In through the outfield blog

12 posts from July 2012

23 July 2012

Leeds Public Library and its help for inventors

Last week I stayed in Leeds overnight after giving a talk about the “common problems facing inventors” to the Leeds Inventors Group.

The venue was Leeds’ main library, where their Business and Patents Information Service is located. Here’s a photo of Ged Doonan, one of the experts in the service, with me (holding a glass) just before the meeting. Not sure why we are looking so serious !

Steve van Dulken at Leeds talk

I enjoyed the meeting, which was me talking about problem areas that I’ve frequently noticed over the years when dealing with inventors. Perhaps at its simplest you must plan what you want to do and how to do it, and be business-like. It’s also a big problem if you are not knowledgeable in the business sector – it regularly surprises me when inventors brush aside ignorance of the industry they want to go into. Presumably they have no objection, if they need open heart surgery, to a novice carrying out the operation.

We had a lively discussion and could have gone on for twice the length of the two-hour meeting. I was happy that both Ged and his colleague Stef Stephenson were there as hosts, as it’s so important that innovators understand that expert help in information is a vital starting point. The library has an active programme of events and activities such as one to one advice meetings.

I had time for a quick look around at the old buildings in the town centre and the new developments along the Aire. Believe it or not, I walked around with a smile on my face – I found it so interesting ! Even the sun shone in our cloudy, damp summer.

Yorkshire has a long industrial tradition and some famous inventions come from the county. Leeds itself has contributed the classic flat-bed mousetrap, with James Henry Atkinson’s GB13277/1899...

Mousetrap patent image
..and also the Spirograph® toy by Denys Fisher.

Spirograph patent image

Nearby York has the Portaloo® by Portasilo Limited...

Portaloo patent drawing
...and also Aero® aerated chocolate, by Rowntree and Company, dating back to the late 1930s.

Aero chocolate patent drawing

Cleverly, the company used that patent to protect a chocolate product “in the form of a rigid cellular or honeycomb structure readily visible to the eye”, while another patent covered the method of manufacture. When the patents expired they had a powerful position, since sustained by the well-known trade mark.

18 July 2012

The Brompton® folding bicycle

The concept of the folding bicycle, so that it can easily be carried or placed in a train or in a car, has been around for at least a century. The best known model is without doubt the Brompton®.

It was a redesign of Harry Bickerton’s Bicycles patent, which was applied for back in 1972. The folding mechanism is illustrated below.

Bickerton bicycle patent drawing

The summary of the invention reads:

A toggle clamp for securing two hingedly interconnected portions 12, 15 of a frame member of a foldable bicycle in in-line relationship comprises a pair of arms 42 pivoted to a hinge part on the portion 15 and to respective flanges of a channel-section member 44 carrying rollers 46 engageable within recesses 48 on a hinge part on the portion 12 to secure the portions 12, 15.

As so often the invention came about as a result of frustration – in this case, about having to use a heavy folding bicycle when commuting. His invention has been described as the first genuinely portable, folding bicycle. It was made of aluminium so as to make it lighter (it weighed 7.7 kg). It was manufactured in the UK between 1971 and 1991, and over 600,000 were made. The son, Mark, has an interesting Bickerton Portables website.

I see that a Taiwan company, Mobility Holdings Limited, recently registered Bickerton Bicycle as a UK trade mark, clearly hoping there is life in the name yet.

The model was superseded by the Brompton bicycle, which was a deliberate modification, and more successful.

Having left university with an engineering degree, Andrew Ritchie first worked in computing and then, liking being his own boss, became a landscape gardener. He met by chance a backer of the Bickerton folding bicycle and, looking at its design, thought he could improve it.

The folding of the Bickerton involved hinging it so that the wheels faced each other with, on the outside, the chain and the chainwheel. As the chainwheel was the dirtiest part of the bicycle, Richie thought that this was undesirable. His redesign of the bicycle avoided this and involved a folding technique so that it shrinks in size in both dimensions. In 1976 he filed for a patent.

In 1979 Ritchie filed for his Folding bicycle patent.

The applicant in both cases was his Brompton Bicycle Company, and they do seem very similar. It continues to be a familiar sight on London streets, decades on, and looks like this when in use.

Brompton bicycle patent drawing

14 July 2012

Google's driverless cars

Google has been road testing a driverless car, and so I had a look for its relevant patent specifications. They are controlled by computers processing a combination of mapping data, radar, laser sensors and video feeds. The vehicles used are Toyota Prius hybrids, and 200,000 miles have been covered without an accident in Nevada. Sebastian Thrun, who was behind the Google Streetview project, has been behind it, if only because it uses some of the technology.

These are the ones that I’ve traced.

Transitioning a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode.

Traffic signal mapping and detection, drawing shown below.

Traffic signal patent drawing by Google

Zone driving.

Diagnosis and repair for autonomous vehicles.

System and method for predicting behaviors of detected objects.

Here's a video on the project.


The 1939-40 New York's World Fair had the Futurama exhibit at the General Motors pavilion with a ride through the "world of tomorrow", with the landscape including autonomous vehicles moving steadily in formation on wide roads. It was supposed to happen in 20 years' time. Many experts say that driverless cars have a much better chance this time.

12 July 2012

Calling all dyslexic entrepreneurs

The Business & IP Centre is hosting a research placement for Sally Ann Clarke, an MA student from the University of Brighton. She is looking to find entrepreneurs and business people who are dyslexic. Below is her blog post about the project:

Sally Ann ClarkeMany thanks to the British Library for agreeing to host my research project.

First of all, something about me. I started my career as a qualified librarian in Manchester Public Libraries, and since then I have had a variety of roles including managing an independent bookshop. This gave me retail and business experience but also an interest in business information. I decided to return to the library profession and I am now studying for an MA in Information Studies at the University of Brighton.

For my dissertation I am researching dyslexic entrepreneurs and business information. My choice of research topic came from bringing various ideas together. I read the Cass Business School’s research by Dr Logan that entrepreneurs have a significantly higher incidence of dyslexia than in corporate management and the general population. I also visited the Business and IP Centre and noticed that many of their services are aimed at entrepreneurs. I then wondered if dyslexic entrepreneurs had specific business information needs.

I also have an insight into some of the issues dyslexic entrepreneurs have, as I am dyslexic myself. I understand that many people do not realize they are dyslexic although they may have an inkling that they are ‘different’. I didn’t find out myself until I studied for a part-time University Certificate in Creative Writing eight years ago. I am now aware of the difficulties I have, and have learnt some strategies to try and overcome them, but now I am becoming aware of some of the ‘advantages’ such as good verbal communication, lateral thinking and creativity. These ‘advantages’ are perhaps why someone with dyslexia becomes an entrepreneur in the first place.


And there are many examples of successful dyslexic entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Kelly Hoppen,  Duncan Bannatyne from Dragon’s Den and Tom Pellereau, winner of last year’s The Apprentice.

However, I need your help! If you are dyslexic and have used the Business and IP Centre, if you think you may be dyslexic or if you know a dyslexic entrepreneur please do get in touch. I would love to hear from you. My email is

Timekeeping at Olympic events

Swiss company Omega has been the official Olympic timekeeper on 25 occasions since the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, where as the first such timekeeper they supplied 30 stopwatches.

Previously, officials simply turned up with their own stopwatches. Omega was able to supply stopwatches that could time to a 1/10 of a second, which was twice as good as earlier watches.

Technology has moved on since then in many ways to enable more accuracy and extra features, as explained on Omega's Highlights of Olympic timekeeping website.

That site points out a number of firsts. These include the first photo finish camera, in 1949; the first electronic timer to be used in 1952 Games in Helsinki; in 1961 enabling the times of competitors to be superimposed on television screens; the 1968 Games in Mexico City the first to have all-electronic timekeeping in all sports, hence no more officials holding stopwatches; the 1984 Games in Los Angeles was the first with pressure-sensitive false start recorders for athletics and swimming together with loudspeakers for the starting signal behind each block; GPS was first used for sailing in the 1996 Games in Atlanta; and Sydney in 2000 was the first with real-time results going up on the Internet.

Using touch or contact-pads in the Olympics to record officially accepted times in swimming dates to the 1968 Games at Mexico City. 

Previously, each lane had three judges standing at the end of the pool to record the times of each swimmer with stop watches plus presiding judges, who would watch from the side. In the 1960 Games in Rome, there was a problem deciding on the results in the 100 meter free-style swim. John Devitt of Australia and Lance Larson of the USA finished almost together, but most of the audience, the sports reporters, and Larson’s jubilant pose as seen in photos suggested that the American had won. Devitt even congratulated Larson.

The three judges in Larson’s lane gave him a faster time than those in Devitt's lane, yet the presiding judges ruled that Devitt had won with an identical time to Larson – 55.2 seconds.

This was despite the evidence of the backup, non-official electronic system. This recorded 55.10 for Larson and 55.16 for Devitt.

Perhaps to prevent such a problem recurring, Omega developed improved technology to ensure that electronic timing would be regarded as acceptable. The earlier attempts, according to the Omega patents, involved the swimmers touching pneumo-electric tubes which would send a signal. They were described as expensive, high-maintenance, complicated and slow. You also had to make quite a lot of pressure for the system to be activated. The system used at Rome was presumably along these lines.

The new system involved compressible contact cables that would send an electric signal, with the patent titled Finishing-contact system for timekeeping competitions. No doubt it has been improved since.

However, a problem emerged in the 2008 Games at Beijing. The American Michael Phelps beat Serb Milorad Cavic in the 100 metres butterfly by 0.01 of a second. Underwater photographs taken 1/1000 of a second apart were used to determine that although Cavic touched the wall first, Phelps still won. The contact pad was 12 mm thick. To register a finish, the swimmer had to push it in to a depth of 2 mm. Apparently Phelps had been told how the technology worked, and had pushed sufficiently hard. Again there was a problem with activating the system, as noted all those years ago by Omega.

This is a list of (mostly) relevant US patents by Omega for recording times etc.

10 July 2012

The invention of starting blocks

Starting blocks for use by sprinters are taken for granted now, but for a number of years they were rejected for official records as an unfair use of technology.

In 1927 George Bresnahan of Iowa filed for what became his Foot support patent, in which he talks of “what might be termed a starting block”. I believe this to be the first such patent, and by 1929 it was being used -- as anyone setting a record using them had the record rejected. At the time, the accepted method for getting ready to run was digging little holes in the cinder track and sticking your fingers in them. Below is the drawing from the patent.

Starting blocks patent image

It was not until 1937 that the IAAF accepted their use, so that they could be used in the next Olympics -- London in 1948. Pages 130-131 of the IAAF Competition Rules govern their usage. About one tenth of a second is saved by using starting blocks, it has been estimated.

London in 2012 is less than three weeks away...

09 July 2012

Patented electronic cigarettes

Recently a busload of passengers were detained by police on a motorway when someone used an electronic cigarette, as reported by the BBC.

This certainly gave publicity to the concept of trying to quit by using a device that delivers the impression and sensation of smoking, usually with nicotine. According to the Wikipedia article on electronic cigarettes "The device's components usually include a small liquid reservoir, a heating element, and a power source, which may be a battery or a wired USB adapter."

The article cites the first patent as by Herbert Gilbert. This is the Smokeless non-tobacco cigarette, applied for in 1963. A list of patent specifications in the relevant class published through the PCT "World" system is here.

I have before me an example of one that was recently handed to me outside a railway station. A pen-like device, encased in a clear plastic case, the wrapping states that it contains nicotine to the equivalent of 60 cigarettes. The name is Freedom e-cigs, and boasts of being the "UK's top e-cig." According to the website, a good point in its favour is "good throat kick", which sounds very odd to this confirmed non-smoker.

As so often, the company missed a trick by not asserting the use of the trade mark as registered by using the familar ® icon. UK trade mark 2578582 was registered in July 2011. While not required, it  shows that the company is determined to protect its intellectual property. Here is the full trade mark.

Freedom electronic cigarette trade mark

06 July 2012

Talk at Leeds Inventors Group

I will be giving a talk to the Leeds Inventors Group on the 18 July at 6 pm. The title is "The common problems that many inventors face".

The event (at Leeds Central Library) is free and open to all.

Discussion will center on issues such as the right price point for a product, unrealistic expectations of licensing fees, and other problems that face, particularly, the novice in this very complex field.

I haven’t been to the centre of Leeds for many years, and am looking forward to seeing the business and patent information service in Leeds – the librarians who provide assistance to innovation in the region. In my previous visits they were in premises in the east of the city.

As ever I am looking forward to it ! Should be fun and stimulating.