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

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.

05 July 2012

Newcastle City library and innovation

Yesterday I visited Newcastle upon Tyne for the first time in over 12 years to give a talk about the problems that face many inventors.

Newcastle City Library has merged its business and patent activities to form Business & IP Centre Newcastle while even the library building itself is new, on the site of the old building in the city centre.

The aim is to create the first ever centre for both innovation and business in the Northeast region of England, with my talk being a modest contribution to the growing events programme.

I saw plenty of enthusiasm and I liked the way the staff were all dressed in the same black clothes (at the British Library, we can only be identified by our photo badge), while the idea of enquiry desks on each floor which would field enquiries on anything, with staff routinely moved from floor to floor, was intriguing. Here's a picture of the staff.

Newcastle Library staff

Newcastle itself has a lot of beautiful old architecture – I consider Grey Street, as it sweeps in an arc towards the Tyne, the most attractive high street in the UK – to which has been added new developments along the Tyne such as the Sage Centre and the Baltic Centre art venues. Much of the old industry has gone but the region was responsible for a number of important inventions.

These include William Aspin, Portland cement, GB 1135/1852; Joseph Swan, often credited as the real inventor of the electric light bulb rather than Edison (they formed Ediswan to exploit the idea after litigation), GB 4933/1880; John Holmes with the electric switch, GB 3256/1884; and the Hon. Charles Parsons, with the turbine engine, GB 6735/1884.

All in all, an enjoyable day.

03 July 2012

Alan Blumlein and the invention of stereo

Alan Blumlein was the pioneer of stereo sound, and the British Library has put recordings of his voice and of early experiments up on its sound recording website. At the 70th anniversary of his death it is a tribute to a genius whom few have heard of.

In 1931 Blumlein's GB 394325 was applied for by Electric and Musical Industries Limited, later better known as EMI. It enabled the first single track, two channel gramophone recordings. Here is the main set of drawings.

Blumlein stereo sound patent drawing

It is a classic patent in the history of electrical engineering, and has the then extraordinary number of 70 claims (half a dozen was normal at the time). The story goes that he thought of the basic idea when he and his wife were at the cinema. The early "talkies" had a single set of speakers which meant that the actor might be on one side of the screen while his voice seemed to come from the other side.  Blumlein declared to his wife that he had found a way to make the sound follow the actor across the screen.

Blumlein is credited with 128 patents in a working life of 18 years (he was only 38 when he died, while engaged in radar experiments in a Halifax bomber). A true polymath, he worked in virtually every field of electrical engineering. The Espacenet database lists 119 patents by Alan Blumlein.

02 July 2012

Innovating for Growth programme for London companies

The British Library is asking for applications for support by London-based companies in its Innovating for Growth programme, launched today.

Successful companies must have been trading for at least one year, with proven sales, and there must be at least two employees working in the company. The aim is to help the company develop new products, services, processes or markets.

The Progamme does this not by giving out cash, but rather by putting together for each company a package of face to face meetings and mentoring with partner organisations. A minimum of 12 hours over 3 months is involved, equivalent to £10,000 per company. For example, a product designer could look at products and make suggestions for reducing costs and increasing their saleability.

Getting someone to take a fresh look at what you're doing can be remarkably useful. It's all too easy to get stuck in a groove and not see what could be changed to enable the business to grow. In a pilot stage of the programme, we've helped companies as diverse as SquidLondon, whose umbrellas change colour when they get wet; Blueberry Hill, a cake maker; Yoomi, a sophisticated baby feed bottle maker; and PleaseCycle, who encourage people to cycle to work. Their testimonials are on the site.

The Programme is supported by the European Regional Development Fund.