In through the outfield blog

Neil Infield on business and intellectual property

03 August 2012

The patent for synthetic running tracks

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The athletics events start today at the Olympics, my favourite sport at the games. Something that has helped athletes run faster times is the ability to use rubbery synthetic all-weather tracks rather than grass, or the dreaded cinders which I remember from my schooldays in the 1960s. It really hurt if you fell down.

The 1968 Olympics was the first to use synthetic tracks. To avoid damaging the surface too much running spikes have to conform to rules, with a common one being that the spikes cannot be longer than 6 mm.

3M, the Minnesota-based company, originated such tracks with its Paving material and paving surfacing patent, filed in 1962. The technique involves urethane elastomers being poured in situ and hardening. The drawing page is shown below.

Tartan synthetic running surface patent drawings

The story goes that the head of 3M was a keen horseman, and wanted a rubbery surface so that horses would be less likely to get injured. The patent stresses its possible use on racecourses. The cost turned out to be too high for racecourses with their long circuits, while athletic tracks at 400 metres were shorter. Hence it is mainly used for running tracks.

The trade mark 3M used for the product was Tartan®, presumably in homage to Richard Drew’s Scotch Tape®, who also worked for 3M. The original patent for that product was filed as long ago as 1928 as Adhesive tape. Drew himself was named as one of the three inventors on the 1962 patent -- some 34 years later.

12 July 2012

Timekeeping at Olympic events

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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

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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...

04 April 2012

The London Olympics and intellectual property

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The subject of the London Olympics and intellectual property is a complicated one and this posting merely mentions some interesting materials. Legal advice should always be used when thinking of using the Olympic name and symbols: if you don't have explicit permission, don't use the names or symbols.

The UK has the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act (2006) which sets out harsh penalties for anyone falsely implying a connection with the Olympics.

I like the 39 Olympic logos from 1924 to 2012 page on the Web Designer Depot site, which shows the evolution of design.

Many of these were registered as trade marks or designs. An interesting piece of retro is the 1948 London Olympics poster, which has recently been applied for as a European Trade Mark by the International Olympic Committee as E10575041. It is shown below.

1948 London Olympics logo

32 trade mark registrations have been made by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games through the UK system, such as no. 2551176, where a vast number of goods and services are spelt out, as registrations are for specific goods and services within any of 45 Nice Classification classes. Below is Mandeville, who with Weblock is the official mascot of the Games, as given in the registration -- "this is front" and "this is front/side" are obviously not meant to be part of the trade mark but in theory that is what they are.

UK TM 2551176
There are also registered designs, and the OHIM database for EU-wide protection lists 88 designs by the London Organising Committee.

These include typefaces, to my surprise; the appearance of web pages; and numerous variations such as by colour of the main logo of the Games, such as this one below.

EU design 00894522-0010

There is an official page called Using the brand about correct usage etc.

16 March 2012

Golf ball cleaner inventions

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I came across a golf ball cleaner device the other day when walking across a golf course. Paula explained to us what it was as we approached, and as we looked at it I saw on its side that it was patented. None of us had a camera to take a picture of it, though !

There was PAT. NO. 2807037 and the words Par Aide. This patent was applied for in 1955 by Par Aide Products Company, of St Paul, Minnesota. The title was Golf ball cleaner having a tank with scrubbing means therein. Below is the main drawing.

Golf ball cleaner patent image

It works by pulling up a handle, inserting the golf ball in the receptacle below the handle, and then depressing the handle. This makes the ball go down in a spiral fashion past, as the drawing shows, brushes and (as we could hear) into water. The spiral ensures that the entire ball is cleaned.

I had no idea such devices existed. One way to find more patents on the same subject is to ask for the "citing documents", later patents where the patent examiner cited the Par Aide patent as relevant. Eight, between 1965 and 2003, are cited against it.

Another way is to check the classification, which is for devices for cleaning balls. The Espacenet database lists 287 US patent documents in that class. And that is just on that topic, and mainly post 1920: many novices have no idea how many patents there are.

As for Par Aide, they are still around, and the database lists 10 US patent documents by them. This was their first invention.

 Besides the interest for industrial history generally, these documents would be a useful contributuon to a history of the company. 

28 November 2011

Football goal line technology inventions

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We may be getting closer to using technology to determine goal line decisions in football -- did the ball cross the line or not ?

It has been announced that an independent authority commissioned by FIFA is currently testing nine different systems, and will report in July 2012. FA General Secretary Alex Horne says that the accepted technology could be in place as early as the 2012/2013 season.

It's hard to make a definitive list of relevant inventions, but here is a stab at it, patents on goal line technology which is based on ECLA class A63B71/06B, which is for "decision makers and devices using detection means facilitating arbitration" in sports.

These include a Taiwan origin invention where both the ball and the boundaries of the field are equipped with RFIDs.

The best known contender is probably Hawkeye®, which comes from Roke Manor Research, in Romsey, Hampshire. These are the published patent specifications based on their technology. The image below shows how its triangulation method using multiple viewpoints could be used in cricket. This is the system currently used in tennis and snooker as well as in cricket.

Hawkeye technology image

There is also for example Goalminder, invented by two Bolton Wanderers fans after their team was not allowed a goal, which resulted in the team being relegated, and Cairos GLT, a German system.

30 August 2011

Oscar Pistorius the athlete and his prosthetic legs

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Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete who runs with carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, came last in his 400 metre semi-final at the Athletics World Championships in Korea, with a time of 46.19 seconds, which is still a very good time.

He was born with a congenital condition that left him with lower legs but no feet. When aged 11 months the lower legs were amputated. A serious athlete, he won three gold medals in the 2008 Paralympics.

His presence in competitions for able-bodied athletes, though, has been controversial, as his prosthetic legs are said by many to give him an unfair advantage over the other runners. In 2007 the IAAF amended its rules so as to ban "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device". This was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in May 2008, which ruled that there was no evidence that he had an unfair advantage.

The blades are called Cheetahs or the Flex-Foot®, and are available from Icelandic company Össur. They were invented by Californian Van Phillips. A water-skiing accident in 1976 resulted in his left leg below the knee being amputated. Existing prosthetic legs did not fit well and did not respond as he wished, so he looked for a strong, flexible and light solution. Dale Abildskov, an aerospace composite materials engineer, worked with him to make a carbon fibre prototype. Giving it a “C” shape meant that the properties of carbon fibre could be used to simulate the spring action of a normal foot, allowing users to run and jump.

The video below by Össur shows the innovation in use. 


In 1992 Phillips applied for what became World patent application Attachment construction for prosthesis. Below is the main drawing.

Prosthetic blade leg for athletes patent drawing 
There are numerous patent specifications in Phillips' name for ideas relating to prostheses, as listed here for the American ones.

22 June 2011

Will falling forward get me to the top of Kilimanjaro?

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KilimanjaroWith just a few days to go before my big trip (hopefully) to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, I have been told about a revolutionary new way of walking.

Apparently all I have to do is ‘fall forward’. and I will be at the top without even realising it. This ‘new’ technique is called Chi Walking (with a Chi Running offshoot).

What I find interesting about this idea, is how even the most basic of human activities can be re-invented and turned into  a commercial product or service.

As one of the videos explains, when we are children we run by leaning forward, but by the time we are adults we have unlearned the natural way to move. you can now buy a range of books, ‘five-finger’ shoes, or join classes to re-learn from the experts how to walk or run properly.

I am aware than many runners do get injuries from their activities, especially road running, but my scepticism is still high on whether this whole thing is some kind of Snake oil charm. Try watching this video of Master Stephen Hwa’s Tai Chi Walk Lesson, and see what you think.

However, I am prepared to try pretty much anything reasonable that might aid my path to top of the highest mountain in Africa, so will try it for a while.

Although my climb was not planned to raise money for charity (more to prove I’m not quite over the hill yet), quite a few people have asked if they can sponsor me. justgiving_logo_detailSo I have created a JustGiving page with a choice of charities to donate to if you would like to contribute.

What is Chi?

Master George Xu, our T’ai Chi teacher, asks us to focus on our dantien, our center and to allow all movement to  come from that place. The energy moves from the center into the body and into the  limbs to create movement. Why? Because Chi is stronger than muscles, and movement that comes from Chi is more deeply powerful.

More powerful than muscles? In the West, muscles are almost akin to a god the way we worship them and what they represent. Covers of magazines and TV commercials extol rock hard abs and buns of steel. What is stronger than rock and steel?

In T’ai Chi we quickly learn that muscles are no match for the power of Chi. Like the flow of water that created the Grand Canyon the power of Chi takes you much further and faster than vulnerable muscles whose duration is very short lived.

Your dantien is the best home for your Chi and the best place for you to focus your energy so that you can come from a balanced, whole place in yourself. Your dantien is just below your navel and a few inches in toward your spine. In Chi Running, Chi Walking and Chi Living we encourage all movement, all action, all choices to come from this center, that deep place in yourself that is home to your greatest potential and power.