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]


28 December 2013

Bizarre advertising patents

Some advertising seems bizarre, and some patents capture that. Here are illustrations from actual American and British patents, with links to the patent specifications.

There is for example Advertising device, from 1917. The showman is showing an apparent case of perpetual motion, although power is secretly being provided through the uprights. Not really advertising, but that's what the Oregon inventor, Leander Wheatley, called it. 
In a similar vein there is Display device, from 1939. Amilio Antinori of Illinois thought of someone being strapped to the wheel and then being rapidly spun, such as "a performer of an illusion, a lay figure, or merchandise to be displayed." 

Then in 1914 there was Combined scarecrow and advertising device by Samuel Hunter of New York state. Sound effects were to be included to attract the attention of a passerby to the advertising supplied. 

There is also David Leb's Advertising system, where a temporary tattoo is used for advertising on the backs of, for example, boxers. The patent was assigned to Cyber World Group of St Laurent, Canada. 

Turning to the UK, there is Illusionary advertising sign or the like periodically illuminated, from 1915, by a British electrical engineer. It involves the old theatrical trick of turning backlighting on or off so that a scene becomes visible or invisible. 

There is also Devices for exhibition and advertising purposes. It's a British patent by a German citizen, dating from 1926. 

The ingenuity (and, often, naivety) of inventors never ceases to amaze me. 

21 December 2013

The Hivehaus® modular house

The Hivehaus® is a modular housing concept where hexagonal cells are built by using identically-sized panels, with additional cells being added as required or wanted. Like a honeycomb, hence the hive. "Haus" is I suppose a reference to Passivhaus, the highly ecological housing standard.

Each cell is the same size, and has a skylight (and so, even if surrounded by other cells, has natural lighting). The walls can vary, so some can contain windows or doors. Each cell is 100 square feet in size. Each wall panel is put together out of four connecting equilateral triangles.

Barry Jackson, who lives near Wigan, England, thought it up. He applied for the UK trade mark on 2 October 2012 but I have not found a patent application in his name or that of his company, ipothosis ltd., who have an interesting website. The company was formed a week later, on 10 October 2012. Below is what it looks like, complete in this case with decking.

There are at least four UK registered designs, such as this one:

These are hard to find (I intend to post soon on the limits placed on the searcher by the official UK designs database, where I was forced to search just for Jackson as a proprietor, though I knew his first name). I don't regard designs as a very effective tool in his case as it is the concept rather than the exact look that is important.

I first came across Hivehaus® in George Clarke's Amazing spaces TV programme. I love architecture, and I love sustainable, low-cost solutions. Although the company website does not seem to mention costs or prices (and the product won't be launched until 2014), it is clearly meant to be an economical and flexible way to self-assemble a well-insulated home. The TV episode suggested £10,000 per cell. Flexible jacks mean that it can be built on an uneven surface. Presumably it saves money (and ensures each cell has natural lighting) not to build above a ground floor level, though that does limit the concept to areas where there is some space to expand (unless you surrender the ability to do so in the future). You are also limited to rooms of the same size and configuration (and colours, though perhaps other colours than black and white will be offered). I'd like one with an interior courtyard. That's one of the points -- you can to a degree design it to your own needs and wishes.

Is the idea so radically new ? There is a patent classification for hexagonal-shaped housing construction, indexing patent specifications such as the Pre-cast polygonal shelter by Lane Lythgoe of Heber, Utah as illustrated below. That's the point: Jackson's is more flexible in putting the cells together, and can easily be added to, not pre-cast.

At present there are 492 patent specifications listed for that class, many in German. More manageable are the 143 published in the USA or in the UK.

Below is a fun time-lapse video showing the building of a Hivehaus® cell.

19 December 2013

A secret aviation invention from World War I

In my work as a patent specialist I was often asked about secret inventions for military use. Today I researched the history of a British secret invention which is rather sad, as the inventor died tragically.

Like many other countries the UK Patent Office either suppress or delay the publication of militarily sensitive patents. One that was delayed was GB1915/17082, which was for a method of training pilots so that bombs were dropped accurately. The basic idea was that it was a mirror which was placed by an operator in the middle of an airfield, and could be used to check if the pilot had "dropped" an imaginary bomb on the right spot (that is, where the operator was). Ruled lines were used to monitor the accuracy in this first, 9 page version, Optical apparatus for use in connection with aircraft. It was filed on 4 December 1915 but was not published until 5 July 1923, having been, as the printed patent states, "withheld from publication under Section 30 of Patents and Designs Acts, 1907 and 1919". Here is the main drawing.

The applicant is given as Thomas Archibald Batchelor, Flight Lieutenant R.N.A.S., Admiralty. The only reason I found it was that I knew the patent number. That was mentioned in files at the UK National Archives (TNA) released in the 1980s. The Espacenet database only indexes the patent by the publication number and the words in the patent summary -- which does include his name (as Batchelor, T.A.) If this is typical of secret patents then the way I found it may be helpful to others.

The TNA catalogue lists numerous files in class T173, the papers of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, which cover 1919 to 1937. It was to determine compensation for patented and unpatented inventions used in World War I. Many of the folders are for the correspondence of a single request for compensation by the inventor or his/ her representatives. The advanced format of the Discovery online catalogue can be used by specifying T173 in the "Search within" area while specifying a name or a topic in the first boxes. That would find folder or "piece" T173/108, described as

Claimant(s): Batchelor, Mrs. U. Nature of Invention: Bomb-dropping mirror

I also found that there was a second folder for Mrs Batchelor, T173/554, for a bomb sight, by looking for her name.

I spent ten minutes studying these folders, but they needed hours. Usually there is little or no information other than the patent for an old invention, yet here there were many pages. I only had a quick look, from which Una turned out to be her name, and her deceased husband was called Major Batchelor. Her address was given -- 30 Hampstead Road, Preston Park, Sussex. Basically the folders consisted of an exchange of letters, with some memos, between the widow and the authorities, in which she asked for compensation for his invention.

They replied that he had been employed to do research work and had been paid an extra £500 anyway, for the 273 mirrors made for the British forces, but she wanted compensation for the 41 made in the USA for the US forces. £1000 was her price. It was mentioned that Batchelor had been a paymaster in the Royal Navy who had trained to be a pilot. He had crashed and died in a Handley-Page aircraft.

I had assumed that he died in the war, but an item dated May 1 1919 on the Flightglobal archive revealed that he died, as a Major in the RAF, and who had received a DFC, on April 22 at the age of 32 in a flying accident at Andover aerodrome. Not only did he die in an accident, the war had been over for several months. A brave bombing raid by Batchelor is described in an August 1918 issue of the same magazine.

The papers refer to an improved version of the invention that did not require the ruled lines, but this is not the same as his patent that was applied for on 13 April 1917 and was accepted for publication in 1921 as Range-finding apparatus for use upon aircraft. There was a co-applicant, Lieut.-Commander Harry Egerton Wimperis, of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Here is the main drawing.

Wimperis had 20 patents, mostly on aviation. He is described in the first patent as an engineer, in 1909. He turns up a lot in the Batchelor folders, including the transcript of his making statements in some sort of courtroom on behalf of the widow, where he is called Major Wimperis. He was in some difficulties as he admitted that he was also supposed to be involved in helping decide if inventors should be paid compensation. Hence there was a conflict of interest.

There are also papers from the American side, including an impressively set out letter, with a huge blue seal on it, signed by no less than Billy Mitchell, the distinguished pilot and general.

The verdict ? The official side claimed it was not new, referring to the earlier work in GB1915/9354 and in US1121309, and talked of offering her £50. It does not seem that Batchelor's widow received even that.

This is merely one of many stories hidden away in the archives.

Some unusual Santa Claus patents

Christmas is almost upon us. This post is mainly images from US utility and design patents depicting good ol' Santa Claus.

What about this bizarre one ?

And then there's an illuminated Santa.

And also a Santa Claus bank. Published in 1953 as, indeed, Santa Claus bank

Santa has to struggle down the chimney... (Christmas toy, from 1926)

...but sometimes things go wrong, such as a dog barking so Santa races back up the chimney without making his delivery (Toy, from 1933).

and then of course there's all the packaging for the presents, as in 1948's Novelty carton. 

Have a good break, everyone.

15 December 2013

Using the Cooperative Patent Classification to find early patents

The Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) is mainly meant as a tool to assist the searching of modern patents by subject, but can also be used as a wonderful way to find many older patents.

The document CPC coverage sets out the date spans for which countries' patents are covered on the free Espacenet database., where the Classification link leads to the classification schedules. I have checked sample classes and cannot agree on the dates given for comprehensive coverage for two countries.

These are France, where coverage is supposed to be from 1844, and I make it 1902, and Switzerland, where it is supposed to be from 1939 and I make it 1920.

Below are listed the main patent authorities and their coverage:

United States, 1836 to date [i.e. from beginning of numerical series]
Germany, 1877 to date [i.e. from the first publication]
France, 1902 to date
United Kingdom, 1909 to date
PCT, 1978 to date
European Patent Convention, 1978 to date

Going back so far (over 8 million US documents alone) must have been an incredibly hard task and all credit is due to those involved. It is easy to quibble -- I'd like to see titles supplied for all of those covered by the CPC, ideally in English rather than the local language. Applicant and inventor data is also often absent. Adding such data would immensely improve the use of the Espacenet database for historians of inventions. I do realise that this is unlikely to be a high priority.

Top of the list, for me, would be to extend CPC coverage for the UK back to 1893, when the earliest patents appear on the database. Those searching are likely to use English alone, or with another language, and besides the American material it would be very useful to be able to search further back. Maybe material before 1893 could be added ?

So, how can this material be accessed ?

The CPC schedules on the Espacenet database should be used first. It can be searched by keyword to find possible classes, when the user then drills down to the detailed classes. These can then be transferred to a search mask in the database to run a search, to which additional limits such as by publication date spans and country can be added. Adding applicant or inventor names is hazardous, as often these fields will be absent.

For example, enter in the search box A42B5/00. This is the class for veils for faces, and could also have been found by entering "veils". Tick the hollow box next to the class. This enters it on the left, below which is "Copy to search form". I usually use this in preference to "Find patents" as that would find everything.

Once in the search form, limits can be added. For example, enter in the "Publication date" box 1844:1914. This limits the search to that date span. I found 69 hits. These can be sorted by priority [original filing] date, ascending order, although this may not work well for very early material, as it is often not indexed, so that the earliest appear first.

The "publication number" field can have one or more country codes such as US, GB, FR, DE to limit hits to that country. Hence US reduces the hits to just three, covering 1907-1914. One such is Veiling by Charles Gaskill of Delaware, as illustrated below.

Three sounded a low number, so I searched the title field by the word "Veil?", where the ? allows an s to be added. There were 35 from 1899, although many were for veil fasteners or brooches etc. A search by title word of the British material gave 87, though only from 1894 onwards.

Clicking on a patent title then means that the actual patent can be seen as a single PDF by clicking on "Original Patent", while clicking on "Mosaics" means that the drawings can be seen as miniature. At the top, "Next" always enables the following hit to be seen in the same format, which is useful for scanning through lots of material.

A big problem for anyone using the database is not knowing what has been indexed -- the patents themselves, or some fields, may be absent. "Absence of evidence is no evidence of absence" -- because you didn't find it may not mean that it doesn't exist. Nevertheless, searching can often reveal useful and often unique material for the history of technology.

14 December 2013

Self-serving tables: a bizarre invention

When I was employed as a patent specialist I mainly handled new inventions, most of which were reasonable ideas. It was, however, the older patents, including the odd and even bizarre ones, which really won my heart.

One such was applied for in 1919 by Essex Deloatch of Philadelphia. The title is Motor control system for self-serving tables. The main, and deliciously detailed, drawing is shown here:

The inventor explains that the idea is to ensure that "a large number of patrons may be expeditiously served without the employment of waiters or any considerable number of attendants." It seems that the cost of labour was a worry for catering establishments even then.

He also wanted to prevent the "annoyance caused by waiters reaching past the guests seated at the table" with a mechanism operated, for all the tables, by a single operator.

Guests who are ready to be served push an electrical button in front of them. A pocket is provided in which is placed the order, the money for it, and later the change. One side of each table is adjacent to a wall with a serving hatch. Yes, that's right, the table swivels automatically so that dishes can be served and collected from the hatch. Each position at the table is noted by the operator so that the right dishes are served to each position.

The cost of the system, and the need for space to allow that each table is adjacent to a serving area behind a wall, must have, one presume, have meant that Mr Deloatch's proposal was refused when offered to restaurants. From experience I have found that inventors are often unaware of such objections, mesmerised as they are by the cleverness of the invention.

It was only after writing this post that I realised that this invention was a refinement of Deloatch's earlier patent, filed in 1915 from Newport News, VA, titled Dining or lunch room serving table, where the waiter telephones the orders through. As the drawing shows people it is even more fun:

Both of these patents were listed as relevant by the USPTO patent examiner in Smorgasphere's 1967 filing for the Food server patent, where the entire table swivels through the wall. Again, did they not think of the cost ? A drawing showing the left hand of the table in the restaurant and the right half behind the scenes is shown below.

Cheaper than all this is surely the idea of dishes going past the guests so that they can select those that they want, as seen in some Oriental restaurants.

To finish off, what about the 1866 invention by William Lance of Pennsylvania, his Self-waiting table. I'd like to see this one in a restaurant if only for the novelty value.

11 December 2013

Inventions to defuse hurricanes

Geoengineering covers many technical subjects, and one is how to control hurricanes so that they are less destructive.

Patents have risen to the challenge, and not only are there patent specifications on the subject, there is also a classification, "Devices or methods for influencing weather conditions", A01G15/00. The 45 which mention hurricanes or cyclones in their title are listed here.

For a good search, you should rarely rely on one search, and certainly not on one which relies merely on a couple of title words in one class. You would have missed Water alteration structure having below surface valves or wave reflectors, published in 2009, which includes among its numerous inventors a certain William H. Gates III, better known as Bill Gates. Its other inventors include Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technical officer of Microsoft, who with Edward Jung, formerly Microsoft's chief for software, formed Intellectual Ventures, a prolific creator of patented ideas. Here is the invention's chief drawing.

The idea is that a giant polyethylene tube in the sea allows warm sea water to splash over the top and to sink down, so that it mixes with the colder water below. Build enough and you defuse hurricanes.

I came across this due to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's delightful book Superfreakonomics, the sequel to Freakonomics, which uses economics (and often statistics) to shed light on a wide variety of activities in a tongue-in-cheek yet thoughtful way. Chapter 5 discusses the efforts to defuse hurricanes, and the notes cite the above US patent application. Hurricanes are incredibly destructive and also kill many people so any cost analysis would suggest that making them less powerful would be worth spending a great deal on. The maximum price for one would be $100,000, and positioning 10,000 would therefore cost $1 billion -- 10% of the cost of hurricane damage in one year. They would also have to be towed and anchored to the right spots, and there is the problem of navigation hazards for ships.

Another of the inventors is Stephen Salter, who as a professor at Edinburgh came up with the "Salter Duck", a way of generating power from waves by using a chain of nodding "ducks". This was applied for as long ago as 1973 and is titled Wave energy extraction. The main drawing is shown below.

I had no idea that there were so many patent specifications for quelling the force of hurricanes. No doubt different methods are proposed, or perhaps they vary only in detail. What about Method for hurricane prevention, illustrated here:

And also this very intricate drawing, from Ocean wind water pump for de-energizing a storm.

While many of these methods may not work, and some look distinctly odd, but the patent system does provide a way to identify numerous solutions which are presented in a systematic way. One distinct oddity located in the same class is a Canadian patent application, Ultimate solutions to obesity, tornado, doomsday, and other acts of God.

8 December 2013

Google surging ahead with patenting

MIT's Technology Review has a very interesting article on Google's enormous efforts to take out patents, Google's growing patent stockpile by Antonio Regalado.

As an example, back in May I posted on The Google Glass patents. I found 8 World patent applications containing the word "wearable".

Now there are no fewer than 15 Google World patent applications with the word "wearable" in the title. These include Wearable device with input and output structures, as illustrated below.
If only all patent applicants used such predicable language in their titles !

We are only a few days into December, but already there are 18 World patent applications, all published on the 5 December, as listed here. This is phenomenal, and as the article says the company looks like it will become one of the top patenting companies. There were 43 in all of November -- and 573 in all of 2013.

This compares with 743 by Microsoft for 2013, and 67 by Amazon.

As the article points out, the patent documents cover a wide variety of topics. Turning to the 1134 US utility patents granted to Google so far in 2013, we find such titles as Disambiguation of spoke proper names; System and method of identifying advertisement in images; Bicycle directions; and Inferring the gender of a face in an image, which is illustrated below.

Most are, however, to do with linguistic problems, as might be expected from a company which originally began searching text.

4 December 2013

Easing childbirth: Argentine mechanic Odon's invention

I love it when the story behind an invention is revealed. The story Odon childbirth device: car mechanic uncorks a revolution on the BBC website tells of a bottle, a loose cork inside it, and a plastic bag, and how they inspired Argentine car mechanic Jorge Odon to an invention.

Already the holder of several patents related to cars, and the father of five children, Odon challenged a friend to guess how to get a loose cork out of a bottle. As he'd seen a UTube video he knew that a plastic bag and some breaths would do the trick (the friend thought you'd have to break the bottle).

Then he realised that the same principle could be used to make childbirth easier. Thoughtlessly, he waited until 4 am to let his wife know this. "That's nice", she said, and went back to sleep.

In 2012 the World patent application was published (in Spanish, but with an English summary) with the unusual title Device for extracting elements from cavities which uses a bag for extraction and an applicator.

An earlier World patent application was published in the USA in 2010 as a patent application, Device for extracting elements from a cavity.  Presumably the later patent document is a refinement of that invention. In both of them a Spanish inventor is also named.

Using forceps is the normal method in 10% of births, and it is to be hoped that the Odon method is a successful alternative.

3 December 2013

Underwater hotels: a patent application

The BBC website has an article, Underwater hotel rooms: is down becoming the new up ? about a proposal for, indeed, an underwater hotel by Polish company Deep Ocean Technology.

In March 2012 a World patent application, An underwater-above water accomodation, especially for residential purposes by the company was published. Here is the main drawing.

The patent document describes how the rooms are built on legs, but the article gives extra details. The rooms would be at a depth of 10 metres. If they are too deep, the colours in the sea are lost (this saves on construction costs, too). To prevent scaring the fish with loud noises, the lavatories and air conditioning would be placed away from the windows.

There's a rather cool video showcasing the technology:

2 December 2013

Sony's invention for wig sensors

Sony has had a US patent application published on the 21 November for its Wearable computing device, which is for a wig containing sensors. The idea is that the wig hides the sensors, and gives plenty of scope for placing the sensors. One of the drawing pages is shown below.

The BBC website has a useful article on "SmartWig". As it points out, the idea of wearable sensors is likely to become a big growth area in technology. Rather than having a device in your hand or in your pocket, it's easier to simply wear it.

Time will show which technology wins out -- maybe several will survive as competitors. The obvious one is Google's glasses, published as Wearable device with input and output structures. Watches are the other main area so far. Until the technology settles down, perhaps, it will be hard for anyone trying to identify relevant patents to find them -- not every relevant patent document will have the word "wearable" teamed with words like "sensor" or "device" or "computing".

This is a list of (mostly relevant) World patent applications whose titles combine wearable with sensor or computing etc. That is a very crude search, and no doubt many more are out there.

I did not trace a European patent application for the same invention, which apparently has not yet been published. I expect this to be published soon. The advantage of seeing it is the ability to review the search report which is usually available with it, listing prior art.