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]


22 May 2016

Inventors and saying "thanks" and "sorry"

A couple of months ago I was contacted via e-mail by two strangers, one in the UK and one in the USA, asking for (free) help about their inventions.

The British person's question involved a 15 minute e-mail by me, with lots of detail. I asked to be contacted again when some issues had been resolved. I didn't receive a quick e-mail thanking me, so after a while I sent a further friendly e-mail. Again no response.This has happened a lot to me.

The American, in a fawning e-mail, said that he had questions to ask about his invention and could we skype to discuss them. He should have briefly indicated what they were, really: it's always easier if the nature of the problems are known, and sometimes the person being asked is not the right one. He said that he wanted to skype at a certain time, and said that he would let me figure out what time that would be.

I checked, and he meant he wanted a complete stranger to skype with him, for free, at 2 in the morning.

I replied saying that this was not on. In the circumstances I feel it was a mild rebuke. It only took me a few seconds to figure out that the suggested skype would be at two in the morning, and anyway (I did not mention this) did he assume I would drop everything to skype with him ? Surely he should have asked me for convenient times. He, too, did not reply to say sorry.

Now, some private inventors may think "what's the fuss." The problem is that if complete strangers are asked to do something for free and are not treated with simple courtesy, how will possible business partners be treated ?

I've often had inventors telling me how badly they get treated. Perhaps that was true in some cases, but perhaps the inventor didn't think about the feelings and desires of the person on the other side. Rudeness and arrogance can sadly be coupled together, and it's difficult to negotiate with anyone who possesses either of those qualities.

My suggestion ? Keep to the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated.

9 February 2016

Designs of the Year 2015

Each year London's Design Museum hosts the Designs of the Year exhibition. The 2015 exhibition opened last March but I've only just got around to seeing it (it closes 3 April 2016).

As usual there was an interesting and stimulating mixture of built objects or design concepts from around the world. A few criticisms: I didn't notice any mention of cost, whether to the manufacturer of the consumer. Some excellent ideas have failed because the cost can't fall to the price that consumers are willing (or able) to pay. It often isn't clear if a design is merely a concept or a proven, and available, product. Design is by manufacturing and selling as well as looks and function. And it would be good if it was easy to find more information, such as (dare I say it ?) patent specifications.

There is for example an inflatable airbag jacket by Italian company Dainese, as illustrated here: the D-Air® Street.

There are a number of World patent applications by Dainese concerning inflatable inventions. The idea is that sensors on the fork of a motorcycle anticipate a collision, They send a wireless signal to activators in the cells of the jacket, which inflate in just 45 milliseconds. The jacket is powered by a battery which can be charged using a USB connector. There is a webpage by Dainese about the product, which is already available.

The concept of airbags for motorcycle users is an intriguing one, and I have posted before on the subject, with the Hovding airbag helmet.

Another invention is a new kind of coffee maker, as illustrated below.

This is Miito, by Danish designers Nils Chudy and Jasmina Grase. Most people grossly overfill kettles and hence boil far more water than they actually use in the hot drink. Even if they keep to the recommended filling line, they are making enough hot water for two cups and not just one. This device has an induction base which uses electromagnetism to heat the base of the rod while it is inside the cup and hence the liquid contents. It powers down when the water boils, or the rod is removed. I like the cool simplicity of the idea. Of course, it won't work if you are making cups for more than one person. You can reserve one for 25 Euros.

The Google autonomous car was also there. I must admit to doubts about this concept, if only because if there is a crash, who is liable, as no one is actually driving the car ?

The exhibition encourages people to vote for their favourite design, with totals given on a board. When I visited the most popular was The Ocean Cleanup, by three Dutch designers. Huge booms attached to the seabed use ocean currents to sweep pieces of plastic and other debris to a containment area 40 km long, shaped like a giant V, where the material is compressed and later removed. While the idea of dealing with this growing problem is laudable, I wonder at the cost if the seabed is deep below the surface, and about hazards to shipping. Still, I hope it works. There is a lot of information about this solution at The Ocean Cleanup website, which says that a trial in the North Sea will take place in 2016.

If you are near London, I strongly encourage visiting the exhibition and letting a flow of ideas pour over you.

3 February 2016

Inventing a better mousetrap (book review)

During the nineteenth century the American patent system required the submission of a model so that inventors could secure patents. Inventing a better mousetrap, by Alan and Ann Rothschild, tells their story through the models that they have collected into their own museum, which has 4,000 examples.

The British patent system never had such a requirement, although some were still submitted. These are in the Science Museum in London but, I was told when I enquired, could not be readily identified. The American models had a chequered career and many were lost or dispersed.

So, what do I think of the book ? I thought that they did a superb job, exhibiting the whole world in miniature. The passion that they have for the subject is evident. Numerous models are illustrated with colour photographs and a description of how the invention worked, The detail, wow the detail ! The book is packed with the kind of quirky details that I, and I'm sure many others, find fascinating. I thought from my career as a patent specialist at the British Library that I knew a lot about the old American patent system but I kept on learning new things here.

Here's one of the illustrated models.

The book begins with a chapter outlining the history of the patent models, including how Alan first became interested in them, coming across them by chance at a sale in 1994. Then there are 22 themed chapters by topic -- I loved the idea of a chapter on Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a joke on a federal law enforcement agency. There are even detailed instructions on how to reproduce six of the models.

Knowing the story of how Abraham Lincoln, the only President to hold a patent, had whittled a model out of wood before the eyes of his law partner, I had assumed that most models were crude, simple things made from wood which showed the general look. Judging by the models in this book, many were carefully made and even worked properly, and were made out of a variety of metals. They are works of art, so those interested in art as well as those in the history of technology will find this book fascinating. Here's a sample page, on cigars.

To add to the interest, the models had tags giving the patent numbers so that the printed patents can be referred to, and the identity of the inventor known. That greatly enhances their interest. What is unlikely to be known is if the item was actually made, let alone was it a success, as the patents don't tell us that.

I liked the book so much as a PDF that I ordered a copy which is now on my bookshelf. Copies are available from for example the UK Amazon website.

The Rothschild-Petersen Patent Model Museum itself can be visited in upstate New York.  Pity, I'm unlikely ever to make it there.

13 January 2016

Brick-laying robots

Increasingly we are seeing repetitive tasks carried out by workers being replaced by robotics. This can even involve skilled workers, such as bricklayers. Mark Pavic of Western Australia, an aeronautic and mechanical engineer has with a colleague devised a brick-laying machine.

The story is told in a Gizmag story, Brick-laying robot can build a full-sized house in two days. The robot, Hadrian, can lay 1000 bricks an hour. Pavic's brother Mike is CEO of Fastbrick Robotics who intend to launch a commerical version in 2017.

It was as long ago as 2005 that the world patent application for the concept was published, WO2007/076581. It was published in 2007 so anyone interested in the technology could see the full details of how it works. Below is the main drawing.

So, how could you have found such a patent document ? The classification is based on the idea of "manipulators" which could be run together with the word brick* to get a good list of relevant material. B25J9, programme-controlled manipulators, looks particularly attractive.

Once you know of a patent document, you can check to see what happened to it in specific jurisdictions. In this case US8166727 was granted protection in 2012. The pan-European granted document, EP1977058B, was published in 2014, and the documents to do with its allowance are given in the relevant European Register entry.

Anyone wondering at the time if the patents would be allowed could have looked at the prior art as listed by patent examiners -- this is given as "cited documents" on the left hand side of the bibliographic entry for the European A document.  22 are listed for that one. It might be thought logical that all prior art cited is given there, but no, each "also published as" document needs to be clicked on and a fresh window appears. Some countries, such as the USA, do not list cited patents at the initial A stage but only at the granted, B stage.

Just as you can find the prior art by clicking on "cited documents", you can find those that later referred back to the one you know of by clicking on "citing documents". This tells us that none cited the European; but for the US A and also the B document there are 9, and for the original WO document there are 6. You would have to compare the lists to figure out which were on both lists -- they are likely to be particularly significant.

Those with specialist knowledge of the area would then have to interpret the results, so long as those who understand the published patent documentation and its associated patent procedure can explain what to look out for and implications. Both are needed. When I worked in the area, it always surprised me how many inventors thought that they could do it all themselves, or just spend 20 minutes or so looking through the patents before committing to thousands of pounds of expenditure and huge amounts of time. Rather like carrying out brain surgery on yourself, perhaps ?

11 January 2016

Unventional: Ideas too good to patent, book review

Some books about inventions are serious and are designed to enlarge knowledge. Some books about inventions inspire.

And then other books are just plain fun. Madcap, even.

Unventional: Ideas too good to patent by Tom Giesler is definitely in the last category, with madcap humour and superb drawings of Rube Goldberg-like (or, in the UK, Heath Robinson) inventions which are just a bit wacky. They are in the same style as many real patent draftsmen working for inventors to show how the inventions work. This is not a coincidence: besides being an artist, Giesler is himself a patent draftsman. And he even lives in California -- isn't that the place where the crazies come from ? (Just kidding, my wife grew up there).

When I was a patent specialist at the British Library, I had to emphasize how serious and important inventions were, and keep a straight face when someone explained a silly idea. No longer ! Freeze-cones, diaper bowls, burger sheaths -- inventions no one is likely to really need are seriously explained, thought through and illustrated here just as much as worthwhile inventions are explained in the Real Thing on numerous databases. It's the sort of book I'd have loved to have written if I had any artistic talent at all.

Below is a delightful, short trailer about the book.

The book can be bought through the Unventional website.

1 December 2015

Ocado, the UK online grocer

Ocado is the leading UK online grocer. Its business consists in trying to make money from packing groceries and related items for customers and delivering it to their homes,

I remember being skeptical about their business model when they started in 2000, founded by three former merchant bankers from Goldman Sachs. From 2002 they worked in partnership with Waitrose, an upmarket supermarket chain, and in 2010 they were floated on the stock exchange. I see that in 2014 on a revenue of £948 million they had a razor-thin profit before tax of £7 million -- a margin of under 1%.

Clearly, controlling their costs is crucial as there is only just so much that customers are willing to pay as a premium for having their groceries delivered. They only have two warehouses: one in Hertfordshire, and the other in Warwickshire. Inventions have been used to ensure an efficient environment for collecting the groceries to fulfil the orders.

This is a list of British patent specifications by Ocado.

Here are a few of the drawings. A picking station:

This is for units that move in two directions above the storage units:

At the time of writing, eight out of ten documents found had as the inventor, or one of the inventors, a Swede called Lars Lindbo. Very often, when a company's technology is of interest, it turns out that there are one or two significant inventors who might perhaps be poached.

Their website, too, is simply a tool for ordering groceries and supplies, and has constant discount offers. It has features such as remembering what was ordered before so it is easy to reorder. When  you are ready to check out you can select a time slot for delivery, 6 in the morning to 10 at night, whichever is best for you -- at no extra charge if you can be flexible by picking a time when the van is in your area. Disclosure: we have used it ourselves, with deliveries at say noon -- one of the perks of being retired.

29 November 2015

The problems of private inventors: "New Scientist" in 1979-80

In looking up a reference recently I came across a couple of articles on British private inventors in New Scientist dating back to 1979-80 (freely available on Google Books).

They were about the frustrations experienced by inventors trying to get their ideas commercialised. Things haven't changed: my career as a patent librarian began in 1987 and ended with my retirement in 2013, and complaints about a lack of enthusiasm for private inventors' ideas were a constant refrain.

The articles reminded me that many inventors would say to me that the government should pay for evaluating, promoting and often financing their inventions. Strangely, none of them volunteered that the government would then deserve a big cut of any profits for taking such risks. I always felt that many private inventors were unable to understand the feelings and motivations of those on the other side of a bargaining table, and that success was very unlikely without some empathy.

The articles I found were both by Adrian Hope, who in 1980 revealed himself to be Barry Fox, a journalist who specialised in electronics and who took a great interest in the patent system. They are It's a wonderful idea, but... (1 June 1978, 576-581) and Death of an idea (13 September 1979, 794-797, with comments by inventors in the 27 September issue, page 1000, Hope springs eternal).

They make entertaining reading, if it is rather frustrating to see good ideas that at the time at least never got anywhere. The first article was promoting the idea of an organisation that would "provide desperately needed funds and encouragement" for selected inventions by private inventors. The problem, surely, would be to identify the possible winners: if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.

The article began with Hope explaining that he wrote to the inventors of 65 patented inventions which had been profiled by him in New Scientist. 29 of them were still in force (occasional renewal fees were required), 20 had lapsed from protection, the remainder were too new to be subject to renewal fees. Only 33 replied, although Hope used the latest addresses as listed in the Patent Register.

Of the 28 replies relating to "small" inventions, 8 were handwritten, and many were rambling and mentioned irrelevant matters (I always reminded inventors that no manufacturer would be interested in how or why you thought of the idea...). Hardly business-like, and I liked Hope's comment that inventors can be their own worst enemies. What they had in common was that they were frustrated by the "brickwalls" in trying to get the idea into production or use.

One such invention was GB1288677, Means for protecting water pipes from bursting under freezing conditions, a simple means of doing just that. Another was a musical potty to help mentally disabled children, GB1409803, Chamber pot. That may sound amusing to some, but a woman inventor later made a lot of money from such a device that talked to the children to encourage, ahem, good aim. This is a list of mostly relevant patent documents on talking or musical potties.

The article concluded by recommending a scheme by which prizes of £5000 would be awarded after evaluation. The National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) had a somewhat similar role but for larger-scale inventions, and it was disquieting that many inventors said at the time that they had never head of it.

The second article was an interesting followup. The NRDC was only interested in strongly protected inventions, often not the case for small inventions, and they needed to be potentially valuable. Their investment in the hovercraft had not earned money, and apparently it was only their investment in patents in cephalosporin drugs which had made it profitable. Which confirms my point that it is very hard to pick out the "winners". Perhaps only inventions which save money for the user or the taxpayer, or which help the environment, should be picked ?

The NRDC is no more, and Nesta, founded in 1998, is the UK agency which comes closest to it, although with a wider remit. Its Our history pages list some of its achievements.

There is also the idea of a Royal Academy of Invention, for evaluating inventions, which has been promoted by Trevor Baylis, the "clockwork radio" inventor. He has not made much progress with the concept.

So, business as usual...

22 August 2015

Adaptahaus: Grand Designs and a prototype house

I've just been watching an old Grand Designs episode about Alan Dawson's prototype house, Adaptahaus. It was built in Cumbria in a few weeks, back in 2009.

Presumably named for the super-ecological Passivhaus concept from Germany, it is an ingenious way of building efficient houses in high volume. This is what the finished product looked like: it cost about half a million pounds although that included prototype work.

The idea was that the floors would be built on a grid basis to make things quicker and easier -- rather as in Japan rooms are measured by the number of tatami mats needed to cover the floors. Hence wooden spans were noticeable at set intervals in big rooms. Personally I found it a pleasing pattern.

Alan also applied for a patent, in May 2010 (odd if the episode was shown in 2009, as patent applications are made for new concepts, not those disclosed in TV programmes). An international patent application was published as Pre-fabricated building structure. Here's one of the drawings from it.

It was, however, withdrawn in 2012 as a European patent application and doesn't seem to have been granted elsewhere. This was presumably because three patent documents, two French and one Dutch (but in English), were found to have anticipated what Dawson's application was claiming protection for, as listed in this list, which also includes patent documents he was aware of. It shows how hard it is to look for prior art even though Dawson used a patent attorney. The French documents were more than 20 years old and hence could not be used to take legal action against Dawson, while the more recent Dutch application turned out to also be deemed withdrawn as they had not replied in time -- perhaps the list of documents in the European Patent Office correspondence offers hints. This was the sort of thing I was looking up for people all the time when I worked in the British Library.

Adaptahaus has its own website.

11 June 2015

A patent dispute: Eustace Vant and his father in law

It is unusual for patent disputes to involve taking your father in law to court. Here's a British one from World War I.

My source is the Evening Dispatch of the 20 July 1916, as found on the British Newspaper Archive while investigating Surbiton in World War I. Eustace Hazzel Vant had been a Captain in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment who had been invalided out after being thrown from a horse. In 1915 he married Sybil Barton.

The 1911 census shows Sybil as a secretary for a ladies' club, age 26, living on Bond Street with a married typist. Her parents were in a 11 room house called Brooklands, in Lingfield, Surrey. Joshua Barton was 59, a company director of a match factory, living with his wife Annie.

Then on the 20 July 1916 a court case erupted in the King's Bench. 

Vant, of Surbiton, had given his father in law, Joshua Barton of next-door Kingston, Surrey, £100. That was not in dispute: what was uncertain was whether or not it was a loan, as Vant insisted, or an investment, as Barton asserted. 

Vant claimed that half of the sum was to be repaid in November 1915 and the balance in February 1916. He had obtained an overdraft from his bank on which he had to pay interest. 

Barton argued that the money was an investment in a collapsible lifeboat. It was agreed that Vant had tried to get the authorities interested in the invention, including a visit to Liverpool which cost him £4 in expenses (for which he was refunded). 

It sounds as if they did not have a written agreement, which was very foolish of both men, and is in fact close to unbelievable. Barton seems to have been well off and it is strange that he needed £100 from his son in law. 

Although the news account does not say so, it appears that Barton was the actual inventor. A few weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, GB1912/10787, Improvements in collapsable lifeboats, was filed by Joshua Barton of Brooklands, Lingfield, Surrey, director of a public company. A drawing from it is shown below.

Together with an engineer named Charles Hibberd he had been responsible for three earlier patents for cash registers and the like, and also for an earlier lifeboat invention, GB 1898/26927

So what happened ? The newspaper account only gives us the fact that the court case was on-going and not its conclusion. Not surprisingly, the marriage appears to have broken up. Vant remarried in 1918 and became a solicitor in the family firm in Settle, Yorkshire, and died in 1948, 

6 April 2015

Stephen Hawking as a registered trade mark

Stephen Hawking, the eminent Cambridge professor, applied on the 2 March 2015 for his own name as a trade mark in a number of activities.

You can register your name as a trade mark under UK law, or an agent or company can do so on your behalf. Anyone else trying to do so is guilty of "bad faith". I remember someone coming into the British Library saying he wanted to register the names of the Beatles. We checked, and three, I think, had registered their names (there's certainly Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr).

Hawking's applications are UK00003097042 and UK00003097043 which between them cover seven classes of named activities. Having classes means that a trade mark like Swan can be used for a variety of services or product and not just by one company covering all activities.

If registered, they will only be valid for the UK, but the option is available under the Paris Convention to apply for protection in for example the USA or the European Union provided this is done within 6 months. It is still possible to do so beyond six months, but if someone else applies before you do then you lose out.

According to an article on the LiveScience website, Stephen Hawking wants to trade mark his name, by Tanya Lewis, Hawking's intention is to block someone else trying to use his name to sell in the areas listed in the applications.

A few years ago I posted on my old work blog about David Beckham and his wife Victoria as brands, where they and their advisors made very effective use of the intellectual property system, including registering David's signature. Quite a few people have done so. Paul Gascoigne, the retired footballer, applied for a number of UK trade marks, all now "dead" and not valid, and several bearing his signature, as shown below in the list of results.

He still has a valid registration in Europe, EU010619732.

Other celebrities who have registered their name or signature include Olivia Newton-John, Alex Ferguson, Ozzy Osbourne... and also Ed Milliband, who was registered by the Labour Party in 2011.

I imagine that it gets more tricky in law when the name is of someone who is dead, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Jackson, who besides registrations when he was alive such as a 1985 filing, had a filing made months after his death.

The UK jurisdiction has had a number of disputes about the right to use a name, or a trade mark close to a name, such as Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich. There is also a European-wide case regarding Pablo Picasso.

Fictional characters and the names of teams or other entities or television programmes can also be involved in disputes over who has the right to use it in commerce. It all comes under the umbrella term of "character merchandising."

It reminds me of a 1920s court case when a man called Albert Hall decided to form an orchestra. In those days it was normal to call an orchestra after the leader, so he called it the Albert Hall Orchestra. He was taken to court by the Royal Albert Hall who claimed that he was trying to give the impression that he was connected with them. The judge, finding for the defendant, said that if you were called Albert Hall it was perfectly reasonable that you would call your orchestra the Albert Hall Orchestra.

However, a man called Henry Harrod who opened a business in New Zealand and called it Harrods was opposed by the famous department store. Apparently people might have thought that there was a connection. The action was dropped when many businesses in the town changed their name similarly, and indeed the town changed its name temporarily to Harrodsville.