re not far off), on which he had piled four separate armour samples, one on top of the other. She said he casually, almost without looking, took a large knife and stabbed all the way through all four layers into the simulant below. ‘No good,’ he said.

Now, many of you may think that the police have armour already, I mean, what about bullet proof vests? Well, a bullet proof vest is made of layers of a fabric called Kevlar, usually about 30 layers inside a fabric cover. It’s pretty good for stopping bullets, but absolutely hopeless for stopping a knife or needle (at the time people were stabbing the police with dirty needles as well as knives). In fact, the fabric in the vest, which is shiny and slippy, lines the wound, meaning that a knife penetrates further than it would without the vest, actually causing more damage. In addition, Kevlar vests are heavy, bulky and quite rigid from the tightly packed fabric and are therefore uncomfortable to wear, particularly for women.

Douglas took the problem away and had a think about it. Very little remains of Douglas’s sketches for the armour, but I did find this very, very early doodle which I recognise instantly.


You can see him thinking about interlocking tiles, thinking about what shapes fit together and how they might be joined. Here are a couple of other ideas:



What eventually came out of this process wasn’t far from these sketches at all, a series of titanium plates held together with nylon rivets inserted through holes. You’ve already seen a few of them on the dog armour leg protectors. Look closely and you can see the flexible blue rivets, which start as lengths of nylon cut into pieces, then moulded at one end into a mushroom shape, then inserted into the holes of the overlapping plates from the inside to the outside, and then a grey washer is slipped over the end to grip in place and the excess nylon is trimmed to fit. You can see the larger plates on the outside, and then the smaller rectangular plates on the inside that overlap across the joins of the large plates, ensuring full coverage with no cracks or joins where a needle could find its way through.


Here’s Douglas wearing the full vest in a press article:


Titanium is light and strong, it’s what they build planes with, so it’s perfect for vests. The rivets are flexible, meaning the vest bends to suit your shape, making it relatively comfortable to wear. The strength of the metal made it almost bulletproof too (and for years we had some flattened bullets in a little bag in a drawer that had been fired at the vest in tests) and combined with a few layers of Kevlar it was just as bullet proof as the original bullet proof vests, as well as knife and needle proof. Rows of little holes punched into the plates also acted to catch knife tips, meaning that if you were stabbed the knife wouldn’t slip down on impact and accidentally cut you somewhere else. It was, and probably still is, some of the best armour in existence. It got some great press attention, including this:


Exactly what happened with Ross and Catherall and the armour contract is a story for another day, but there was an interesting sideways development that I did not see coming at the time. Douglas was approached by Sainsbury’s for some armour, because it turns out that staff in their butchery department sometimes suffered from slash wounds to their stomach and thighs from accidents dealing with meat carcasses, and Sainsbury’s wanted safety equipment for them. Douglas lengthened the original vest to include a thigh-length skirt, and off they went to protect butchers. Here’s Douglas wearing the long apron version (nothing to do with the salmon story!):

Douglas Buchanan armour Times.jpg

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:


And these:


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:


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:


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.