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 August 2014

Everyday miracles TV series

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

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

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

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

15 August 2014

Patents for chopsticks !

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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