#318: Voiceball

I attended a lecture the other day in which members of the audience were invited to ask questions. Several of them did so before the woman who was walking around with the wireless mic had a chance to reach them.

This was a ridiculous situation and it made me think that there must be a better approach. Even if each lecture theatres can’t be equipped with many such microphones, surely having someone physically carry one from place to place is the equivalent of having a man walk in front of your car carrying a red flag.


Today’s invention is a small wireless microphone embedded in a foam rubber ball. Audience members can then simply pass the mic around by throwing it to one another. This introduces an extra element of fun into ‘audience participation’.

This might work rather well in certain boardrooms where the rooms themselves are huge and the board members ill-disciplined enough to just talk without being invited to by the chairman. Such a microphone therefore imposes a certain order on proceedings, but without the legwork and delays associated with passing the device from hand to hand.

#313: Re-treads

‘Spiral’ staircases cost the earth and they can also be anything but space-efficient.

Today’s invention is a way to have an elegant, even avant-garde, ‘spiral’ staircase at low cost and with the potential to fold away when not in use.


Take ten or so old bicycle frames (eg wrecks with no remaining cycle parts, of the kind you find chained to railings all over towns like Cambridge and which are routinely removed and junked). Discard any remaining forks, handlebars etc from the frames (you might choose to have the frames all grit blasted and coated in bright yellow epoxy paint, but it’s down to personal taste, darling). The forks and handlebars themselves might make hatstands, but that would be eccentric ; )

Remove the struts to where the rear axle fitted, so that you are left with a basic quadrlateral with two, nearly parallel tubes forming opposite sides. Through the tube where the forks used to be attached feed a scaffold pole long enough to run from floor to ceiling. Repeat this with all of the frames. Now array the frames in a helical pattern and attach a tread where each seat post used to go.

The frames can be moored so as to not rotate about the central pole (perhaps by tightening the old handlebar nuts). Releasing these allows the steps to be rotated into a single, space-saving ‘fin’ when not in use.

#302: Bathboat

Ever interested in new ways to get some exercise, I’ve noticed that some rowing machines, or ergometers, actually now comprise a flywheel which spins in a tub of water…to give the gormless user the impression that they are actually navigating a waterway.

This is all very well but it nearly doubles the cost (and weight) of a conventional, air braked, rowing machine that is a major purchase in any case.


If you really want the genuine feel of the Mortlake Turn on an autumn Sunday, whilst also having to exert some serious physical effort, I commend today’s invention.

Rather than have a paddle wheel rotate in water, why not use a standard air resistance machine but equipped with an after-market fibreglass bath? This would be designed to fit around the seat and the rail on which it runs and also to allow the oarsman to be immersed in water to a depth (and temperature) of his/her own choice.

This more nearly simulates what real rowing is like when things aren’t going too well -whilst also providing a harder workout against the resistance of the water surrounding the rower’s moving legs and lower torso.

#293: Smileage

It’s a common observation that the fronts of road vehicles resemble faces (see also this particular ‘visual metaphor’). Even manufacturers now take this into account when designing cars to have certain ‘personalities’ -distinctly cute or aggressive: one particular Mitsubishi 4×4 is a dead ringer for a Star Wars stormtrooper.

Once you buy a car though, its expression is fixed forever. If you are naturally mild mannered, then driving a grim-faced, predatory car will send out subliminal signals to other road users that will be inappropriate (sure they will pull in out of your way on the motorway, but you may wait a long time to be waived into a traffic queue).


Today’s invention is a collection of small, variable-geometry, body-coloured ‘windows’ which can be attached to your vehicle to modify the personality of your car. This would involve alteration of the geometry of the eyes (headlights ) and mouth (grille) by automated, sliding shutters.

People are hypersensitive to even tiny changes in facial geometry and this would allow the whole expression to be altered according to a driver’s mood. Feeling under pressure and in a hurry?…set the shutters to ‘I’m fierce, out of my way’. If you want to appear non-aggressive, law-abiding and helpful, that too can be arranged.

Cars would thus take on many aspects of the emotional communications which people employ…and of course this might involve an element of deception.

#280: Emoticuffs

I was watching someone giving a talk whilst wearing a battered suit the other day. Half of the thread holding the remains of his buttons had disappeared, making some of them look like smileys.

Today’s invention is therefore to manufacture buttons with the minimum number of threadholes required to create the appearance of emoticons. I reckon that the simplest configuration is probably six holes, arranged with five circumferentially and one in the middle -allowing both sad : <· and happy : · > faces (nb only the two v-shapes would be constructed from thread passing through three holes, the other features would be formed by empty holes).


If you felt inclined, you could have a combination of ‘sads’ and ‘happys’ sewn onto your clothes (using thread in contrasting colours to the buttons) and only ‘do up’ (ie allow to appear through the buttonholes) those faces which expressed your mood on any given day.

#268: Takeoff tracks

It costs a lot to get planning for and to build an airstrip from scratch. Given that thousands of miles of straight railway track lie around most of the time doing absolutely nothing, I’d like to propose some reuse of our underemployed transport infrastructure.

Today’s invention is to allow straight sections of railway line, in unpopulated areas, to be used as a take-off and landing strips for light aircraft.


Obviously this would require small modifications to existing planes (eg a detachable sled), and a mechanism put in place to ensure that they operate on sections of line which aren’t just about to be used by other services.

This approach could work for gliders too. If a railway engine were equipped with a winch, the combined speed of the engine and winding speed would be more than enough to get a glider aloft.

Landing…well that could certainly prove trickier. Descending smoothly onto a flatbed car, already moving at speed, would however be well within the capabilities of most private pilots.

This whole approach could be funded by landing fees and help pay for improvements in the world’s neglected railways.

#264: Chewticles

Far be it from me to promote bad habits, but some people just can’t help biting their fingernails. When I was a child, our nails would be painted with bitter aloes in order to force us to stop gnawing our paws…didn’t really work though.

Today’s invention is a way to allow the bad habit but preserve the underlying nails.


Edible, false fingernails could be bought and attached (briefly) to one’s own nails. These would be long and patterned and available in a wide variety of delicious flavours (including both sweet and savoury versions; maybe even sugar free and containing toothpaste).

Although absent-minded or nervous nibbling would still take place, at least this would not involve consumption of anyone’s bodyparts.

Before there’s a storm of protest from the food hygiene lobby, consider how free from germs the average teenager’s fingers are whilst they chew them. This approach would even allow a layer of nasty-tasting stuff to be incorporated within the false nails after the tasty bit was finished and the underlying, real nails were in danger of being bitten.

#261: Datatrack

Railway sleepers -since the 1820’s these things have been supporting tracks all over the world.

They might be seen as a kind of barcode, if they were laid at slightly varying distances from each other (or at small angles to each other). Ok, it might seriously test the patience of the average squad of navvies to have to locate them precisely enough to still support the load and also contain some kind of message, but a jig could certainly be devised to place them quite precisely.


Today’s invention is to provide passing trains with sleeper-encoded information. This would probably best be a description of eg the station currently being approached, some information about the maximum speed allowed and also where to brake.

This might be a valuable augmentation to existing safety procedures, if the message could be picked up by a camera under the engine or even by a spring-loaded rod tapping on successive sleepers..

#248: Jaw-jaw

My visual metaphor thing accidentally switched on the other day, whilst fooling about with a cellphone.

Suddenly, a clamshell phone started resembling the head of a creature (with one half of the shell acting as the articulated mandible of some T Rex-like robot space creature….I really must stay off the espresso).


Anyway, I began thinking about today’s invention: A clamshell phone designed in the shape of the head of eg a parrot, crocodile or whatever. Instead of a ringtone, the creature’s squawk or roar could be issued at the same time as opening and closing the clamshell by a small amount (many such phones already have motors on board to drive the internal buzzer). It might even be possible to lipsynch clamshell movements with the words spoken by a caller.

Design in a pair of flashing LED ‘eyes’ on the top surface and you have a lot of added product personaility in a market saturated with sameness.

#245: Birdbutts

People, it seems are largely incapable of putting their cigarette butts into the ashtrays or wastebins provided. I often see smokers just throwing their butts on the ground and it drives me nuts. Those things are biodegradable but the process takes forever. While it’s happening the rest of us are supposed to admire the ubiquitous carpet of disgusting cotton filters and then slip around on it a bit.

Since we can’t rely on members of our own species to clean up after themselves, it’s time again to look for help from some other lifeform: in this case, birds.


Today’s invention is to make cigarette filters from the husks of seeds that birds like to eat …eg sunflower seeds. Strictly, these wouldn’t even have to be non-toxic to humans, since, if you are crazy enough to stick all that poison in your body, a little extra won’t matter.

In fact, filters could be made entirely of harmless organic matter, which would not taint the ‘taste’ of the tobacco but which would still be attractive fodder for avian scavengers. Result: increased bird population, decreased butt population.

The effect of nicotine on our flying friends has yet to be assessed.