Roald Dahlâ€™s 1964 book Charlie and the chocolate factory is a fantasy with an Inventing Room for chocolate inventions. Once though, Dahl helped inspire a patented invention that helped many small children. This account is based on details given in an extract from Donald Sturrock's biography of Dahl, Storyteller, published in the Daily Telegraph.
In 1960 the Roald and his wife, actress Patricia Neal, were living with their family in New York City. Four-month old Theo was being pushed in his pram along Madison Avenue by the nanny who at the same time was coping with Theo's sister Tessa and the family dog.
The traffic lights changed and just as she began to cross 85th Street, a taxi came round the corner and crashed into the pram. The driver panicked, and instead of braking stepped on the accelerator. The pram was torn from the nanny's hands and shot into the air before hitting a parked bus. Theo's head took the full impact, and his skull shattered.
In a horrific time for the family, Theo underwent several operations to drain fluid from the head. He went home, and seemed to be recovering. Then he suddenly went blind. A psychiatrist neighbour realised what was happening: the fluid was building up again.
The doctors drained the fluid and installed a valved pump, or "shunt", down into the heart, where the fluid could be reabsorbed by the body. After a while at home Theo's sight was restored. Then his vision went again. The shunt had become blocked. Again and again it happened, with only some of his sight returning. It was unbelievable that the problem could keep recurring.
Dahl tried to understand just what was happening and soon became very knowledgeable on the subject. He recalled a man whom he had known for more than a decade. Toymaker Stanley Wade lived in High Wycombe, back in England. He was a maker of miniature steam engines, with little hydraulic pumps.
Pumps which never got blocked.
Dahl asked Wade if he could build a new shunt to the specifications required. Within a year the Dahl-Wade-Till valve was ready (Till was the brain consultant, brought over from London). It was less than 2 centimetres long, and had six tiny moving steel parts inside it. It was tried on a one-year old child, and worked perfectly. Theo was already on his way to improvement and never needed it, but the new shunt was used for almost 3000 children round the world.
That is what the extract tells us. I can add that a patent for the invention was published in the name of Wade, the Hydrocephalus shunt pump. Here is the main drawing.