In through the outfield blog

Neil Infield on business and intellectual property

10 January 2013

Transport for London and patents, designs and trade marks

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This post is about intellectual property by Transport for London and its predecessors and marks 150 years today of the London Underground. Congratulations !

From 1908 onwards there was a conscious attempt to provide what would nowadays be called a corporate identity, using initially what became this famous icon for the Underground


and this was reinforced as more lines were added. By using it as a trade mark, numerous items can be sold, as in a European trade mark registration in 2004 for named goods and services in numerous classes, some rather surprising (see Class 03 for example).

Some early attempts at the logo are still protected, as opposed to having been allowed to lapse, possibly because they are still selling souvenirs, and possibly to prevent others from using the logos. An example is British trade mark 548799, applied for in 1934, and shown below.

 1934 London transport trade mark

British trade mark 2103551 sounds rather unusual – the registration of Pantone 485 as “the predominant colour of the coloured surface of a passenger transport bus.” The famous red, that is – registered in Class 39 for, specifically, transporting bus passengers in London.

Turning to designs, there are three British designs currently registered for the appearances of buses and all for “Structure for use as a commercial outlet”, according to the title. These can be found here. Click on the logos and then on the Formal Reps to see the detailed drawings.

I suspect that the old Harry Beck maps may have been registered as designs but a long search through the National Archives design holdings would have been needed. Does anyone know the answer ?

And then there are patents. In 1984 London Underground applied for a Fare collection system which was a customer operated ticket machine. Page 68 shows the way the system worked – coins in, tickets out, etc. Provision was made for data to be collected centrally. I am guessing this is the basically the method used today.

Most patents relating to the Underground or buses are probably in the name of the manufacturers and hence harder to find. There are just five patents in the name of London Underground, from 1984 onwards.

Of course, private individuals can always join in. In 1920 Fountaine Burrell, an electrical engineer from Sydenham, London, applied for British patent 176163, which is specially marked dominoes to play a game based on the London Underground map – read it to find how it works. Perhaps he worked in the system itself. Two of the drawings are shown below.

Dominoes based on London Underground game
Something that could be protected as copyright would be the look of the floors and the seating on trains and buses. For a long time the seats have been in a variety of colours, while the train floors consist of sealed grey material mixed with scraps of yellow and white paper. I am told the reason is that if staining occurs it is much less noticeable than if the surface was a uniform colour.

03 December 2012

Dragons’ Den: Boatbox®, the roofbox that converts to a boat

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In the 3 December episode, last of the series, Mark Tilley had invented the Boatbox®, a vehicle roofbox that converted into a boat by removing it and turning it over. He was asking for £100,000 in return for 16% of equity. His company is called Boatbox.

He said that he had filed a patent application and that lawyers were doing the searches looking for prior art and they believed it to be the first product of its kind in the world.

I’m not sure if “product” meant a commercially available product or if it meant that nothing similar existed. A five minute search by me in the free Espacenet database found over half a dozen roofboxes that could convert into a boat, though they were somewhat different in their design. They all seemed to involve parts that had to be fitted together, or unfolded, instead of simply inverting the roofbox.

An example is Folding boat that converts to a car top carrier and storage container, with its main drawing shown below.

Folding boat converting to roof top carrier patent image

Tilley spoke of the price being £595 with the actual costs being £250. By investing in new machinery, £120 of that cost would be removed, leaving a better margin.

Theo Paphitis, a keen boater, was very tempted to make an offer but felt that the equity offered wasn’t good enough, and decided not to invest.

20 August 2012

The Hovding® airbag helmet invention

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Two Swedish women have designed an airbag helmet as a university project. It is meant for cyclists. Terese Alstin and Anna Haupt had their World patent application System and method for protecting a bodypart published as long ago as May 2007. Below is the main drawing.

Airbag helmet patent drawing

The Hövding® (“Chieftain” in Swedish) is a collar containing an airbag, helium as the inflating agent, and a sensor including gyroscopes and accelerometers. It only looks rather like a helmet when inflated. A USB port is used to charge it, and the act of putting it on activates it. This is quoted from Wired in the Guardian article, Would you trust an airbag helmet ?

Priced at about £300, it is hoped that the helmet will be on sale in the Spring of 2013. The Hovding® website looks like a fashion shoot, reflecting perhaps the fact that the designers are women. The site mentions that there is a Swedish law that cyclists under the age of 15 must wear a helmet, and that there was the possibility of extending it to adults. This dismayed the inventors and many others, who thought helmets impractical, awkward, etc. The inventors said that the product needed to change, to in effect an invisible bicycle helmet. I was pleased to see this -- they were telling their story, accompanied by their photos.

This video clip shows the product in action.


18 July 2012

The Brompton® folding bicycle

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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

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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.

11 April 2012

Terrafugia's "roadable aircraft" invention

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Terrafugia has published patent specifications for a "roadable aircraft". It flew for the first time on the 23 March. The idea of an airplane that can then take to the roads has long been a dream.

Based in Massachusetts, and using MIT trained engineers, the company published in 2007 their PCT "World" application for a Roadable aircraft with folding wings and integrated bumpers and lighting. The main drawing is shown below.


Terrafugia road using aircraft patent image

The initial pages discuss the problems of an aircraft that can also be used as a road vehicle. How do you protect the propellers from damage from debris thrown up from the road, for example. The vehicle uses a "pusher" propeller, at the back, rather than the usual "puller" at the front to help with this problem. The drawings shows the vehicle with folded wings about to enter a garage after sending a signal to open the doors.

The USPTO published a patent based on this application, US 7938358. There were 84 patents cited against it as prior art, which included what the inventors thought to be the earliest forerunner, the wonderfully intriguing Combination vehicle. Felix Longobardi was an Italian living in Chicago when, in 1918, he applied for his patent for a vehicle that could go underwater as well.

In 2012 the company published improvements in its PCT application Roadable aircraft and related systems.

The company is clearly excited. A video of the vehicle in action is given below. 


The cost will be $279,000, so sadly not that affordable, but 95 people so far have made a deposit. The company hopes to sell 500 annually. Apparently the CEO has dreamt of the idea since he watched the 1960s TV cartoon The Jetsons, where George Jetson commuted in a flying car.

02 February 2012

SolarLite road studs and Cats Eyes®

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Cats Eyes® reflective road studs have been around since the 1930s, but SolarLite road studs use solar power to improve on them by providing permanent lights, and not reflected light.

The story goes that Percy Shaw of Halifax, Yorkshire was driving one foggy night and was prevented from going off the unlit road by seeing his headlights reflected in a cat's eyes. Actually there's another story -- only the gleam of the tram rails helped him. In 1935 he applied for his Improvements relating to blocks for road surface marking patent, with its main drawings shown below.

Cats Eyes road studs
Two transparent marbles are placed underneath a raised stud so that they reflect headlights, providing a gleaming path for drivers at night. Technically, they form a bi-convex lense. These make the headlight beams converge, while the light is bounced back as a single beam to the driver by a concave aluminium backing behind the marbles.

Ingeniously, the design means that the occasional driver who goes over the stud presses the marbles down, so that any rainwater that has gathered beneath clean the marbles as they come in contact with a stationary wiper.

According to an article in the Manchester Guardian (14 February, 1958) they were placed 12 yards apart, 4 yards in dangerous areas such as curves or hillsides, and cost £180 a mile. The casing of metal and hardened rubber weighted 10 lb. (about 4 kg.). The Wikipedia article on Percy Shaw says that the wartime blackout greatly boosted their usage. 

Cats Eyes® continue to be widely used in the UK. With the growing interest in reducing the use of street lights -- and their absence in many countryside roads -- a British company has introduced SolarLite road studs, where solar power is used to make a continuous beam. Astucia is part of the Clearview Traffic Group and is based at Bicester, Oxfordshire. The company claims that they provide ten times as much light as Cats Eyes® and usage cuts nighttime accidents by 70%. The video below shows how it would work.


More details are given at the Astucia website, including a link to a map of where they have already been installed in the UK and Ireland. It reminds me of the growing trend in putting solar panels on "street furniture" to power or light them. The company provides a variant for use on footpaths or cycle paths.

Astucia/ Clearview's World patent applications on road studs and the like are listed here.

16 December 2011

Google's patent for a self-driving car

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Google was granted on the 13 December a US patent for a driverless car, titled Transitioning a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode.

The BBC has an intereting story about the features of the invention. The patent was applied for in May and so took only 7 months to get granted, which is amazingly fast (3 or 4 years would be fairly quick). It is a strange field for the company to be working in.

The list of documents in the file wrapper for this patent, from Public PAIRS, shows that on the 5 November Google stated that they were not intending to secure a patent in a foreign country that published applications 18 months from the original filing. This means -- provided that the technology is really new -- that Google has surrendered monopoly rights over the technology in the patent outside the USA.

Anyone looking for similar technology can see the list of 31 patents cited against it as relevant prior art.