I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


7 November 2016

A 1913 court case for a patent

I came across an interesting British court case concerning a patent the other day in the newspapers.

The Western Times of the 21 November 1913 reported on a case in the Tiverton County Court, Devon. Mr Elliott of St Michael's Place, Brighton, was charged with not paying for patent window cleaners which had been manufactured for him. £7 6s 4d was claimed. Elliott was a retired Ceylon Civil Service man who had been living in Tiverton.

He called his invention "The Suffragette" and claimed in a circular that it would "put woman on a par with man", as women would not have to lean dangerously far out of windows. Many more details were given.

The court ruled for the plaintiff -- Elliott had to pay up.

The patent is clearly Edward Elliott's GB1908/12568, where he is described as (retired Civilian), of 1, Blundell's Crescent, Tiverton. Only the newspaper gives us the clue that he was from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). A drawing of the device is given below.

It is unusual to be able to prove that an inventor "worked" an invention. Anyone interested in any such evidence for Britain needs to work from newspapers for evidence in any technical field, rather than working from known inventors or s specific field, which rarely pays off. For the USA, the presence of assignees who took over part or all of a patent is often a very useful clue that the other person is both financing and, probably, assisting with getting the invention marketed.

What else of Mr Elliott ? The 1911 census gives, at 2 St Michael's Place, Brighton, gives us the family. He was a "retired Ceylon civilian", 71, married 41 years to Mary Emily. Both they and their daughter had been born at Colombo. As ever, a (quick, in this case) look at a genealogical source gives us some useful information.

Did he make money from this invention ? In this case, who knows.

13 October 2016

Heath Robinson Museum

William Heath Robinson was a British artist who drew extraordinary machines, all from his imagination. He was the UK's Rube Goldberg.

A few years ago I visited Pinner in north London and saw an exhibition on his work. It was delightful. Now the same building, West House, is opening on the 15 October 2016 as a museum dedicated to him (as he had lived nearby) as the Heath Robinson Museum.

There is a detailed article on Heath Robinson from the BBC website. I was alerted to the museum by a clip on the BBC TV showing people who had invented silly ideas -- such as an ironing board which tilts so that the (hot !) iron slides back to you.

However, the clip was spoilt by the presenter at the end suggesting that people send their inventive ideas in to the BBC. When I worked as a librarian in the patents area, private inventors tended to fall into one of two groups: naive inventors, who happily told everyone about their ideas, and those who were so suspicious that while asking for help they refused to give even the slightest hint about what the invention was about, even though I offered them a non-disclosure agreement. Often the first group migrated to the second group after being stung by someone running off with their idea.

If you have what you believe to be a new idea and it appears to fall within the area of patentable inventions, do NOT post your ideas off to anyone without at the least serious undertakings by the other party, preferably together with a non-disclosure agreement signed by them.  Otherwise you are "disclosing" the idea which means that novelty is lost for the invention.

For example, even if a law court accepted that an organisation was looking at your ideas in confidence, explaining the ideas in for example in a film shown to others, or in a lecture, would disclose the ideas and make any patent application null and void. I lost count of the number of times I tried to explain this to the media, as did the Patent Office (now in the UK the Intellectual Property Office), but they never seemed to understand. Oddly enough, they were always fiercely protective of their own rights if you tried using their material elsewhere without permission.

My recommendation is always to take advice. In Europe, try your closest Patent Information Centre; in the USA, try your closest Patent and Trademark Resource Centre.

In cases where you want some help but for some reason a non-disclosure agreement is out of the question, is it possible to explain why you idea is good without explaining how it works ? For example, a well known product could be said to be a cheap but effective way of sealing up gaps in clothes together without using a zipper/ zip, and which is easy to use by those who cannot handle small objects. Hint: it begins with a V.

27 August 2016

Innovators working together

The Daily Telegraph today alerted me to a paper by an academic at Brown University in the USA, Anton Howes.

His The improving mentality: innovation during the British Industrial Revolution, 1651-1851 has a sample of 677 innovators. He found that at least 83% shared innovation, rather than keeping everything to themselves. It looks like a very interesting and important paper.

Some might have done so because of the patent system although that was weak for the period covered. It reminds me of the Isaaac Newton argument that "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Again and again products and processes are improved or cheapened by others coming up with what might be incremental changes.

Nowadays it is normal to have multi-disciplinary teams carrying out research because no one person is likely to have sufficient knowledge or skills to devise a fully workable and cost-efficient solution to a problem. Like Biro, inventor of the first workable ballpoint, whose chemist brother assisted with the ink formulation.

I haven't yet read the full paper (I only heard about it ten minutes ago) but I noticed its comment that between 1765 and 1845 patented inventions were not allowed to win prizes awarded by the Royal Society of Arts. It could be argued that by having a patent you were publicising your invention -- except that until the 1850s that was no systematic printing of patents, although some appeared in magazines, especially from about the 1820s onwards.

22 May 2016

Inventors and saying "thanks" and "sorry"

A couple of months ago I was contacted via e-mail by two strangers, one in the UK and one in the USA, asking for (free) help about their inventions.

The British person's question involved a 15 minute e-mail by me, with lots of detail. I asked to be contacted again when some issues had been resolved. I didn't receive a quick e-mail thanking me, so after a while I sent a further friendly e-mail. Again no response.This has happened a lot to me.

The American, in a fawning e-mail, said that he had questions to ask about his invention and could we skype to discuss them. He should have briefly indicated what they were, really: it's always easier if the nature of the problems are known, and sometimes the person being asked is not the right one. He said that he wanted to skype at a certain time, and said that he would let me figure out what time that would be.

I checked, and he meant he wanted a complete stranger to skype with him, for free, at 2 in the morning.

I replied saying that this was not on. In the circumstances I feel it was a mild rebuke. It only took me a few seconds to figure out that the suggested skype would be at two in the morning, and anyway (I did not mention this) did he assume I would drop everything to skype with him ? Surely he should have asked me for convenient times. He, too, did not reply to say sorry.

Now, some private inventors may think "what's the fuss." The problem is that if complete strangers are asked to do something for free and are not treated with simple courtesy, how will possible business partners be treated ?

I've often had inventors telling me how badly they get treated. Perhaps that was true in some cases, but perhaps the inventor didn't think about the feelings and desires of the person on the other side. Rudeness and arrogance can sadly be coupled together, and it's difficult to negotiate with anyone who possesses either of those qualities.

My suggestion ? Keep to the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated.

9 February 2016

Designs of the Year 2015

Each year London's Design Museum hosts the Designs of the Year exhibition. The 2015 exhibition opened last March but I've only just got around to seeing it (it closes 3 April 2016).

As usual there was an interesting and stimulating mixture of built objects or design concepts from around the world. A few criticisms: I didn't notice any mention of cost, whether to the manufacturer of the consumer. Some excellent ideas have failed because the cost can't fall to the price that consumers are willing (or able) to pay. It often isn't clear if a design is merely a concept or a proven, and available, product. Design is by manufacturing and selling as well as looks and function. And it would be good if it was easy to find more information, such as (dare I say it ?) patent specifications.

There is for example an inflatable airbag jacket by Italian company Dainese, as illustrated here: the D-Air® Street.

There are a number of World patent applications by Dainese concerning inflatable inventions. The idea is that sensors on the fork of a motorcycle anticipate a collision, They send a wireless signal to activators in the cells of the jacket, which inflate in just 45 milliseconds. The jacket is powered by a battery which can be charged using a USB connector. There is a webpage by Dainese about the product, which is already available.

The concept of airbags for motorcycle users is an intriguing one, and I have posted before on the subject, with the Hovding airbag helmet.

Another invention is a new kind of coffee maker, as illustrated below.

This is Miito, by Danish designers Nils Chudy and Jasmina Grase. Most people grossly overfill kettles and hence boil far more water than they actually use in the hot drink. Even if they keep to the recommended filling line, they are making enough hot water for two cups and not just one. This device has an induction base which uses electromagnetism to heat the base of the rod while it is inside the cup and hence the liquid contents. It powers down when the water boils, or the rod is removed. I like the cool simplicity of the idea. Of course, it won't work if you are making cups for more than one person. You can reserve one for 25 Euros.

The Google autonomous car was also there. I must admit to doubts about this concept, if only because if there is a crash, who is liable, as no one is actually driving the car ?

The exhibition encourages people to vote for their favourite design, with totals given on a board. When I visited the most popular was The Ocean Cleanup, by three Dutch designers. Huge booms attached to the seabed use ocean currents to sweep pieces of plastic and other debris to a containment area 40 km long, shaped like a giant V, where the material is compressed and later removed. While the idea of dealing with this growing problem is laudable, I wonder at the cost if the seabed is deep below the surface, and about hazards to shipping. Still, I hope it works. There is a lot of information about this solution at The Ocean Cleanup website, which says that a trial in the North Sea will take place in 2016.

If you are near London, I strongly encourage visiting the exhibition and letting a flow of ideas pour over you.

3 February 2016

Inventing a better mousetrap (book review)

During the nineteenth century the American patent system required the submission of a model so that inventors could secure patents. Inventing a better mousetrap, by Alan and Ann Rothschild, tells their story through the models that they have collected into their own museum, which has 4,000 examples.

The British patent system never had such a requirement, although some were still submitted. These are in the Science Museum in London but, I was told when I enquired, could not be readily identified. The American models had a chequered career and many were lost or dispersed.

So, what do I think of the book ? I thought that they did a superb job, exhibiting the whole world in miniature. The passion that they have for the subject is evident. Numerous models are illustrated with colour photographs and a description of how the invention worked, The detail, wow the detail ! The book is packed with the kind of quirky details that I, and I'm sure many others, find fascinating. I thought from my career as a patent specialist at the British Library that I knew a lot about the old American patent system but I kept on learning new things here.

Here's one of the illustrated models.

The book begins with a chapter outlining the history of the patent models, including how Alan first became interested in them, coming across them by chance at a sale in 1994. Then there are 22 themed chapters by topic -- I loved the idea of a chapter on Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a joke on a federal law enforcement agency. There are even detailed instructions on how to reproduce six of the models.

Knowing the story of how Abraham Lincoln, the only President to hold a patent, had whittled a model out of wood before the eyes of his law partner, I had assumed that most models were crude, simple things made from wood which showed the general look. Judging by the models in this book, many were carefully made and even worked properly, and were made out of a variety of metals. They are works of art, so those interested in art as well as those in the history of technology will find this book fascinating. Here's a sample page, on cigars.

To add to the interest, the models had tags giving the patent numbers so that the printed patents can be referred to, and the identity of the inventor known. That greatly enhances their interest. What is unlikely to be known is if the item was actually made, let alone was it a success, as the patents don't tell us that.

I liked the book so much as a PDF that I ordered a copy which is now on my bookshelf. Copies are available from for example the UK Amazon website.

The Rothschild-Petersen Patent Model Museum itself can be visited in upstate New York.  Pity, I'm unlikely ever to make it there.

13 January 2016

Brick-laying robots

Increasingly we are seeing repetitive tasks carried out by workers being replaced by robotics. This can even involve skilled workers, such as bricklayers. Mark Pavic of Western Australia, an aeronautic and mechanical engineer has with a colleague devised a brick-laying machine.

The story is told in a Gizmag story, Brick-laying robot can build a full-sized house in two days. The robot, Hadrian, can lay 1000 bricks an hour. Pavic's brother Mike is CEO of Fastbrick Robotics who intend to launch a commerical version in 2017.

It was as long ago as 2005 that the world patent application for the concept was published, WO2007/076581. It was published in 2007 so anyone interested in the technology could see the full details of how it works. Below is the main drawing.

So, how could you have found such a patent document ? The classification is based on the idea of "manipulators" which could be run together with the word brick* to get a good list of relevant material. B25J9, programme-controlled manipulators, looks particularly attractive.

Once you know of a patent document, you can check to see what happened to it in specific jurisdictions. In this case US8166727 was granted protection in 2012. The pan-European granted document, EP1977058B, was published in 2014, and the documents to do with its allowance are given in the relevant European Register entry.

Anyone wondering at the time if the patents would be allowed could have looked at the prior art as listed by patent examiners -- this is given as "cited documents" on the left hand side of the bibliographic entry for the European A document.  22 are listed for that one. It might be thought logical that all prior art cited is given there, but no, each "also published as" document needs to be clicked on and a fresh window appears. Some countries, such as the USA, do not list cited patents at the initial A stage but only at the granted, B stage.

Just as you can find the prior art by clicking on "cited documents", you can find those that later referred back to the one you know of by clicking on "citing documents". This tells us that none cited the European; but for the US A and also the B document there are 9, and for the original WO document there are 6. You would have to compare the lists to figure out which were on both lists -- they are likely to be particularly significant.

Those with specialist knowledge of the area would then have to interpret the results, so long as those who understand the published patent documentation and its associated patent procedure can explain what to look out for and implications. Both are needed. When I worked in the area, it always surprised me how many inventors thought that they could do it all themselves, or just spend 20 minutes or so looking through the patents before committing to thousands of pounds of expenditure and huge amounts of time. Rather like carrying out brain surgery on yourself, perhaps ?

11 January 2016

Unventional: Ideas too good to patent, book review

Some books about inventions are serious and are designed to enlarge knowledge. Some books about inventions inspire.

And then other books are just plain fun. Madcap, even.

Unventional: Ideas too good to patent by Tom Giesler is definitely in the last category, with madcap humour and superb drawings of Rube Goldberg-like (or, in the UK, Heath Robinson) inventions which are just a bit wacky. They are in the same style as many real patent draftsmen working for inventors to show how the inventions work. This is not a coincidence: besides being an artist, Giesler is himself a patent draftsman. And he even lives in California -- isn't that the place where the crazies come from ? (Just kidding, my wife grew up there).

When I was a patent specialist at the British Library, I had to emphasize how serious and important inventions were, and keep a straight face when someone explained a silly idea. No longer ! Freeze-cones, diaper bowls, burger sheaths -- inventions no one is likely to really need are seriously explained, thought through and illustrated here just as much as worthwhile inventions are explained in the Real Thing on numerous databases. It's the sort of book I'd have loved to have written if I had any artistic talent at all.

Below is a delightful, short trailer about the book.

The book can be bought through the Unventional website.

1 December 2015

Ocado, the UK online grocer

Ocado is the leading UK online grocer. Its business consists in trying to make money from packing groceries and related items for customers and delivering it to their homes,

I remember being skeptical about their business model when they started in 2000, founded by three former merchant bankers from Goldman Sachs. From 2002 they worked in partnership with Waitrose, an upmarket supermarket chain, and in 2010 they were floated on the stock exchange. I see that in 2014 on a revenue of £948 million they had a razor-thin profit before tax of £7 million -- a margin of under 1%.

Clearly, controlling their costs is crucial as there is only just so much that customers are willing to pay as a premium for having their groceries delivered. They only have two warehouses: one in Hertfordshire, and the other in Warwickshire. Inventions have been used to ensure an efficient environment for collecting the groceries to fulfil the orders.

This is a list of British patent specifications by Ocado.

Here are a few of the drawings. A picking station:

This is for units that move in two directions above the storage units:

At the time of writing, eight out of ten documents found had as the inventor, or one of the inventors, a Swede called Lars Lindbo. Very often, when a company's technology is of interest, it turns out that there are one or two significant inventors who might perhaps be poached.

Their website, too, is simply a tool for ordering groceries and supplies, and has constant discount offers. It has features such as remembering what was ordered before so it is easy to reorder. When  you are ready to check out you can select a time slot for delivery, 6 in the morning to 10 at night, whichever is best for you -- at no extra charge if you can be flexible by picking a time when the van is in your area. Disclosure: we have used it ourselves, with deliveries at say noon -- one of the perks of being retired.

29 November 2015

The problems of private inventors: "New Scientist" in 1979-80

In looking up a reference recently I came across a couple of articles on British private inventors in New Scientist dating back to 1979-80 (freely available on Google Books).

They were about the frustrations experienced by inventors trying to get their ideas commercialised. Things haven't changed: my career as a patent librarian began in 1987 and ended with my retirement in 2013, and complaints about a lack of enthusiasm for private inventors' ideas were a constant refrain.

The articles reminded me that many inventors would say to me that the government should pay for evaluating, promoting and often financing their inventions. Strangely, none of them volunteered that the government would then deserve a big cut of any profits for taking such risks. I always felt that many private inventors were unable to understand the feelings and motivations of those on the other side of a bargaining table, and that success was very unlikely without some empathy.

The articles I found were both by Adrian Hope, who in 1980 revealed himself to be Barry Fox, a journalist who specialised in electronics and who took a great interest in the patent system. They are It's a wonderful idea, but... (1 June 1978, 576-581) and Death of an idea (13 September 1979, 794-797, with comments by inventors in the 27 September issue, page 1000, Hope springs eternal).

They make entertaining reading, if it is rather frustrating to see good ideas that at the time at least never got anywhere. The first article was promoting the idea of an organisation that would "provide desperately needed funds and encouragement" for selected inventions by private inventors. The problem, surely, would be to identify the possible winners: if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.

The article began with Hope explaining that he wrote to the inventors of 65 patented inventions which had been profiled by him in New Scientist. 29 of them were still in force (occasional renewal fees were required), 20 had lapsed from protection, the remainder were too new to be subject to renewal fees. Only 33 replied, although Hope used the latest addresses as listed in the Patent Register.

Of the 28 replies relating to "small" inventions, 8 were handwritten, and many were rambling and mentioned irrelevant matters (I always reminded inventors that no manufacturer would be interested in how or why you thought of the idea...). Hardly business-like, and I liked Hope's comment that inventors can be their own worst enemies. What they had in common was that they were frustrated by the "brickwalls" in trying to get the idea into production or use.

One such invention was GB1288677, Means for protecting water pipes from bursting under freezing conditions, a simple means of doing just that. Another was a musical potty to help mentally disabled children, GB1409803, Chamber pot. That may sound amusing to some, but a woman inventor later made a lot of money from such a device that talked to the children to encourage, ahem, good aim. This is a list of mostly relevant patent documents on talking or musical potties.

The article concluded by recommending a scheme by which prizes of £5000 would be awarded after evaluation. The National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) had a somewhat similar role but for larger-scale inventions, and it was disquieting that many inventors said at the time that they had never head of it.

The second article was an interesting followup. The NRDC was only interested in strongly protected inventions, often not the case for small inventions, and they needed to be potentially valuable. Their investment in the hovercraft had not earned money, and apparently it was only their investment in patents in cephalosporin drugs which had made it profitable. Which confirms my point that it is very hard to pick out the "winners". Perhaps only inventions which save money for the user or the taxpayer, or which help the environment, should be picked ?

The NRDC is no more, and Nesta, founded in 1998, is the UK agency which comes closest to it, although with a wider remit. Its Our history pages list some of its achievements.

There is also the idea of a Royal Academy of Invention, for evaluating inventions, which has been promoted by Trevor Baylis, the "clockwork radio" inventor. He has not made much progress with the concept.

So, business as usual...