Tag Archives: Inventions

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.

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