Tag Archives: inventor

In his own words

7 Mar

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Douglas’s death, and I find that today I am struggling to think of anything to tell you. So, in a break from the usual, I’m going to let Douglas speak for himself.

Best Frank in colour

Douglas really loved birds, and in fact the afternoon he died he and mum had been watching birds outside his window. This is Frank, a crow that Douglas drew, based on the community of jackdaws that lived near one of their houses. Frank was going to star in a series of children’ books that Douglas never quite got round to writing. Douglas loved to write, and had written plays that were performed by his local drama group back in the 1980s. In 2006 he decided that he should start a blog about what it was like to be an inventor. The blog never happened, but I have the first draft post that he wrote. So, here’s Douglas in his own words (spelling mistakes and erratic punctuation all his own):

8th Sept 2006

I thought I would start a blog. It may be read by 14 people with the possibily of the paper from the download stuffed into a crack in the wall of a Hebridean croft or shredded and used as bedding by Henrietta the Hamster in West Brom    at least I can console myself its done some good

I am an inventor. It is my idea, no, the purpose of this blog is to give the world @ large (and Henrietta the Hamster, of West Brom) a flavour of the life I lead. There are several types of inventor   you could be a gifted amateur operating from a garden shed or one of a large research team or midway like me with a small workforce of 1 and a large workshop/studio

Let’s start with today. Up @ 6.30 Breakfast @ 7.00 Bowl of muesli toasted rye bread and honey. Let me just stop there why is it that American shops only stock clear runny honey spread it on the toast or bread and 3 minutes later there is a small sticky stream of honey running up your arm and now your fingers are covered in the stuff   Little rant over, back to breakfast, as I was saying. Toast & honey a glass of milk and I mustn’t forget the pills 5 in the morning    Reason:- Parkinson’s disease, but we will talk about this another time, suffice to say its a bit of a bugger    Back to the table pick up a banana & chuck it into old fashioned leather brief case (really must clean it out soon) At this point my wife Pat could well appear and I am off to work in the trusty Citroen Zantia estate I drive the 7 miles or so to work. I used to use the bicycle but its too dangerous   I am convinced most drivers have never seen a bike before, either that or I am invisible.

Arrive @ 8.10     Lyn had arrived @ 8.00 I shall tell you about Lyn another time   she is a real treasure. The workshop which I rent consists of a foyer with a round table & four chairs and a reasonable carpet     Right follow me we will go up stairs   thats the loo on your left   By the way when you walked through the front door there was another loo on your right    Follow me along the passage     the book keepers office on your left and my office/studio in front, yes its an airy room with windows on 3 sides a drawing board a computer and another round table with 4 chairs and two desks and a CD player which I play constantly the same track sometimes over & over again  I am playing Breaking Benjamin We are not alone and have been for some weeks there are 3 really good tracks, no idea what their called

Phone calls

Down stairs thro the large fire door you are now confronted with a long corridor   First door on left a room with a press, a bending machine (for sheet) and a set of hand rollers and adjoining is an underused office    Continuing down the passageway Kitchen/canteen on your right on your left 4 computerised sewing machines

Sewing machines

and a bloody great big green net from floor to ceiling enclosing 20sqr metres  Up to July this year we were testing golf clubs which I designed and the large red steel lump in the middle is a, I should say was a robotic arm  the ball was struck with a head speed of Appx 100mph and a special camera takes 2 shots within a nano second and gives you a computer read out of the shot distance – height-hook-fade spin, a nice piece of kit but the system has gone to Canada that’s another story

I think we will pause here and continue the workshop tour another time that is if you are still interested.

Normal service will resume next week.


What does an inventor do with his day?

19 Nov


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:


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?