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 April 2014

Make me a millionaire inventor

The Sky Vision TV series Make me a millionaire inventor has hit the UK screens, 18 months after my modest involvement with it. I remember the filming at the British Library (as seen in the opening footage, going along the shelves) and making suggestions on how to identify likely patents.

It's a reality show where each week two engineers, Shini Somara and Jem Stansfield, identify two patents by British private inventors where the products are not available in the shops. They are called on and asked if they want help with getting the invention commercialised. I am sure I'm not the only person who finds shows about getting a possible product to market very good viewing.

I saw it for the first time last Sunday, and assume it is typical of the series. The first inventor was Stephen Britt. Instead of an electric bicycle to assist the cyclist, only the pedal (under the foot) is powered, using batteries. 30% of the power needed to cycle is provided by it. Stansfield certainly seemed to enjoy cycling with it: the harder he cycled, the more he claimed to enjoy it. Britt's British patent was published in 2011 as Auxiliary drive for a cycle.

The other inventor was Marc Spinoza. He had thought of the Fin Band, and had registered the trade mark for it. His British patent, Buoyancy and rescue device, was published in 2010.

Meant for small children, this buoyancy aid has two large fins attached by a sleeve which clings to the skin. Only an adult can get it off the child, and hence it adds safety to the swimmer. Children splashing about in the pool seemed quite happy using it.

Both inventors were very pleased with the offered help. Britt had even given up his job while trying to get it off the ground, although his family apparently didn't mind. Thousands had been spent on the projects. Shrewd comments were made by separate panels interviewing the inventors, especially about the need to get the costs down. Many inventors do not realise that this is vital for many products. The electric pedal would sell for £350, Britt estimated, and you saw potential investors from the retail trade wince. The buoyancy aid cost £5 to make, and would sell for perhaps £20 in the shops, far more than competing products.

In the end, both inventors were helped by an investor, though one decided to go it alone in the end.

The show made it clear that many skills are needed to become a successful inventor-entrepreneur, including memorising crucial facts and having a viable business plan.

What the show didn't mention was the need to carry out research -- ironically, what you see the presenters doing at the start of the programme. Inventors need to check if an idea is new (otherwise you can't patent it), and what sort of market there is out there, including competitors (otherwise you look foolish when asked questions). Both can be done at the British Library's Business & IP Centre or at one of the UK's Patlib libraries. The problems involved in getting a patent was also not mentioned.

To be fair, a lot of useful ground was covered and it all made good viewing. Any inventors, and many entrepreneurs, can learn from the programmes.

My own small part ended up on the editing room floor. I had been an assistant to the presenters, bringing them volumes of patents to look at (it's actually done on a screen now like so many things). My name was, however, mentioned in the closing credits, which was nice.

In the UK it's on Pick (Freeview 11) at 7 pm every Sunday.

20 April 2014

Youngest inventor ever ?

Kiowa Kavovit was on the US show Shark Tank on the 14 March, making a pitch for financial backing for a paint-on bandage. It was called BooBoo Goo. I understand that she secured backing on condition that a patent was applied for. There is a website for the product.

We in the UK also have our young inventors. Samuel Houghton was three when he thought of a double-headed broom, as explained by him in a video compiled for the British Library exhibition Inventing the 21st Century which I curated, back in 2010.

Samuel was lucky enough to be the son of a patent attorney. Dad apparently thought that it would be a useful educational exercise to apply for a British patent (but with no thought of enforcing it). Notice in my list below how the titles are often "broad yet precise" in how they word the concept.

Samuel secured a patent both for this and for a later idea.

Improved broom (but called "Sweeping device with two heads" in a preliminary publication), applied for in 2006, shown below.

I liked the comment in the granted patent that he "observed that my daddy was wasting time swapping between brushes" when sweeping small or larger fragments. His double-headed broom sweeps both kinds.

In 2008 there was his Balloon bursting apparatus.

His younger brother Benjamin was responsible in 2008 for Plug for a wash-basin, as illustrated below.

There is one patent in the names of both boys, applied for in 2008. This was Improved handle (at a preliminary stage, titled Shock-absorbing handle for manual tool), as illustrated below:

Samuel Houghton has his own Wikipedia article which says "he is thought to be the youngest person to have been granted a patent for their invention", at age 5, though I wonder if Benjamin was younger still. One problem is that the age of invention, applying for and securing a patent are likely to be different and it is often unclear what age applies to what stage when claims are made.

The Guardian has an interview with Samuel Houghton from 2008.

11 April 2014

Historical eye baths book

When I worked at the British Library it was a pleasure to help those researching historical artefacts so that they could identify old patents and trade marks.

I've just seen a book that came out of such research. It is Eye baths: an illustrated survey, by George Sturrock, who has been researching the field for thirty years. It was published in 2012.

It is arranged alphabetically by manufacturer and contains numerous colour illustrations of eye baths and packaging. Many were made of porcelain, it seems. There is a bibliography, and a table on page 214 of 36 patents arranged by applicant.

I'd have liked to have seen the "date" listed in this table explained -- was it date of application, or date of grant ? Both can seem important, and the former determines the length of the British patent term, and the latter the length of the US term. Also, I think there were patents mentioned in passing in the text which did not appear in the table and which were simply called a patent without giving the patent number, and I'd have also liked to have seen a full citation when the year of registration of trade marks was mentioned (which is frequently). These are minor quibbles. Once a librarian always a librarian, I am sorry to say.

I often used to see Mr Sturrock working away in the reading room on patents or trade marks. The result is truly a labour of love.

Other researchers on historical inventions that I recall were on croquet and revolving doors (both of which resulted in detailed books), ticket punchers, firearms, Indian topis [solar hats], and rat traps. It was a pleasure giving what help I could to all of them. It does seem to be men rather than women who get obsessed with a topic in this way.

One comment that George made that sounded useful was saying that eBay was a very good source of information, as sellers often provided good photos and patent or trade mark information.

7 April 2014

Search Matters 2014: training at EPO

I attended the Search Matters 2014 conference at The Hague last week, where I gave the keynote speech.

Search Matters is an annual two-day meeting where the European Patent Office (EPO) provide talks and workshops to help patent professionals learn about patent searching tools, including changes in provision. I'd never been before, and it was certainly intensive. About 120 attended, and I went to six workshops on topics such as accessing Chinese and Korean patent information, and citation searching to assist in identifying relevant material. On the whole, the emphasis was on finding older patents that might invalidate a patent application -- what is called "prior art."

I think everyone else providing the talks and workshops were EPO staff, but I had been asked to give the keynote speech. I was asked to choose any relevant topic and to make it entertaining and informative. The title was Do you know English ? The challenge of the English language for searchers, and was a light-hearted review of common problems that we all face, including native English speakers.

These included English spelling; the numerous synonyms that the language has; verbs that are also nouns; US versus British spelling or wording; establishing terminology such as wording for cars and aircraft; and compound nouns, where there can be uncertainty over whether a word is spelt as one word or as two.

For example, I would never think of spelling "ballpoint" as "ball point", yet in the relevant patent class for ballpoint pens, B43K7/00, the number of title hits on the free Espacenet database was:

ball point(s)......................603

Within the same class, there were other wordings for the basic idea of a such a writing instrument:

writing instrument(s).........323
writing implement(s).........122
writing device(s).................11

"Pen" would of course have overlapped with other wordings. The implication is, of course, use all possible variants.

I told a few jokes about machine translations. The English saying "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" get translated into Russian and back again and becomes "The vodka is great but the meat is lousy", and the French saying "Voici l'Anglais avec son sangfroid habituel" becomes "Here comes the Englishman with his usual bloody cold". I had scoffed in 1988 at the idea of machine translations at a meeting, but happily admit that they are now very useful and are of course much used. For patents, the Patenttranslate function on Espacenet is very valuable for translating ASCII text. Unlike other translation tools, it incorporates numerous technical wordings.

There is also Patentese, the dialect used by patent attorneys to draft "broad yet precise" patent claims. I gave the example of the weird wording in John Keogh's Circular transportation facilitation device, better known as a wheel. Keogh was a patent attorney who wanted to make fun of the new Australian innovation patent, which was not checked for novelty. I also gave the (fictitious ?) example of the patent attorney who, confronted by an optimist saying that a glass was half full, and a pessimist saying it was half empty, replied that it was an open-ended cylinder horizontally dissected by liquid H2O.

As a paperless conference, the presentations were put on a USB which was given to the participants. I will certainly keep it for review as it was hard to keep track of all the information. I learnt about new things, and enjoyed networking with the participants. I appreciated being invited to contribute to the conference, and the pleasant hospitality offered. I also enjoyed staying at Delft, and for the first time in my life visited Rotterdam, from which my ancestor migrated to England in 1875.

The website promises to publish the lectures and the larger workshops as e-learning modules by mid-May.

I would encourage those professionals who feel the need to strengthen their skills in patenting searching to attend next year's workshop.

5 April 2014

Google's trade mark application for "Glass"

Google has been trying to get a trade mark for the word "Glass", I hear. In July 2013 they applied for it for...

Computer software for setting up, configuring, and controlling wearable computer hardware; wearable computer hardware; wearable computer peripherals

...all in Class 9. You register for one or more classes of goods or services, not for everything. It was in a stylised fount, as shown below.

It was rejected, and Google appealed in a letter over 1,928 pages long, though much of that was copies of news articles. The letter can be read by selecting the "20 March 2014 Paper correspondence incoming" (and how ! at that size) on the official electronic file page for Google's "Glass" application. That, in turn, I found by finding the application itself in the very valuable (and free) tmquest database by Minesoft, which is easy to use. I asked for Glass as a trade mark and Google as owner, and clicked on "Legal status" at the top of the full entry. There is a tab for "Documents".

Anyone with the time can read the full file, but briefly the US Patent and Trademark Office argued that the mark was descriptive. The reply was that the "glass" is actually titanium and plastic, so it wasn't. My own thoughts are that using a common noun by itself is not distinctive enough -- how short can a trade mark be ? A German who tried to register an exclamation mark apparently found that it needed to be somewhat longer.

I learnt about the application in today's Daily Telegraph, and what made me choke in my cornflakes was the headline: "Google can't patent "Glass" whatever font they write in, says US officials". They are not actually trying to patent the word, they are trying to register a trade mark for it. In the UK at least (I think they are more savvy in the USA) many journalists think the words used in intellectual property, such as patent, trade mark and copyright, are interchangeable. These words are not: they are used, respectively, for a technical invention; words or logos for goods of services; and for literary, artistic or musical creation. I remember once a journalist phoning me to get, he said, the right wording on an invention story. I dictated to him the wording he should use, but at some point this was altered so that the printed story didn't make any sense. Oh well, I had tried (and at least I was not credited as the source).

Google had already applied, in September 2012, to register Google Glass. This has been opposed and is awaiting a hearing at the office's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board [the US uses the spelling trademark, the UK trade mark]. This is stated in the electronic file page for the "Google Glass" application. Incidentally, the Daily Telegraph article said "the company has already trademarked the term "Google Glass"", but this is not true.

Many people think that a search on Google will find them everything hidden away on the Web, but in this case, as in many others, expert help is needed to get at the facts.

26 March 2014

The Ryno self-balancing unicycle

Gizmag has an article on the new Ryno self-balancing unicycle which has apparently been a big hit on the Web (although I missed it). It will soon be shipping, at a price of $5250.

The story includes an interview with Chris Hoffmann, the inventor, who attributes the idea to his then 13-year old daughter, Lauren's, question. She had seen a one-wheeled motorcycle on a video, and drew a sketch of what she had in mind. Why weren't they around ? She reminded Dad that he was an engineer.

Hoffmann began to work on the idea, incorporating a gyroscope to maintain balance for the vehicle. When the Segway(R) came out gyroscopes cost $500, now they are just $10. Bringing the costs down was crucial. Seven years on, he is almost there with the product launch at the Ryno company website. By the way, their application for Ryno as a US trade mark was made in August 2013 and is pending registration.

I have found two patent applications by Christopher Hoffmann.

In August 2012 there was published a US patent application by Hoffmann and Anthony Ozrelic, Electric-powered self-balancing unicycle with steering linkage between handlebars and wheel forks. Below is one of its drawings.

The crucial patent document, though, is one that was published as both a US patent application and as a "World Patent" application on the 27 February 2014, the Electric-powered self-balancing unicycle. It was made by the same two men on behalf of Ryno Motors of Beaverton, Oregon. It is an A2 document, meaning that it is without a search report at the end listing prior art that might invalidate the concept. That might be published weeks, months or even a year or two from now, as an A3 on Espacenet's bibliographic entry for that invention.

There are 11 drawing pages -- here are three of them, which are full of interest.

I look forward to seeing the Ryno racing past me on the road. Being electric, it appears to be rather silent in comparison with normal motorcycles. I regard that as a Good Thing.

25 March 2014

Design Museum exhibition: Designs of the year

London's Design Museum has an exhibition of 76 Designs of the Year across the world, which is on until 25 August. It opens tomorrow (26 March).

There is a video about the exhibition on the BBC website. Should be good -- and don't forget the many graduate shows on universities, mainly in late June, which are both free and great fun -- I've enjoyed chatting to the designers themselves.

21 March 2014

Inventions invited ! Project Hatchling

British company Turtle Mat is launching an invitation, open to British residents, to submit inventions for possible commercialisation by them at Project Hatchling. The prize is a negotiated royalty agreement for the successful invention. There is no charge to enter.

Traditionally it is very hard for outsiders to submit their inventions to companies. They are often ignored or treated in a rather offhand fashion. On the competition page, below the video, are images of previous winners. It looks like household products have a good chance, as Turtle Mat is noted for -- surprise -- washable mats, as their website shows.

I have noticed a growing tendency by (some) companies to consider seriously ideas from outside their company. As the head of Procter and Gamble pointed out, most of the world's engineers do not work for his company, so they were missing out on a lot of ideas. They now aim for half of their innovations to be sourced from outside the company.

Submissions are open until the 30 April, and while applications should be made from the 1 April it is possible to preregister.

20 March 2014

Google's Android Wear wristwatch

Gizmag has a story, Google unveils the Android Wear platform: Google Now on your wrist. There is a Google official blog post from the 18 March about their new smart watch, Android Wear. It asks for apps to be developed for the watch. Here's one of that post's two videos, showing individuals enjoying using the watch to get information.

So it's not just Google Glass (which I posted about in May 2013). Others have mentioned the patents, but I've done my own research to identify four relevant patents owned by Google.

First there was an Israeli invention, by Modu, which dates as far back as 2005. In 2011 Google purchased their patent portfolio for $4.9 million, which explains why the owner of the rights is given as Google in their Wireless telecommunication device and uses thereof.

The next three are all by inventors Gossweiler and Miller. In 2011 there was applied for what was granted, in October 2012, Smart watch including flip-up display. Here are a couple of its drawings.

Next to be granted US protection, in June 2013, is Smart-watch with user interface features. Here is its main drawing.

Then in January 2014, but originally applied for in 2008, is Gesture-based small device input. The patent makes interesting reading with its talk of a virtual mouse pad. Below is its main drawing.

And here is another drawing from the same.

Time will tell (excuse the pun) on how well this device will sell.

13 March 2014

The Brodie military helmet

According to Web sources, the standard British and American helmet in World War I was invented by John Leopold Brodie, and was patented in 1915. He was a London-based engineer. It had been found that shell splinters rather than bullets were the main danger to soldiers' heads, and the design was meant to protect them from splinters (and hence from above).

However, the three British Brodie patents for helmets do not look anything like the classic flattish helmet with a broad brim. These vary somewhat, but tend to look like the one illustrated below.

The 1915 patent, GB 1915/11803, illustrated below, was applied for in August 1915. There was also US 1251959 for the same invention. See how much higher the dome is in the drawings. Also, the brim is at a greater angle of slope.

There was a lining made of "American cloth" which was integral to the helmet. An air gap between the lining and the helmet kept the head cool in summer while preventing frostbite in winter. It also prevented rusting; kept the helmet firmly on the head; and prevented pressure on any point on the head, which could cause headaches. Also in the patent, Brodie suggested that it be painted in rainbow colours so as to make it "invisible to the enemy", and early issues were indeed painted, apparently.

So why was it so different ? I can only speculate that a need to save metal meant that the flatter shape was adopted, assuming that the Brodie attribution is correct. It was first used in any numbers in July 1916.

There is a Wikipedia article on the Brodie helmet. To save time designing a new helmet, sources say, the US Army adopted a slightly modified form of the Brodie helmet for its soldiers.