09 November 2012

Book on Australian inventions

The BBC has written a story about a new book called Australia's greatest inventions and innovations by Christopher Cheng and Lindsay Knight. It's published as a paperback, ISBN 9781742755649 and is aimed at children.

I haven't seen the book but was interested in the comment taken presumably from the book "In some cases inventors from other countries may also have a legitimate claim, but Cheng and Knight do not want the Australian research to go unnoticed." Ten examples of Australian invention were put forward. 

I'm not so sure that the black box flight recorder originated in Australia, although I believe it to be true that their work led to its adoption. Dave Warren's was working on the idea in 1953 but did not patent it. In August 1953, James Ryan of Minnesota applied for what became a Flight recorder US patent. Maybe it was a dead heat -- often ideas come about at the same time, as with the telephone.

The dual-flush toilet is attributed to Bruce Thompson in the early 1980s in what again seems to be unpatented work, but such toilets date back at least to three Californians applying for their Dual flush control for toilets patent in 1953.

I found their disposable syringes story intriguing -- apparently using penicillin in the old glass, reusable syringes meant that they easily clogged up, so a new plastic disposable syringe was invented just after World War II, using the plastic expertise of a local toy manufacturer. I don't know if it was the first, but this work was certainly published as an American patent, Device for injecting penicillin or similar liquids. Here's the drawing.

Disposable syringe patent image
Anything that encourages curiosity and interest in technology and design is wonderful, of course. I like to think I've never lost that sense of wonder, and stories behind how inventions come about are great -- provided it's remembered that the effort of commercialising the invention is also needed.

09 February 2012

Information sources in patents, a book review

The third edition of Stephen Adams' Information sources in patents has been published by De Gruyter Saur, ISBN 9783110235111.

Stephen is a well-known professional in the patent information world. This book is meant for the serious researcher who needs to know details such as Brazilian patent numeration, or what databases cover Russia. For those less involved in that area, it is still a very useful reference. Minor quibbles are that I would have liked the index to indicate for example which of the 6 mentions of India was for what subject, and I found the index citations to tables of data rather than to the actual pages awkward. With such a comprehensive book more space is needed for the index.

At over 300 pages there does not seem to be a relevant point that is not covered and discussed. The book begins with principles of patenting. As patent systems vary in their publication methods and content and in their numeration (if only historically), four major systems are discussed in great detail (Europe, USA, Japan and the PCT), then over 10 in less but still considerable detail. These include the BRIC countries (a special feature of the new edition) as well as the Far East.

Part II then discusses the different ways to get at the information in those documents. Numerous databases are not just explained but also discussed. As Stephen has a chemical background this subject is of course very well covered here.

I would have liked to see more on public sites, since these are used so much for accessing specific patent documents, and would like to suggest that this forms a "common search type" besides the three given (alerting; patentability and freedom-to-operate; and portfolio and legal proceedings) as obtaining copies is not always straightforward. Filing numbers can be taken to mean published numbers, and US Re-issues are a particular problem, as it is easy to think that a conventional US patent number is the correct text when it may have been replaced by a Re-issue with a new number. Both Espacenet and the official US database do not warn the user that the original patent has been replaced.

Other subjects in the book include legal status searching and classification. Someone new to the trade would probably find it useful to look carefully through the lists of 27 figures and 72 tables to see which ones illuminate problems or display useful data.

In short, this book is packed with detailed information and advice and is indispensable for anyone working in the field, or hoping to do so. It is very easy to construct a bad search or to misinterpret what has been found. Stephen's book helps make mistakes less likely (the searcher still needs to have ability !). The book can be examined through the publisher's website. It is certainly taking a place next to my PC at work.

16 June 2011

A better mousetrap blog and book

Back in February I posted about My favourite patent and invention blogs. I've just discovered a new one: A Better Mousetrap.

The blog is packed with interesting material, voiced frustration at the problems involved in getting a new product to market, and not a little humour. In their own words, "We use our blog mainly to vent spleen and tilt at windmills." I'll certainly come back regularly to read new postings.

A Better Mousetrap is also the name of a book by Graham Barker and Peter Bissell which is available from the site. It explains in great detail what is involved in, again, getting a new product to market. I remember how pleased I was on seeing the first edition, quite a few years ago -- later editions were a lot bigger in content.

They also offer a consultancy service. Based in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, they "help inventors with affordable invention evaluation and advice services". Their about page gives more information.

03 March 2011

Book review of "Steam in the air"

My colleague Maria Lampert provided assistance to Maurice Kelly when he researched patents for his book Steam in the air: the application of steam power in aviation during the 19th and 20th centuries, published by Pen & Sword Aviation. He kindly gave her a copy, and she passed it to me to look at.

It is a new subject to me, but it is clear that it has been lovingly researched. There are over 100 illustrations, which are usually either photographs or drawings from patents. I had no idea that there was so much interest in using steam to power airplanes. Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) features prominently as the "real progenitor", the man who rather than being pilot of his flying machines got his coachman to do the dangerous deed. The story goes that the coachman resigned after a hazardous flight in a glider, pointing out that he was hired to drive rather than to fly.

My only slight quibble is that it would have been useful for the illustrations taken from patents to have been marked with the patent number, so that the reader could easily relate the drawing to the invention discussed in the text. The patents covered are listed in the index (they are mainly British).

Mr Kelly is a former merchant navy engineer and a member of the Newcomen Society, which researches old technology. This book is a splendid read for anyone interested in aviation or in steam power.

25 January 2011

Book review of "Don't file a patent !"

John D. Smith, the author of Don't file a patent !, has asked me to review his book.

It is based on his reaction to having his patent application for hurricane window protectors rejected on three occasions, costing him a considerable sum. Much of the book covers the behaviour of the US Patent and Trade Mark Office. I do have sympathy, as often, I suspect, it costs more to patent a new product than the benefits of keeping out any competition. You also have to "police" the patent yourself -- find out about infringers -- and fight what could be a very costly court action.

Smith suggests that rather than patenting it is better to not do so, and to arrange with manufacturers to make it for you (rather than try to license it out to companies), and keep 100% of the profits. It also means you have 100% of the risk. He lists some famous products that have sold well but does not mention the many more that do not sell, or badly, due to for example poor marketing, a tiny market, a high price or an inability to compete with many products selling in the same market. It can cost £40,000 to tool up assembly lines to make a new product -- who pays for that ? Only 3% of published patent specifications, it has been suggested, ever make money.

The only use of patent attorneys, he suggests, is employing them for about $500 (about £314) to do a search to see if the product infringes existing patents. I would have thought that the US network of Patent and Trademark Depository libraries could have been mentioned, as they will do a search as well, and will help those who try searching for themselves. We'd do a search for about £150, by the way.

The most valuable part of the book consists of the many marketing suggestions. Mr Smith is clearly an inspired marketing man. For example he suggests mailing out the product in a clear plastic envelope so that people can see it on its way to the customer (only works for some kinds of products, though), and many gimmicks to attract attention to a product are mentioned.

The effective use of trade marks, and domain names incorporating them, is emphasized and I agree that they are often the most powerful tool available to sell a product.

The book is based on American practices and therefore is not always suitable for the European reader. It can be obtained through the Don't file a patent ! website.

24 January 2011

Chris Barnardo and "Dadcando"

A few days ago I was asked if I would mind meeting Chris Barnardo, one of the inventors of the Kymera Magic Wand, which I posted about back in August.

The product is a wand that you use instead of a remote to control, for example, televisions, music centres or lights. It has sold in over 70 countries. I don't normally meet successful inventors -- I am more used to talking to those who ask why they haven't been successful, or who are starting out -- and naturally agreed.

Chris is clearly passionate about everything he does. It has been said that the mark of a great entrepreneur is someone who really cares about delivering a fantastic service, or providing a superb product (and does so, of course). He designed all the artwork for the instructions and the box for the wand, as he has a background in design. He wanted a consistently "magical" feel, and the wand itself looks like a prop for a fantasy film, rather than a piece of electronic equipment. So there I was in the cafeteria, wielding the wand one way or the other. Up to 13 commands can be learnt by the wand.

Chris also gave me a copy of his book Dadcando. This is a beautifully illustrated, and laid out, guide to building things -- including the same wand and wand box as in his product, though without the electronics. A lot of junk can be lovingly made into attractive objects such as submarines if you follow the careful instructions.

The book came out of his experiences as a single dad, wanting to be close to his children. In his introduction Chris says that "dadcando revolves around an adventure into the creative mind of the child and the child in the heart of every dad".

You need to be good with your hands (unlike me) to make the most of the book, and with some time to spare, but for the right Dad (or Mum ?) the book is a delight.

18 October 2010

Sharon Wright, mother of invention

Sharon Wright, who is the inventor of MagnaMole®, which is one of the exhibits in our (free) Inventing the 21st Century exhibition (on until the end of November), has written a very honest and passionate book about her experiences, Mother of invention.

It tells the story of her inventing the tool (which is explained at her company's website) and then trying to get it financed. Basically it's a simple and safe way of threading cables through cavity walls. She appeared on Dragons' Den, with a pitch which was described by Duncan Bannatyne, one of the dragons, as "one of the best pitches I have ever seen". UK residents can see a recording of the pitch at this site.

She looks very professional and confident in that presentation. The book says that she repeatedly rehearsed what she was going to say, which is certainly wise. She also did not sleep for two nights before the filming, and was feeling, to put it mildly, very vulnerable as she stood outside smoking, waiting for the call to the studio.

Sharon was successful in securing the finance she wanted from two of the dragons, but what she assumed was money in return for the equity she was giving up turned out to be just a loan. She made the crucial error of not reading the contract before signing -- a contract later described by an expert as one of the worst he'd ever seen.

If you want a "warts and all" description of the ups and downs of trying to commercialise a new product you will find this book riveting. It is clear from it that the support of honest (and knowledgeable) people is crucial, which is why I always suggest to inventors I meet in one-to-one discussions that joining an inventor's club is so important.

 A copy of the book can be purchased at the official website.

04 October 2010

Book reading from "Inventing the 21st Century"

I am doing an evening book reading from my new book Inventing the 21st Century on the 18 October at the British Library's Conference Centre.

You can book at this site.

Besides reading extracts from the book, I'll be talking about my experiences as a patent searcher and my contacts with inventors and researchers into patents, and musing about what invention and innovation means to us. Is it all about economics or is there a strong social dimension as well, I wonder ? There should be plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

06 September 2010

Inventing the 21st Century the book

To accompany our Inventing the 21st Century exhibition I have written a book with the same title, which is published today. It's a paperback priced at £9.95.

It has 50 stories about interesting inventions of the first decade of this century. Unlike the exhibition it includes foreign inventions, so companies like Nintendo and Apple appear (inevitably). Most of the stories are about one invention, but some discuss several, as with water filtering, and vehicles that don't run on petroleum alone.

It was fun to research and write, and I ensured that it has lots of patent drawings. The problem was trying to cover as many interests and concerns as possible, and so topics like product placement, robot helpers in the home and self-service checkouts appear. I could easily have filled up the book with software and surveillance/ crime patents. And yes, there is some humour.

Inventing the 21st Century can be ordered from the British Library's online bookshop and I was pleased to see a big stack of copies available for sale when I looked in our bookshop, close to the exhibition itself.

11 August 2010

Roald Dahl's involvement with inventions

Roald Dahl’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.

Hydrocephalus pump