I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


25 October 2014

Hoverboards a reality in future ?

The dream of working hoverboards seems to have been achieved, and Back to the Future fans may soon be able to emulate Marty McFly's antics.

On the 18 September 2014 D. Gregory Henderson, for Arx Pax LLC, both of San Jose, California (same state as McFly, almost inevitably) had published a US patent application, Magnetic levitation of a stationary or moving object. A week later a World patent application with the same title, WO2014/149626, was published. It is 73 pages long, of which 20 pages are drawings. The final pages cite relevant prior art, and they only found "A" citations -- background, unlikely to invalidate the application. Taken from the US document, there is for example this spectacular drawing:

Here are three others.

The World patent summary states "In one embodiment, the moving magnetic field can be generated by a rotor with arrangement of permanent magnets which is driven by a motor. In operation, the rotor can be spun up from rest to above a threshold velocity, which causes the magnetic lifting device to rise up from the conductive substrate, hover in place in free flight and move from location to location. In free flight, the magnetic lifting device can be configured to carry a payload, such as a person."

Wired has a piece by Rhett Allain called The physics of the Hendo Hoverboard.

Arx Pax themselves seem to be a bit of a mystery. Their emblem is a dove between olive branches, and their mission statement is to be "a revolutionary technology company with the sole purpose of innovating solutions to some of the most pressing global problems of our age." I'm not sure I'd regard the problem of levitating a pressing problem, to be honest. How expensive would it be, I wonder ?

Hendo Hover is the name of the website with a rather cool and fun video showing the device in action. Below is the same video, from Youtube.

The same inventor and company had, in July 2014, a US patent granted for Methods and apparatus of building construction resisting earthquake and flood damage. The basic idea is to put buildings on a concrete structure which can float on a "buffer medium". A drawing from it is given below.

17 October 2014

Inventions that didn't change the world: book review

Inventions that didn't change the world, by Julie Halls, has just been published by Thames & Hudson in association with Britain's National Archives.

It explains the story, with 240 colour illustrations, of Britain's Useful Designs, which were available from 1843 to the early 1880s, with over 6000 registrations. At a cost of £10 it effectively provided, for some, an alternative to the very expensive and cumbersome patent system, although in theory it was for a new shape or configuration rather than for a new concept. Protection though was limited to 3 years unlike patents' 14 years. Besides the Useful Designs, there were the much more numerous Ornamental Designs.

There is a preliminary chapter, explaining the context, but the large bulk of the book consists of the illustrations in seven themed sections. They have clearly been picked for their visual impact, and some are distinctly odd -- anti-garotting devices, fan riding whips, and so on, besides the expected cornucopia of Victorian life. It is fascinating to leaf through the pages, where very often a detailed handwritten explanation of how the design worked (by the designer) appears below the illustration. Anyone interested in design generally, or social history, will enjoy the book.

There is a very detailed index, and a list of the displayed designs with its reference at the National Archives and the name and description of the designer (address and sometimes an occupation).

I would have liked to have seen some investigation into the actual designers by using census and other data, and regret the absence of any mention (as far as I can tell) to women as designers. My own research suggests that there were at least 55 women who took out these designs, with 17 of those for clothing, hats or shoes. The remainder covered quite a variety, including carriages.

I would also have liked to have seen a mention of Alexis Soyer, a celebrated chef in his day, who came up with six designs, as listed here. That came from the Discovery catalogue where these Useful Designs can be searched by entering BT45 as the "reference" and then entering words (such as title words, surname, address, occupation) in the boxes above. Images, though, are not available. Two Crimean stoves and one Crimean cloak can be found, for example.

These are minor quibbles, and I recommend the book as an excellent browse. There are illustrations, and a short video, at a Thames & Hudson page, and more images at the Guardian's book review.

Julie Halls will be giving a talk at 2 pm on the 28 October about her book at the National Archives.

16 October 2014

Solar energy for power, heat and water: Airlight's Sunflower

The Sunflower is a versatile solar energy "harvester" by Swiss company Airlight Energy. It provides power, heat and water, and can be transported in a shipping container.

I love ingenious solutions to environmental problems, and this is one of the most interesting ones I've seen in years. I came across it in a New Scientist article by Paul Marks published in the 4 October 2014 issue, and available online as Sunflower solar harvester provides power and water. Below is what it looks like.

As it fits inside a single container, transport is relatively easy to any location. The dish is ten metres high and tracks the sun. Besides clean water and electricity, it can even provide refrigeration if a heat pump is used.

The article explains that the technology for the water-cooled solar panel was developed by Bruno Michels and colleagues at IBM, and Airlight have licensed the patents. I have noticed several possibly relevant World applications by Michels at the Swiss base of IBM, listed here.

Photovoltaic module cooling devices is obviously relevant, and is illustrated below.

The article explains that each panel holds 25 photovoltaic chips cooled by water flowing in microchannels. The cooling effect means that the panels operate at their optimal temperature, so a quarter of the panels are used to produce the same power as conventional panels.

The heated water can then drive a low-temperature desalinator in coastal areas, going through three cycles, producing 2500 litres of fresh water daily. Away from the coast a water purifier can be fitted. A relevant IBM patent document, Desalination system and method for desalination, is illustrated below.

The dish itself consists of numerous 1-metre mirrors, which direct the sunlight onto six panels which produce the panel. Normally the mirrors would be heavy, polished glass, but instead they are made of metallised foil, like chocolate bar wrappers.

Tests on an 18-mirror prototype showed a 30% efficency rate and a 50% heat efficiency rate. A 36-mirror version should be able to provide 12 KW of electricity and 20 KW of heat from 10 hours of sunlight.

I have found 18 World patent documents by Airlight which are on solar energy.

Tests are to be carried out in seven sites, probably in Morocco and India, with sales beginning in 2017. As might be expected, the entire design is meant to be low maintenance.

21 September 2014

Dragons' Den: The YoungOnes

A week late, I watched an episode of Dragons' Den which was first shown on the 15 September. I was interested in the pitch for YoungOnes by Chris Rea, 21, and Tom Carson, 23, with their price competitive "onesies" for university students. They are themselves from Exeter.

The name of the business (with a website) refers to student rebellion and to a BBC programme shown 1982-84, with a truly anarchic sense of humour that I for one found hilarious. I'm not sure how much young people respond to something three decades old, but maybe that doesn't matter. They knew their facts, even if they were nervous under the questioning. They were confident that the vogue for onesies would continue.

They offered 15% of the equity in exchange for £75,000, which valued the company at £500,000. The dragons had fun putting the onesies on, but for some reason they were marked YO rather than YoungOnes. Peter Jones pointed out that Yo was owned as a trade mark by Simon Woodrofe's Yo ! Limited. You don't actually own every business sector with a trade mark (unless it's a "famous" trade mark) but indeed Yo! does own a European trade mark for it in Class 25, which covers clothing, EU 637637. The boys should have done their homework.

(So, to be honest, should have Evan Davis, the respected economics voice on the programme, who spoke of concerns over "copyright" -- trade marks are not the same as copyright, as you cannot copyright a few words).

What the boys do have is the British trade mark for YoungOnes for clothing, with UK2648803 (owned by youngones apparel ltd.). That's the far more attractive (and safe) name they should have put on the onesies.

The verdict ? Duncan Bannatyne offered them, with his usual poker face, the whole £75,000 in return for 40% of the equity. He was asked if he would take 30%. No, he said, it was a fair offer. They discussed it, and one said he didn't know he would say to his father, and they accepted. Duncan was very pleased, saying it was a great opportunity for him. The mentioned father had said they should never give away more than 30%, incidentally.

There is more about the business on an Exeter business page. Their degrees are very relevant -- Chris' was in business and psychology, Tom's in business management and marketing. Watch out for the product on university campuses !

9 September 2014

Apple's new wearable technology patent applications

Apple is about to make a big announcement today about their next big product, after a gap of four years. As usual, presumably, they will announce any totally new product at the end, with "One more thing...". The Toronto Star among others speculates as the faithful wait.

There is a lot of speculation that it might be a wearable device, an iWatch. Not sure what they will call it -- there is already US85703706, a filing for that word as a trademark registration for class 38, telecommunication services by OMG Electronics -- though, fatally perhaps, not for devices worn on wrists. Thanks to Minesoft's tmquest for that information.

I've checked for any US patents filed by Apple since 2013 that mention the word "wearable" (anywhere in the text). There are an amazing number published in just 2014, over fifty. None have "wearable" in the title.

These include Configurable buttons for electronic devices, published 28 August. This from a quick look is the most obviously relevant. A couple of its drawings are given below.

And what about their Bi-stable spring with flexible display, published in February 2013. It doesn't sound promising, but the drawings are interesting. Here is the main drawing.

I did find it independently, but that one was well covered at the time, quite rightly in my opinion, by sites such as an Appleinsider posting.

4 September 2014

Listing patent status registers

Patent status covers things like when was a patent specification published in its different stages, is it awaiting grant, have renewal fees being paid, has it run its full term and expired.

Some patent authorities have made free data available either on separate status databases or have incorporated it in their ordinary databases. The alternative is to ask them. Below is a list of those that I am aware of.  Many are in English.

Those that can be accessed via the free Espacenet database are marked by an asterisk *. If a certain record is found, then a link is provided to the status data. For example, see the record for GB2471438, where the link to "GB Register" is just below the Bibliographic data in big, bold type, below the top banner.

I am sorry to say that I gave up trying to find the individual sites for Belgium, Greece and Italy.

Belgium *
Denmark *
European Patent Convention *
Finland *
France *
Greece *
Italy *
Norway *
Sweden *
Switzerland *
United Kingdom*
United States

Otherwise, Espacenet has an "Inpadoc legal status" tab on the left hand side when viewing information on a patent specification. There is often little data, or it is hard to understand it, but still, better than nothing.

The existence of the legal status databases is not given in the valuable data on Intellogist's Interactive Patent Coverage Map, and I would like to suggest that it would augment an already very useful site. For some reason the French site, at least, is indeed listed and explained. You find data on what online sources (some priced) cover a country by clicking on the continent, then on the country.

It would be helpful if the same software was used by new countries, partly to avoid duplicate effort and partly to help searchers using databases from different patent authorities.

Although I use patent status to determine if a patent is in force, ownership information is also very important for due diligence searches. If a company takeover is contemplated or occurring you obviously want to know what is owned by the company. As companies are not required to record changes in ownership or assignments (to my knowledge it is everywhere voluntary), you cannot rely on the owner name on a published patent specification. There may be false positives (it apparently has patents it doesn't have) or false negatives (it doesn't appear to have patents it does actually have).

Data on litigation (such as links to court cases) is rarely provided, and would again be useful.

3 September 2014

Negative lists for patent searchers

The free Espacenet patent database contains a vast number of patents and can be searched in a number of  ways. One of its features is the ability to create lists of important patents.

When a search is run, each entry in the results has a blue star on the left hand side. By clicking on the star, it turns red and the same entry is available in the "My patents list" folder above the hit list.

This means that useful patents can be noted for future study. In addition, if another search is run, those already marked in this way appear with a red rather than a blue star to show that they have already been put in the folder.

This is a useful feature and avoids wasted time looking at the same patents again and again in modified searches. Two small suggestions are that it would be useful if additional folders were available, and if they could be named, as a searcher might be dealing with more than one search.

However, this post is really about supplementing this concept of a folder of "positive", wanted, hits with a second folder of unwanted hits -- a negative folder.

Just as you can indicate that you "like" a patent, you should be able to indicate you "dislike" a patent that might seem from the brief details on the hit list to be relevant. In the same way as with the "likes", the searcher can simply disregard the entry on a revised search. There is no need to look at it again, you are reminded that you have already seen it and found it to be irrelevant.

Maybe the red star could be replaced by a "thumbs up" for positive and "thumbs down" for negative documents.

20 August 2014

Everyday miracles TV series

Last night was the first episode of Everyday miracles: the genius of sofas, stockings and scanners on BBC4.

The hour-long programme had Mark Miodownik of the Open University explaining in a very engaging style the stories behind how products we take for granted such as plywood, razors and stockings have their specific properties. It is often a matter of combining two materials to give a product specific desired properties. I particularly loved the example of how nylon could be drawn endlessly from a beaker with two liquids in it, with the material being generated where the two layers meet. The excitement of making something work was, for me, vividly conveyed.

I always say that we can't take any manufactured product for granted -- no matter how mundane it is, someone had to think it up, design it, and work out an efficient and cost-effective way of manufacturing it.

That was the "home" episode" and there will be a further "away" episode (on travel) on the 26th. They can be seen for a limited period by UK residents on the BBC website for Everyday Miracles.

15 August 2014

Patents for chopsticks !

Many novices are amazed at the kinds of things that get patented, or published as patent applications (many do not realise is a subset of the latter). Surely, they think, there is nothing new that can be done in a many trades, that have existed for centuries.

Sometimes new materials will enable something not previously possible. Sometimes, as with chopsticks, there may be a need to train children in the correct use. And there may be a need to enable disabled persons to carry out a function or to use a tool.

An interesting article on the BBC news site, Disability and the Japanese art of mastering chopsticks, covers these topics. A Japanese craftsman, Katsuyuki Miyabi, has adapted chopsticks into pincer like tongs to help those unable to handle normal chopsticks.

What I found interesting in looking at patent documents for chopsticks was that many were teaching aids for the use of chopsticks from Far East countries. There are no fewer than, at the time of writing, 155 patent documents for "chopsticks" plus any of correct*, learn*, teach* or train*, where * indicates truncation.

No doubt others can be added by using classification, for example where the word "chopsticks" is omitted. Espacenet does not permit the creation of a single set of results from two sets of results (which is a pity). Other words could be added as well, such as "practice" or "aid" (Espacenet allows up to ten), although as a general rule in patent searching the more synonyms you add the more "false drops", unwanted hits, you get. It becomes a matter of judgment when to stop adding words which simply provide many unwanted hits while only adding a few extra hits. Another possibility is using the "Cited", "Citing" buttons on the left hand column to pick up references to older or newer documents referred to, or referring to, the known patent (a trick I use a lot with, especially, European and World documents because of the precision of their citations).

One example of the patent specifications that can be found is Chopsticks for training, from Korea, with its main drawing shown below

If nothing else, these results do show that correctly using chopsticks has to be taught to children.

One comment might be made that the results are of limited use as they are in non-Western languages (of the 155, 92 are from China, 28 are from Japan and 16 from Korea -- so only 19 are from other patent offices). Espacenet provides for this. Although there is a delay in loading text, most records will have a "Description" button on the left hand side of the "Bibliographic" format which shows the original text. You can then ask for a translation into a Western language. All free and with no need for registration.

For example, take the Japanese-language Chopsticks for training manner of holding. Click on Description, then on patenttranslate.

There are in fact 6 from the USA, such as Mark Major's Training device for using chopsticks, published in 1998, which has a useful discussion of prior efforts in the field. Its main drawing is shown below.

Even a seemingly simple subject such as this turns out to be quite complicated. After the search, of course, there is the selection of relevant material and the interpretation of their significance.

28 July 2014

The IcyBreeze cooler for outside use

IcyBreeze is a new portable cooler for use outdoors, invented by Clint Donaldson of Oklahoma.

When you are indoors in hot weather it is normal to crank the air conditioning up or at least switch on a fan. However, what about suffering from the heat when you are outside, say at a picnic. Donaldson thought of the idea while watching baseball on a hot day while sitting next to a cooler full of cold drinks. He took an idea normally used to warm houses and applied it instead to the outdoors.

Heat exchangers work by putting outlets for warm but stale air next to inlets for cold, fresh air. The pipes run along each other so that the outgoing air warms the incoming air.

The 34 litre capacity cooler can hold up to 49 cans as well as ice topped up with about 2 litres of water. A battery powers a fan which draws air into the radiator. The air coming out, either by vents or via a hose, makes the air outside up to 20 degrees C cooler. The batteries last for 2.5 hours on a high setting or 6 hours on low.

A World Patent application was published in September 2013 as Ice air conditioner, and its main drawing is shown below.

When I showed patent specifications to clients, I always placed much emphasis on search reports -- the list compiled by patent examiners at patent offices of relevant patents and other published material. The final pages of the Donaldson application contain a report, which lists first US7188489. It works in the same general way -- a portable cooling device using a heat exchanger. The search reports in many European, and the World, patent systems use X and Y indications to show that a particular claim is anticipated (X) or is obvious (Y) in light of the cited document. American search reports, which are on the front of the granted patents, simply cite patents -- often very many -- without giving the X and Y indications.

The IcyBreeze company is pricing models from $279 and plans to begin shipping from August 2014.

Much of the above is taken from the Gizmag article on the IcyBreeze.