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]


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.