Category Archives: inventions

Personalised car number plates. Fun – Flash – or just plain Naff

Last November the father of autonumerology, Noel Woodall died at the age of 82. Noel is credited with creating the market for personalised car number plates in the UK, worth more than £2bn to the Treasury since 1989.

Noel WoodallHis interest in what grew into a multi-million pound business began in 1960 when he noticed a car driving past with the plate BB 4. He discovered it belonged to a local Blackpool Bookmaker. Thinking other people might also be interested in memorable number plates, he started the first cherished number plate business in the country.

As this was in a time before the Internet, Noel went on a research mission to his local public library, and was surprised not to find a single book on the subject. So, being the entrepreneurial type he put an advert in the RAF’s Air Mail magazine, asking for information about distinctive number plates. He received so much information in response, he decided to compile and publish it in a small book entitled Car Number Galaxy – Celebrities. It cost him £250 to produce, which was 6 months’ wages at that time.

He went on to publish more than 20 books, including Veterans, More Celebrities, Cartoons and a series called Car Numbers, written with Brian Heaton and described by its publishers as “one of the longest running, and most popular publications about vehicle registrations”.

Car Number Galaxy 1963

As for me, I grew up with a strong prejudice against preening drivers who paraded around the streets with vanity plates adorning their shiny cars, like some kind of automotive bling jewellery. I couldn’t think of a more idiotic way to waste money than to ‘invest’ in an ‘IAM GR8’ plate.

So, I was glad to read that even people involved in the industry recognise its controversial nature. Piers England an auctioneer from the DVLA’s auction company admitted, “We call them marmite products – you either love them or hate them.” To quote one contributor to an online discussion “When I see a vanity plate, I think only one thing: ID 10T”.

List of the 10 most expensive plates sold by the DVLA

  1. 1 D – £352,000
  2. 51 NGH – £254,000
  3. 1 RH – £247,000
  4. K1 NGS – £231,000
  5. 1 O – £210,000
  6. 1 A – £200,000
  7. 1 OO – £197,000
  8. 2 O -  £142,000
  9. 6 B – £130,000
  10. 1 HRH – £113,000

So how then can I even start to justify my recent purchase of N11 1NFO for my humble Skoda Octavia? The answer is a combination of my failing memory and local car park rules. Until recently there was an opportunity to end a shopping trip in town with a good deed by handing over my parking ticket to a new arrival. The grateful recipient could then benefit from whatever time remained.

The local council became aware of this ‘good Samaritan’ behaviour and decided they were losing valuable income. The solution was to introduce shiny new ‘intelligent’ ticket machines which required your car registration number in addition to payment. This was printed on the ticket to prevent it being transferred to another car. So no more ‘random acts of kindness’ in the council owned car parks thank you very much.

As well as being frustrated by this meanness of spirit, this change led to a challenge for me. Sadly I have never managed to memorise any of the number plates of any of the various cars and motorbikes I have owned since passing my driving test back in 1976. So I would either have to park with my bumper in view of the ticket machine or keep a note of my number to hand. A third and unexpected solution was to buy a new plate with a memorable number.

After much internet research and even more soul-searching I was finally ready to go ahead and join this group I had enjoyed despising for so many years. The change in my thinking came about when I realised a personalised plate was just about the only way to express personality and even humour on a product that is standardised and factory produced. If you own a Ford Mondeo it looks just a like any other Ford Mondeo apart from a limited range of colours. Although I did see a chrome-plated car the other day which was so bright it actually hurt my eyes.

chrome-mercedes

But just having an initial or two, combined with a number seemed to be a wasted opportunity. And I began to take notice of properly memorable numbers I came across in my travels. Whilst cycling through the East End of London on a ‘Boris bike’ I spotted SK1NT on the back of a brand new Rolls Royce. A nice example of four wheeled irony. I also saw a rather surprising DARR0N on an Audie A4 queuing to get out of Legoland.

Mazda car MX55-NOB

My challenge was to see if I could find a memorable plate amongst those listed at the DVLA  starting price of £250. Needless to say, there wasn’t anything close to ‘librarian’ at that price. I compromised on a combination of my initials and info (my chosen profession), with an additional redundant ‘I’ stuck in the middle.

The irony of this story is that by the time I had deliberated, purchased the number, had the plates made up, sent in the forms, and finally got out my screwdriver and physically replaced them, the council had changed their parking policy. Outraged shoppers had bombarded the local council with complaints and the local newspaper had picked up on the issue. After initially robustly defending their new ‘fairer’ policy, the politicians realised they were on a losing wicket and eventually caved in. So now when I go shopping I no longer need to enter my number plate into the ticket machine, undermining the original reason for personalising my car’s identity.

 

Bringing the Victorian teasmade up to date

Swan_teasmadeMy partner managed to snap up a bargain ultra-modern teasmade at the weekend, and we have already had a first successful early morning brew-up.

The idea of waking up to a freshly made cup of tea in bed is of course not a new desire. And for Victorians who could not afford servants to get up early and light a fire, there was the (expensive) option of the clockwork teasmade and alarm clock.

Victorian Teasmade

Copyright Maurice Collins

Some of you might remember this invention had pride of place in our Weird and Wonderful exhibition way back in 2008. Maurice Collins, the collector of these amazing inventions is still going strong and has been featured on several television and radio shows.

In the clip below he demonstrates the somewhat dangerous aspects of the teasmade involving clockwork driven matches and paraffin.

I am sure he would want me to point out that all proceeds from his collection are directly donated to the learning disability charity Kith and Kids.

The perfect Christmas present – the gift of time

Mondaine watch

I guess in this ‘time poor’ era we could all do with an extra couple of hours a day, but in the meantime for me, a new watch will have to do.

For some years I have aspired to own a Mondaine watch. Based on the iconic official Swiss Railways clock-face, they are simple and elegant. The design with its distinctive red second-hand have indicated the famously punctual Swiss trains at their stations for more than 60 years.

So I was more than a little surprised, and extremely happy to be given one as a Christmas present from my partner. Especially as I hadn’t mentioned my interest in owning one.

Canary Wharf ClockIf you want to see an example ‘in the flesh’ in the UK there is a little cluster of them at Canary Wharf in London Docklands.

My intellectual property expert colleague Phil mentioned that the design was the cause of  court case between Mondaine and the giant Apple computer company. The story was covered by the Daily Mail website in October and November of last year.

Bet Apple wish they could turn the clock back: Swiss firm accuses iPhone 5 of copying their iconic face design.

Apple ‘paid £13million to Swiss national rail operator’ after using its iconic clock design without permission

There is some irony here, as this was the same time that Apple was suing Samsung in the United States for copying elements of the iPhone screen design.

 

Mondaine clock face

Image from DailyMail.co.uk

Re-inventing umbrellas and corkscrews in the Business & IP Centre

Squid_LondonIt never ceases to amaze me how innovative our customers in the Business & IP Centre are. In just the last couple of weeks I have been helping visitors who have re-invented the most iconic of household products, the umbrella and the corkscrew.

It started when a young man came up to the enquiry desk to ask if I could help find market research on the UK umbrella market. Sadly, the well-known publishers we hold such as Mintel and Keynote don’t tend to produce reports on niche markets like these. But a bit of creative researching led to some useful information on some of our other databases. I was of course curious as to why he wanted to know this information, (I would like to think this is part of what makes me a good information professional). “I guess you are going to tell me you have invented a new form of umbrella”, I said. His response was, “That is correct. I came up with the idea many years ago, and have now decided to patent it”.

As a heavy user of umbrellas to and from work (sadly they are necessary part of life in this rain ‘blessed’ nation), I can’t wait to see what his solution will be. The only real innovation I am aware of is the patented wind proof umbrella. Although an honourable mention should go to Squid London with their colour changing model, who just happen to be one of our Success Stories.

ScrewpullThe next encounter was with an older customer who wanted to find sales figures for corkscrews in the UK. Once again, we were not able to locate a market research report on this niche product. However we did manage to locate a few articles estimating sales and covering trends in the market.

As something of a gadget man I was interested in hearing about his corkscrew invention. But he wasn’t in a position to go into details at that point. However he did say that his idea was remarkably simple. I was left wondering if it will be any better than the ScrewPull system which is my current favourite. This involves the use of a low friction screw to penetrate the cork, combined with a mechanism that pulls it out of the bottle in one continuous movement.

By coincidence the previous evening Stephen Fry had been showing off what must be the most complicated and expensive corkscrew ever invented, on his Gadget Man television show.

 

higgs-corkscrew

Higgs Corkscrew

 

The secret doors of the British Library

BL DoorsBefore you get too excited, this is not a post about our collection of ‘naughty’ books. I have been at the library for seven years now and have yet to discover where they are located (not that I have been looking you understand).

This is about a secret contained within – not behind the doors of the British Library. At the entrance to each of the seven reading rooms in the St Pancras building stand pairs of impressively large wooden doors.

Colin St John Wilson who made the architecturally controversial building his life’s work, demanded only the best materials for the fixtures and fittings. Consequently the sheer weight of the Canadian oak that these impressive doors were constructed from, meant they could not be opened by ordinary mortals. This created something of a dilemma as the opening of the building  approached. I’m afraid I can’t prevent images entering my mind of stereotypically puny academics and weedy librarians breaking into a sweat, as they struggled with these mighty doors in vain.

To address this actually rather serious accessibility issue, building engineers came up with an ingenious and virtually invisible mechanical solution to the problem.

A small copper wire is curled in a spiral around each door handle. When grasped by a visitor the natural electrical charge within their body triggers a switch which is located in the door hinges. This powers an electric motor to push the door open. However this action is silent and so subtle that almost no one notices the assistance they are being given by the mechanism.

As a fan of ergonomic design and Cyborg Anthropology, I am impressed by this clever solution.

So the next time you encounter one of these magical doors, I suggest you touch the handle and stand back to give yourself time to admire this technological marvel of the British Library.

Playback Rewards, a success story in the making

playbackrewards-logoMost of the inventors and entrepreneurs we help in the Business & IP Centre realise that it takes hard work and patience (and some luck) to become successful.

For Alistair Kelman the man behind Playback Rewards it has taken three years of seven day weeks with no holidays.

I have often seen him working in the Centre, and for the past couple of years he has been giving me regular progress reports on his patented invention. These updates have been an alternating mix of positive and negative news, as hurdles appear and then are overcome. Or amazing opportunities arrive, but then disappear again.

Alistair_KelmanThroughout this roller-coaster of events, Alistair has remained positive, and bounced back from setbacks (an essential ingredient for an entrepreneur). He has also taken a flexible and pragmatic approach to commercialising his invention (another necessary requirement – but sadly rather too rare for inventors).

For the last few months I have been waiting for permission from Alistair to talk about his invention on my blog, and now he has given me the green light. I am excited because Playback Rewards has the potential to be our biggest success story so far, by far.

Alistair started working on his ideas for revolutionising television advertising at the Centre at the beginning of 2009. He filed his first patent later that year, which was granted in February 2011. He then worked for months, almost on a daily basis at the Centre, developing, researching and refining the commercialisation of his invention.

In late 2010 Alistair ran out of money for his patent. But managed to persuade Stephen Fry to put in a little to keep the project on the road. As you can see from the video Stephen recorded ???, he liked Alistairs’ ideas and wanted to help. Then on Christmas Day 2011 his company was mentioned in an article in the Sunday Times.

Five months later Playback Holdings Ltd won a place in the semi-finals of the CISCO BIG awards, where it stands the chance of winning $100,000 for the business. Alistair feels that which everyone should know about this amazing programme.

As part of his entry for the CISCO i-prize competition Alistair has made a video Magic in your pocket which explains how the service would work.

On 6 July Playback Holdings Limited starts its Series A  fund-raising via an Financial Services Authority (FSA) approved crowdsourcing  platform called Seedrs. This innovative investment method allows ordinary people to invest between £10 to £100,000 in any of the start-ups on its platform.

The full story behind Playback Rewards, and where they are going is on their website www.playbackrewards.com.

The ingenious Tapsell gates of Sussex

Tapsel_gate_at_St_Andrew's_church,_Jevington

Image from Wikipedia

On one of my regular wanderings up on the South Downs, I recently chanced across an intriguing type of churchyard gate.

For my undulating perambulations I often carry a day-pack filled with waterproofs, extra layers and ‘emergency rations’ (in my youth I was a Boy Scout, so ‘Be Prepared’ is my motto). So conventional gates are an unsatisfactory ergonomic experience.

The most common obstacle is the stile, which often involves an unsteady climb and descent on frequently wobbly and slippery planks of wood. Kissing gates appear more straight-forward, but the hinges are often rusty, and half the time your rucksack gets snagged as you squeeze through the narrow gap. Then there is the traditional five-bar gate, which if new, requires Herculean strength to prise the spring-lever open, or once old, has collapsed on its hinges and has to be lifted out of the mud and dragged open and closed again.

As you can see from the photo above the Tapsell gate is a much more ingenious device, as it balances on a central spindle. The gate opens with the slightest of touches, and can be pushed right round so it comes to rest on the fixed stops of the gate posts in a closed position. In effect you only ever have to open the gate, and you never have to wait for someone coming the other way as they can pass by on the other side simultaneously.

According to the little leaflet I picked up in Jevington church written by Rosalind Hodge, the Tapsell gates even allow coffin bearers to comfortably pass on either side without breaking step. Apparently, the bearers could even rest the coffin on the gate if they needed to pause before entering the churchyard.

Sadly, very little seems to be known about who invented this style of gate or when. The most likely source seems to have been a branch of the Tapsell families of Sussex, some of whom were carpenters.

For me, the most intriguing thing of all about these gates is just how few there are. Currently only six examples survive, but it seems not that many were made even at their peak.

This brings me neatly back to a regular discussion I have with inventors. So often they assume that their great idea must be entirely new because they haven’t come across it before in the shops. I explain that of the seventy million or so patents registered in the UK, only a tiny minority ever actually became commercially successful.

The sad truth about inventing (or any innovation come to that) is having a good idea is not nearly enough. I fact I would say it is the easy bit. The hard part is proving the commercial viability of the idea (usually to understandably cynical investors), and then find a way to market it successfully.

Too many follow the path of Ray Kinsella the character played by Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come”. And this proves to be very much the exception rather than the rule.

Mad Jack Fuller of Brightling and his Follies

Jack_Fuller_pyramidOn a recent walk in the Sussex country-side I was rather surprised to come across a 25 foot high pyramid in the corner of a traditional village church graveyard.

Wandering around the area near the village revealed a range of further follies ranging from a fake castle tower to a false church spire.

Jack_FullerIt turns out they were all the creation of John Fuller the squire of Brightling village, better known as ‘Mad Jack Fuller‘.

Fuller’s pyramid mausoleum was built in 1811, twenty-three years before his death, and local legend had it that Fuller was entombed in the pyramid in full dress and top hat seated at a table set with a roast chicken and a bottle of wine. This was discovered to be untrue during renovations in 1982. My theory is that Fuller might have read about the mythological preservative powers of pyramids.

Mad Jack inherited the family fortune in 1777, at the tender age of 20. Their wealth had been built on the manufacture of iron goods, such as cannons, as well as a substantial income from sugar plantations in Jamaica.

The family was heavily involved in politics, both nationally and locally, and  John served several terms as Member of Parliament during his life.

He seems to have fostered an image of eccentricity, and never married, but enjoyed supporting good causes, including funding the first lifeboat at Eastbourne, and helping the building of the Belle Tout Lighthouse on the cliffs near Beachy Head.

Fullers Follies:

Brightling Needle, an obelisk over 65 feet (20m) high was built on the second highest point in East Sussex and was erected around 1810

The Sugar Loaf, which is sometimes known as Fuller’s Point, is in a meadow and stands 35 feet (10.7m. The name comes from the conical shaped loaf that sugar was sold in at that time. It was apparently built to win a bet that Mad Jack made whilst in London. He claimed he could see Dallington Church (a nearby village) from his house in Brightling. When he returned he discovered that he couldn’t as a hill blocked his view, so the Sugar Loaf was hastily erected to win the bet.

The Tower or Watch Tower built by Fuller in the middle of a field, stands 35 feet (10.6m) high and 12 feet (3.7m) in diameter.

The Temple or Rotunda was built in the grounds of Brightling Park perhaps to add a classical element to the gardens.

The Observatory, now a private residence was completed in 1810. It was equipped with all the equipment of the time including a Camera Obscura.

More information and photos of Fullers Follies.

Fixies re-inventing the bicycle

I never cease to be amazed at the products and services being re-invented for the modern market. I’ve already mentioned the bare-foot running movement and it’s breathtakingly expensive equipment.

Adam rides a Tokyobike Classic © Horst Friedrichs

Image © Horst Friedrichs

However, since my bicycle was recently stolen (UK bike crime figures), I have been on the lookout for a replacement, and intrigued to discover the fixie bike phenomenon. I have to admit I was half-aware of a different and simpler kind of bicycle from my lunch-time wanderings around the Kings Cross area, particularly in the vicinity of the University of the Arts, inhabited by trend-setting students.

My eye was drawn to the almost Nietzschean purity and strong colours. One bike was all-white, even including the drive chain, another was mat black and gold with painted tyres. A recent article in the Evening Standard about Horst Friedrichs‘ new book London’s most stylish cyclists, seemed to only show examples of fixie bikes.

The point is that once you remove the complex Derailleur gears and forget about heavy suspension, bike designers can let the minimalism of the two wheels and frame come to the fore. The fact that these bikes tend to be hundreds of pounds cheaper than their more sophisticated siblings is another attraction.

However, there is just one fly in the ointment, and that is the hilly nature of the geography around my local area. Bicycles developed gears for a reason, and that was to get their riders up hills without having to get off and push every time the slope got steep.

I’ve been assured that in London they work just fine, but I certainly haven’t seen any up on the South Downs on my walks.

Then there is the question of true fixed wheel fixie, or the softy version with a free wheel bearing. I have to say the thought of being thrown over the handlebars because I forgot to keep pedalling when going downhill, does worry me somewhat.

So I have a dilemma, choose a beautiful two wheeled retro bike that harks back to the early days of cycling – and suffer, or go modern for an easy ride.

velosolo_jamgal

image from http://www.velosolo.co.uk/pictures/jamgal.jpg

The law of unintended consequences and e-books – Fifty Shades of Grey

50_shades_of_greyThe law of unintended consequences is an interesting topic in its own right, with perhaps the most well known example being the unexpected use of text messaging on mobile telephones.

The latest example according to David Sexton in the Evening Standard is the way e-book readers have allowed more women to read adult fiction. Apparently the lack of a racy cover and give-away title when reading a discretely packaged Amazon Kindle or Apple iPad, allows more and more women to indulge their tastes in public. No longer do they need to fear the snorts of derision or disapproving looks as they plough their way through the latest Bodice ripper.

Apparently the growth in e-books (one in eight of adult fiction books is now purchased digitally) has allowed for a rapid growth in what some call ‘Mommy porn‘, or literotica.

The UK market leader in this genre is E L James and her début adult romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey. According to her official website;

E_L_JamesE L James is a TV executive, wife and mother-of-two based in West London. Since early childhood she dreamed of writing stories that readers would fall in love with, but put those dreams on hold to focus on her family and her career. She finally plucked up the courage to put pen to paper with her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey.

It is claimed 250,000 copies have already been sold in different formats, and has topped the New York Times Bestseller list.

So, the next time you see a fellow commuter looking a bit hot and bothered, it may not be due to the faulty heating system on the train, but caused by something hot and steamy in her e-book reader.