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]


29 November 2015

The problems of private inventors: "New Scientist" in 1979-80

In looking up a reference recently I came across a couple of articles on British private inventors in New Scientist dating back to 1979-80 (freely available on Google Books).

They were about the frustrations experienced by inventors trying to get their ideas commercialised. Things haven't changed: my career as a patent librarian began in 1987 and ended with my retirement in 2013, and complaints about a lack of enthusiasm for private inventors' ideas were a constant refrain.

The articles reminded me that many inventors would say to me that the government should pay for evaluating, promoting and often financing their inventions. Strangely, none of them volunteered that the government would then deserve a big cut of any profits for taking such risks. I always felt that many private inventors were unable to understand the feelings and motivations of those on the other side of a bargaining table, and that success was very unlikely without some empathy.

The articles I found were both by Adrian Hope, who in 1980 revealed himself to be Barry Fox, a journalist who specialised in electronics and who took a great interest in the patent system. They are It's a wonderful idea, but... (1 June 1978, 576-581) and Death of an idea (13 September 1979, 794-797, with comments by inventors in the 27 September issue, page 1000, Hope springs eternal).

They make entertaining reading, if it is rather frustrating to see good ideas that at the time at least never got anywhere. The first article was promoting the idea of an organisation that would "provide desperately needed funds and encouragement" for selected inventions by private inventors. The problem, surely, would be to identify the possible winners: if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.

The article began with Hope explaining that he wrote to the inventors of 65 patented inventions which had been profiled by him in New Scientist. 29 of them were still in force (occasional renewal fees were required), 20 had lapsed from protection, the remainder were too new to be subject to renewal fees. Only 33 replied, although Hope used the latest addresses as listed in the Patent Register.

Of the 28 replies relating to "small" inventions, 8 were handwritten, and many were rambling and mentioned irrelevant matters (I always reminded inventors that no manufacturer would be interested in how or why you thought of the idea...). Hardly business-like, and I liked Hope's comment that inventors can be their own worst enemies. What they had in common was that they were frustrated by the "brickwalls" in trying to get the idea into production or use.

One such invention was GB1288677, Means for protecting water pipes from bursting under freezing conditions, a simple means of doing just that. Another was a musical potty to help mentally disabled children, GB1409803, Chamber pot. That may sound amusing to some, but a woman inventor later made a lot of money from such a device that talked to the children to encourage, ahem, good aim. This is a list of mostly relevant patent documents on talking or musical potties.

The article concluded by recommending a scheme by which prizes of £5000 would be awarded after evaluation. The National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) had a somewhat similar role but for larger-scale inventions, and it was disquieting that many inventors said at the time that they had never head of it.

The second article was an interesting followup. The NRDC was only interested in strongly protected inventions, often not the case for small inventions, and they needed to be potentially valuable. Their investment in the hovercraft had not earned money, and apparently it was only their investment in patents in cephalosporin drugs which had made it profitable. Which confirms my point that it is very hard to pick out the "winners". Perhaps only inventions which save money for the user or the taxpayer, or which help the environment, should be picked ?

The NRDC is no more, and Nesta, founded in 1998, is the UK agency which comes closest to it, although with a wider remit. Its Our history pages list some of its achievements.

There is also the idea of a Royal Academy of Invention, for evaluating inventions, which has been promoted by Trevor Baylis, the "clockwork radio" inventor. He has not made much progress with the concept.

So, business as usual...