Tag Archives: design

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.

armour-plates-3

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:

armour-plates-2

armour-plates-1

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.

leg-guards

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

police-queue-for-full-metal-jacket

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:

250-vest-could-have-saved-hero-pat

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

This blog is going to be a book!

17 Jan

So, a pause from my usual posts this week, because, big news, this blog is going to be a book! The publishers Unbound have launched our campaign this week, and I am really excited about the possibility of making this book a reality. Here’s the link: https://unbound.com/books/underwater-bike, please support it if you can!

The animal catcher

8 Jan

noose30n-1-web

This is a noose. I don’t know about you, but the idea of putting my head into one of these is not particularly appetising. Now, imagine that you are in the middle of a fight with some threatening creatures who are larger than you, outnumber you and are doing their best to corner you. One of them waves a stick with a noose on it in your direction. Are you likely to voluntarily put your head into it? No, of course not.

Well, a noose was, and probably still is, the standard method for trying to catch a dangerous dog. Here’s that picture of Metropolitan Police dog handler Gary Evans wearing Douglas’s dog armour again:

gary-in-dog-armour-1992

That’s a standard dog catching pole in his hands. Trying to persuade a dangerous dog, probably on the defensive and in distress that it should put it’s head into one of those was slow and difficult, and caused the dog further distress as well as more opportunity for either the dog or the humans to get hurt, or for the dog to escape. Douglas took a look at it and knew that he could do better. He began to sketch new ideas. Here’s his notebook in October 1992:

dog-catcher-sketches

There are a couple of problems that he was trying to overcome. Firstly, the non-appeal of the noose. Secondly, you don’t want to strangle the dog you’re trying to capture, that’s not the aim of the dog team. They needed something firm and strong but also gentle. He threw out the noose idea and began to think along new lines. Here he is a month later:

animal-catcher-early-sketch

The shape was coming together, so it was time to further develop the mechanism:

Animal catcher mech early sketch.jpg

The idea was that if you had a rigid pole with horns that were controlled by a cable through the handle, you could grab at the dog quickly and efficiently and pull the moveable horns closed. As the idea developed, one horn became fixed, making the whole structure stronger. The added gearing meant that even if you pulled really hard on the handle, the horns would not over-close, never strangling the dog. Here’s Douglas with a prototype in this article a couple of years later:

inventor-douglas-gest-us-big-break

It really worked! Bertie, lazy and tolerant, tried it out many times, but even he would not have submitted if he had been in any pain at all. Douglas also realised that the same principle could work on other things.

cuffs

Here’s a sketch of a proposal for handcuffs, because handcuffs have a similar problem to a noose, in that they can easily be pulled too tight, causing pain and injury to people wearing them. Douglas’s cuffs would not over-close, meaning they would be safe to use.

We still have one of the animal catchers, and while filming it just before Christmas, I dared the filmmakers to try it out on my hand. Despite having sat in a shed for a good ten years, the mechanism still worked, and the filmmaking team were able to capture my hand between the horns and pull the mechanism as hard as they could without causing me any pain.

 

 

The person sail

1 Jan

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

person-windsurf-rough-sketches

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

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

fish-and-sail

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

person-with-sail

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

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

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

person-sail-notes-more

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

Finally, he does a proper drawing:

sail

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

Fogging

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.

Fabrications?

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?

No.

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.

Boots for dogs

18 Dec

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

dog-boot

And here’s a prison dog wearing them:

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

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

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

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

bertie-dog-boot-filming

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

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

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

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

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

ive-heard-of-puss-in-boots

 

All the stuff I don’t know

10 Dec

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

wrist-armour-front-left

And these:

leg-guards

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

gary-in-dog-armour-1992

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

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

christine-jennings-dog-armour-article

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

How much do you trust it to work?

1 Dec

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

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

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

dog-training-sleeves

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

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

gary-dog-training-sleeve-smoke-garden

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

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

54-sets-of-dog-training-sleeves

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

Bread and butter money

26 Nov

police-buckles

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

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

A normal belt buckle looks something like this:

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

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

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

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

What does an inventor do with his day?

19 Nov

douglas-in-workshop-at-temeside

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: http://www.directindustry.com/prod/maeder-pressen/product-14224-424328.html (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:

phone-numbers

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?

phone-calls