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]


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.