Invention dedications

If you fancy having an invention created in your name or dedicated to a loved-one, do make a small donation via the button on the right and drop me an email with the details of the individual concerned as well as any preferences as to application area etc.

As with all IOTD ideas, the invention will be published here -ie in the public domain of the loyal readership of this blog.

I’ll do my best to come up with something suitable within a week (and email you the link).

All income via this process will go towards the InventorCentre, as usual.
(pra at patrickandrews dot com)


In silicon valley, where they aren’t shy about making money, it’s actually seen as much riskier to work for a major corporation than a startup. If the startup goes down, you have some valuable, transferable experience which will get you hired by some other garage company in the raft of such organisations. If a big company fails, it sinks like a stone, flooding the market with competitors for jobs on the next bandwagon.

Elsewhere, we desperately need to develop some healthier attitudes to risk. Leaders (remember them?) have to be prepared to defend investing even public money in experimental ways. Cherry picking, ie looking for a lottery win-sized certainty, via endless ‘due diligence,’ is flawed and sends the wrong message: “Don’t do anything until you get the guarantee of a big slice of shiny investment.”

Making money
isn’t necessarily synonymous with greed. Graft need not be unglamorous. Ideas aren’t cheap.

Crazy Inventors

Maybe you do have to be slightly crazy to invent anything. Certainly it helps to be insanely optimistic if you expect to make money from within our benighted intellectual property system.

Here is further evidence to this effect, from no less a source than a recent Sony patent.

You’d think that Sony would have a greater appreciation of inventiveness than to treat it as providing entertainment for idiots guffawing at a programme entitled ‘Crazy Inventors’.

It’s been a long time since the Walkman first appeared. I wonder why?

No such thing as a free idea?

I frequently hear comments such as “Oh, ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s only the moneymaking application that counts.” All we need, it seems, is a surefire way to screen out any dud ones quickly and we can generate advances with almost no mis-hits.

I’m an avid admirer of those who develop and deliver great products, but only a tiny fraction of inventions is even distantly capable of being profitably deployed -just look in any patent database. Does that mean that the vast majority of invention is hardly worth doing? (We used, by the way, to expect this curiosity-driven discovery from Universities, but then we started hiring people for conformity rather than creativity).

Well the point is that, sadly, there is no algorithm for producing insights that are guaranteed to make a buck -or even work. We simply need to have lots of ideas and try out a large subset of those, before we start any serious cherrypicking. This undertaking can’t be reliably short-circuited and it therefore isn’t usually a cheap process.

Just having the the simplest of ideas always costs somebody, however. It takes a huge amount of effort (and surplus resource) to educate someone to a position where they have the experience (and spare time) to think up anything genuinely new.

All ideas cost, even if they aren’t, individually, of any value.

This doesn’t of course mean that you can’t give ideas away. Here’s a scheme which allows people to do so after they have died. I say, why wait?

Statu Pupillari?

It concerns me that Universities are now being expected to act as sources, sometimes the only sources, of invention. I don’t really see this as their job (which is surely about discovering and communicating new knowledge). The argument runs along the lines of

“We taxpayers spent a huge amount of money on research and so now it’s time that it resulted in lots of jobs.” It doesn’t work like that at all, but many of our politicians act as if it did. Universities, for the most part, screen out inventiveness…it’s very hard to get a draft paper or a grant application through the peer review process (especially when it’s all anonymous and so supports gutless competitive sniping).

One of the most irritating recent developments is that Universities are starting to claim ownership of their students’ intellectual property by default. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the discussion about whether IP can be meaningfully defined (it’s obviously not the same as other forms of property). I’m hearing stories on campuses about Universities which, when they allow a graduate student to matriculate, assume ownership of everything which they think up during their time at the Institution. Undergraduates aren’t yet included in this process, but they may well soon get trapped too (I just came across this article which says that US Universities demand to own even undergraduate inventions…despite the rates charged by these institutions for access to tuition and facilities. This is bare-faced, short-termist profiteering -Universities don’t make people have ideas).

A student appears, filled with enthusiasm at getting a place on an interesting Master’s or a high profile Doctoral programme. They are routinely asked to sign lots of administrative forms (with no independent guidance). One of these will, either implicitly or in small print, be an agreement that the University owns all their intellectual output until they leave.

The law, in the UK, says that employees have no choice in this. You sign up to get a salary and they own what you create (at least if it’s related to what they pay you for, even if you do it at the weekend). I think that’s unfair but at least it’s clear (and these days, some farsighted employers are beginning to understand that a meaningful revenue sharing scheme is a good way to motivate smart employees). Postdocs? Guess what, you have to do the dirty work with little chance of a real job and they own everything you think up.

Graduate students aren’t employees, however. They don’t in general get a salary, nor do they therefore have employment rights. I was once discussed, in a University committee, as “having ideas incompatible with my status as a research student.” As if there are some modes of thought only accessible to Professors…how patronising. It is true that a graduate student may be sponsored by some business and receive direction and support from an inspiring supervisor. Whenever that’s true, then certainly all parties must share in any profit from the ideas generated. Universities often offer revenue sharing schemes (although the deals on offer look like nothing that anyone would negotiate on their own behalf, being laughably one-sided). They may also provide a measure of protection for graduate students who might be accused of infringement by eg some patent troll or nowinnofee attorney. Inevitably, this would result in an out of court settlement, (ie goodbye IP) since UK universities have always backed down from such litigation.

The real issue I have with this process, which is becoming increasingly common as Universities scrabble to do whatever Government tells them, is not even the sleight of hand at matriculation -it’s the inbuilt assumption that a University can somehow make money from its students’ inventions…that it understands how to…that it has the grit and focus necessary to do so. This is usually fantasy and the financial data on exploitation support this conclusion. That is exactly why certain Universities, the ones with business ability, are now forming their own commercialisation companies, free of academic control.

Idea envy

Since everyone else who publishes anything online is currently engaged in a frenzy of ‘Top ten X of 2008’ articles, I thought I might as well join in. Here is a selection of some of the inventions which I’ve come across recently which I really wish I’d thought up.

Many hover on the border between invention and design and none rely on the recent discovery of anything in the least nano-quantum-ribonucleic.

Suntan tattoo Combining two of the silliest ideas into something rather beautiful.

Pin clock
I just like the emergence and there’s a better idea lurking here, which I can’t bring to mind, yet.

Paper bottle Water soaks paper, and yet…

Space mug Can it even be called coffee if it’s translucent?

Bubblewrap calendar Better than squeezing zits.

Secure mug Definitely one for the OCD/retentive types. I’d have made an individually shaped bung for each cup, in order to counter cupjacking. See also this Identifiable cup.

Anti-theft humiliation pen Just the kind of social engineering device which I love.

One-handed watch Confused by two hands on a watchface and burdened by a surfeit of precision? This is a really appropriate design.

Engineering designer who casts flows A satisfying and elegant approach -beats the old Navier Stokes equations any day.

Expandable bookcase All this needs is a motor drive (and I’d personally want the Thunderbirds theme playing as it expands).

Playpump Once again, the power of play comes to the rescue.

Hamster powered shredder
Two gadgets in one with a humorous twist. Pity about the requirement for a hamster.

Bottle stool Not as sure about this one as I was when bookmarking it.

Grown chairs Utterly great, if a little slow in production.

Touch shot I thought I had invented this one myself -until I came across this impressive implementation in a real product.

Prior art

IOTD is a source of prior art, whatever you may think of its value. Amongst those of us who would rather compete in the spheres of ideation and product development than in the courts and who think that worthwhile research has to be publicly available, such defensive publishing is becoming more widely accepted.

Alternatives to the Patent Arms Race: An Empirical Study of Defensive Publishing

This article by Joachim Henkel and Stefanie Pangerl is based on an empirical study of defensive publishing. It relies on 56 interviews with intellectual property experts and finds that 70% of the companies in its sample make use of defensive publishing. It argues that defensive publishing will be used more actively in the future since it can contribute to solving the aggravating problems of the patent arms race, of an increasing likelihood of inadvertent infringement, and of patent trolls.

Engineering vs Inventing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between Engineers and Inventors.

Engineers have to do the tough job of making things work. When I was a child the people who were in charge of the local shipyard still wore bowler hats. These were the Engineers: the men who had the final say in terms of what was possible (there were no female Engineers then).

There has always had to be a big element of conservative caution in how Engineers do their work. When my family boards an aircraft, I want that put together by the planet’s most reliable people. And yet, the guy who first came up with the idea of powered flight was not a conservative thinker. The idea is one thing, actually taking off is another.

The people I know who style themselves ‘Inventor’ tend to have some personal attributes which are different from those of the Engineers I deal with:

Engineering is a team sport in which numbers of people, each with some technical specialism or particular experience, need to work together to design and build complex systems. Engineers will find it hard to find suitable technical challenges without being part of a team. Engineers mostly work for big organisations (sadly it’s often as employees in pseudo-military hierarchies) and tend to get narrower and narrower experience, making innovation more and more difficult. Their main enemy is boredom. It’s mind numbing for most engineers to have to deal with the nitty-gritty of contract negotiation for example. They therefore tend to shy away from dealmaking and, as long as the work is interesting, they will go along for the ride. Inventors, by contrast don’t tend to play nicely with others and are often highly tuned to the possibility of making personal wealth. Maybe they spend too much time around lawyers.

Resistant to education (and to conformity in general)
Engineers have to spend a long time being academically tutored and trained. Only then can they apply judgement, design codes, standards and recognised methods to enable effective implementation. As in any profession, novel thinking is often discouraged (despite what might be said to the contrary). Some of the best Inventors can be technically naive and spend time on ideas which Engineers could prove, from first principles, were groundless. Inventors however, almost never talk themselves out of trying things which look promising. This certainly leads to some waste of effort, but also allows exploration of areas where their professional brethren would choose not to go…

Here are some illustrations of the value of such naivete:
If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said ‘you can’t do this’.
Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.

A man has been arrested in New York for attempting to extort funds from
ignorant and superstitious people by exhibiting a device which he says will convey the human voice any distance over metallic wires so that it will be heard by the listener at the other end. He calls this instrument a telephone. Well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires.

News item in a New York newspaper, 1868.

Very interesting Whittle, my boy, but it will never work.
Cambridge Aeronautics Professor, when shown Frank Whittle’s plan for the jet engine.

What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.
Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, 1800s.

When I attended College, as an Engineering undergraduate, I expected to learn a significant amount about the process of inventing. That didn’t happen, but now I’m putting together a Master’s-level course in Invention. If you know of anyone who would like to invest in, or host, such a venture, please ask them to get in touch via

Inventing: the future

The world of Intellectual Property is changing faster than the legal processes which apply to it. If it’s true that inventors suffer from Peter Pan Complex (we never want to grow up) then surely lawyers suffer from Captain Hook Syndrome: they are always running away from the ticking clock of technology.

The Law Society of England and Wales announced confidently, only a few years ago, that it was “Against Email.” Since the Internet’s arrival in Neverland, certain legal specialities have, unsurprisingly, become endangered.

The global scope of markets available to companies now means that they are selling direct to customers in countries where no meaningful patent-based protection is available for their products.

In addition, the lifecycles of even their most complex offerings is now so brief that the costs and timescales associated with seeking monopolies are prohibitive. So many organisations are now adopting a strategy based on some combination of the following approaches:

  • know-how, protected by secrecy and the physical thwarting of attempts at reverse engineering
  • investing in their brand, rather than a costly IP portfolio
  • moving from products to services which “leverage” these brands
  • fast product turn-around, yielding early sales

The pressure to deliver new products faster is now so great that virtual organisations are being formed of teams from competing companies. Based on trust (and working with no written contracts), they can deal with tight timescales in a way that would be impossible if they had to wait for lawyers to argue about due diligence and the minutiae of termination clauses.

My vision for the future of invention is that the market will support a large but limited number of big brands, each of which will feed on a complex, flexible web of cooperating, and competing, suppliers. These development organisations will continue the trend of relying for new product ideas on outside sources, rather than supporting a costly internal research function.

One of their main sources will be individual inventors who, having developed a track record, will be signed up to work for a fixed period and be rewarded in proportion to the commercial success of their inventions.

These people (such as Mark Sheahan) will form a ˜premier league” of inventors and be in a position to command both massive payments and lucrative transfer deals.

How tragic that being an inventor is still associated with madness. You certainly have to be nonconformist, but that is really only a sign of mental illness to someone who has been to law school or its equivalents. Refreshing, therefore, that New Scientist offers this piece describing becoming an Inventor as a viable career choice.