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]


20 December 2014

"Eight great technologies": analysis of patenting in key areas

The UK Intellectual Property Office has recently finished publishing a series of reports analysing the patent landscape in eight high technology areas which the government feels are important areas for the UK to carry out research in in the future.

A concluding report is titled Eight great technologies: a summary of the series of patent landscape reports, and it links on page 22 to PDFs of separate reports on each of the eight areas, or, with related papers, they can be found on this page.

These eight areas are the big-data revolution and energy-efficient computing; satellites and commercial applications of space; robotics and autonomous systems; life-sciences, genomics and synthetic biology; regenerative medicine; agri-science; advanced materials and nano-technology; energy and its storage; quantum technologies; and the Internet of things (IoT). That last topic is intriguing: it is about Bluetooth technologies,where objects talk to other objects, but also the ability of objects to automatically identify themselves to other objects.

The reports discuss the world patent scene in each technology, such as the major players (by entities and by country) and growth by year, followed by a look at the UK scene. For example, in IoT, the top UK player is Neul, a company based in Cambridge which I had not heard of. This is a list of World patent applications by Neul.

A command paper, Innovation and research strategy for growth, by Vince Cable MP (Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills), published as Cm 8239 in 2011, is of interest as it discusses in detail the subject. The measures it advocates include the annual publication of an innovation report on the UK, the latest being Innovation Report 2014, published in March. It also talked of helping the Technology Strategy Board, now called Innovate UK. All this sounds excellent so long as well-trained scientists and technicians can be funded (whether by public money or by industry) to create useful products to benefit the UK economy. For too long there has been lip-service rather than real action.

Eight great technologies is also the title of a discussion paper by David Willetts MP (until July 2014 the Minister for Universities and Science), published in 2013 by the Policy Exchange think tank.

Graphene in patents

John Colapinto has written an interesting article, "Material question", about the nature of graphene and research on its uses, in the current New Yorker (22 and 29 December 2014, 50-63).

Graphene is a an atom-thick layer of graphite which has special properties. These include the ability to transmit electrical charges 250 times more rapidly than silicon. It may be the successor material to silicon for use in electrical devices, a silicon is reaching its apparent limits as miniaturization continues. Graphene is also 150 times stronger than the equivalent amount of steel, and is the only material which is totally impermeable to gases.

It was discovered by two scientists at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. Adhesive tape was used to isolate the first ever two-dimensional material. Their paper describing it was apparently twice rejected by Nature, as being "impossible" and not a "sufficient scientific advance", according to the journal's reviewers. It was published instead in Science in October 2004 as "Electric field effect in atomically thin carbon films" [it can be read at this link] and caused much excitement among scientists. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.

A report, Graphene: the worldwide patent landscape in 2013, was published by the UK Intellectual Property Office in 2013, Over 8,000 patents on the subject are covered in it, which shows that the UK is far behind in the race to develop the material -- the leading entity, the University of Manchester, has 6 patent families, which puts it at joint 163rd place, with Samsung first with 210 patent families.

Colapinto discusses in detail the work of James Tour and his colleagues at Rice University in Texas. The World patent applications by Tour for Rice in the field of carbon are listed here.

All in all, a very interesting article written for non-specialists in a fascinating field.

27 November 2014

The "patent" for Oreo® cookies

We bought a packet of Oreo® cookies today at the local supermarket, and it made me wonder about the history of the product, a kind of "sandwich cookie."

I had a look on Google (for Oreo + cookies + either history or patented) and found several sites which mentioned the 6 March 1912 as the date of origin, and some which said that it was patented on "March 6, 1912, U.S. Patent No. 0093009." For example, the New York Daily News obituary of Sam Porcello.

The TimeToast timeline for Oreo® cookies also attributes that date to the patenting of the cookie.

According to the Wikipedia article on Oreo cookies,Sam Porcello held five patents relating to the cookie. A 2012 obituary for him in Time magazine was cited for this.

Well, I was surprised. There are a few patents for food products -- Toblerone® and Tabasco® sauce come to mind, as respectively Swiss patent 46708, filed for in 1909 and US patent 107701, filed in 1870. Yet I did wonder what was novel, even then, for the concept of two sweet layers with a creamy layer between them.

As I collect the patent numbers for the first patent for well-known products or processes I began some research. "Patented", in theory, meant the date the rights were granted, and would be the same day as publication.

The 6 March 1912 was a Tuesday, and American patents were at the time only published or "issued" on Wednesdays. So the date couldn't be the issue date.

Could it be the date a patent was applied for ? No apparent patent fitted -- and Sam or Samuel Porcello did indeed have five American patents between 1976 and 1989, mainly for Nabisco, for e.g. filler cream containing soybean oil, but this was obviously far too late for my purposes.

What about the number 0093009 ? It was wrong as a published utility patent number or as a design patent number as the dates would have been published in 1869 or 1934 respectively.

What about it being a filing number ? I wondered if it was a trade mark filing number. I went to my old standby, the free TMQuest database by Minesoft and asked for Oreo as an exact mark and the year 1912. I did not specify filing, registration or publication.

I got the one result, and said to myself "Bingo." US trade mark Registration number 0093009 was applied for on the 14 March 1912 and was registered on the 12 August 1913. The number matched perfectly if not the date.

I can't account for the 6 March 1912 -- perhaps that was the day the name Oreo was chosen to be a trade mark -- but this little saga does show how careful one has to be in carrying out research. Far from being patented (for the cookie itself or how to make it), the product was simply, and quite rightly, given a brand name.

I suspect that people have been innocently repeating the wording without checking further.

15 November 2014

Inventors' groups in London

A few days ago I gave a talk about my life in patents, with anecdotes, and the problems of subject searching the patents. This was at the Croydon Round Table of Inventors' premises near Norwood Junction. Here are a couple of pictures from the evening: me smiling at the camera...

...and a clearly rapt audience taking it all in.

This is me again talking about the free Espacenet patent database, as displayed on the screen.

As with the same talk given recently at the Kingston Round Table of Inventors and at the East London Inventors Club there were plenty of questions and lots of interest. I get a real buzz passing on my knowledge of 25 years, and never tire of going over the same problems. Such as how do you protect an idea, what patents can you legally use, who should you trust, how do you negotiate, etc., etc.

I always suggest that inventors join clubs such as these if they can. Besides the talks given, they can comment on other people's inventions, and learn from others, who are very often with their advice and comments. It always helps when someone had years ago the same problem you are encountering now, and it is easy for a private inventor to feel very alone.

I also took the opportunity to sell some copies of my most recently published book, Inventing the 21st century.

I'm happy to repeat the same talk to other groups in the London/ Surrey area.

12 November 2014

Green power: pressurising air underwater

I'm all for green power but the problem is with fluctuating supply, as with wind or solar. Supply rarely marches demand, so being able to cheaply and simply store power is vital. Batteries has been the usual approach when studying the problem, though pumping water uphill when there is little demand (and running it out through turbines) has its fans as well. The UK has been using this concept for decades.

Seamus Garvey, Professor of Dynamics at the University of Nottingham, has come up with a solution to the problem: when wind power isn't needed, it's stored in canvas bags under pressure in the sea.

I came across the idea in the article "Bottling the wind" by Abigail Beall in the 1 November New Scientist issue. She explains that the mechanical engineer was driving on a motorway when he thought of the idea of storing unwanted power underwater. When the power was needed, it would become available again, as simply venting it would drive a generator.

He tried to prove it was a bad idea and then realised it was a very good idea. If you want to store compressed air you need a lot of pressure, and there is no lack of that deep in the sea. Garvey was quoted as saying "It's important to take advantage of the stuff around you".

What about the patents ? As long ago as 2007 a World patent application in his name was published, with the University of Nottingham as the applicant, titled Power generation. Here are two patent drawings from the (American) patent specification.

The corresponding European patent application is still, all these years on, undergoing examination and has not therefore been granted protection. The European Register entry EP1971773 lists the various actions and by clicking on All Documents, at top left of that page, the correspondence with the European Patent Office can be read. Maybe the 10 patent documents cited against the World application were causing a problem. Meanwhile, in 2011 US8030793 was published.

At the time of writing, 16 patents since 2007 have had the Garvey specification cited against them, and are listed here. Clearly, there is interest in the topic.

There are a lot of videos about the concept or Garvey available. Garvey is now working on a commercial system with Canadian wind power company Hydro-Star Energy, LLC.

31 October 2014

Giving talks in London

Last night I gave a talk to the East London Inventors Club, and on the 11th I will be giving the same talk at the Croydon Round Table of Inventors.

"My life in patents" told about my 25 years as a librarian working in inventions, with some anecdotes, and then about the main problems involved with devising a patent search strategy, ending with two case studies showing how relevant patents might be identified by using keywords and classifications.

I am glad to say that the East London members are a lively bunch, and I was frequently asked questions or "interrupted" -- no shrinking violets they. I spoke for about an hour and then spent a further hour talking to individual members about their inventions, and making suggestions. Those suggestions often came down to using a patent attorney to drafting the specification, asking the British Library's Business and Intellectual Property Centre (BIPC) to carry out a priced search, or visiting the BIPC to understand how to use databases and to get other help. It's a lonely furrow to plough if you don't get expert help.

I had a great time and I think the members appreciated it. I enjoy giving ad hoc advice in such situations, as it is so important that no inventor feels isolated. That's why it's so important that private inventors join clubs as the more experienced members, in my experience, are generous with their time.

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.

I recently wrote on the related Frankie Zapata's Hoverboard by ZR.

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 !