Sunday, 28 October 2012


Despite, or because of, the current economic recession there seems to be an increase in the rate of inventing. What can those pursuing patent applications learn about the process from the inventions of the past? If we think about the most common inventions we use today, they seem to have been produced fully realised. But many of our favourite inventions had to be recreated in the form that we are now familiar with. The steam engine, printing, television and aeroplanes initially had no widespread use until their design was improved to such an extent that it almost became another invention. The word ‘almost’, in this context, is something the lawyers can argue about until the cows either come home, or they get replaced by robotic bio-reactors. I am interested in how the inventions that we are familiar with came into existence, in a form that is better than their original conception.

Steam engines eventually gave us the railways and the ability to travel long distances quickly. Printing was massively speeded up by the linotype and made cheaper. John Logie Baird’s mechanical television was superseded by the EMI electronic version which revolutionised the way we understand the world, for better or ill. What does this tell us about inventions and how designs develop?

It’s getting better

What these inventions have in common is that they all had a step-change in their usability that may not have been imagined by the first person to have the initial idea. The first ‘atmospheric’ steam engines worked by sucking steam into a double walled iron cylinder which was cooled by a water-jacket. As the steam condensed back to water in the cylinder it created a partial vacuum that allowed atmospheric pressure to push the piston down. While the downward force exerted was enough to drive a water pump, it was too weak to power a locomotive. These first ‘atmospheric’ steam engines were able to pump water out of mines, but they were not good enough to create a railway. The evolution of the railway system needed high pressure cylinders that were made from cast iron, and eventually steel, before they could be used to drive a locomotive. The growth of the railways corresponded with the increasing availability of steel made possible by the Bessemer method.

This beam engine at Wollaton Industrial museum is more modern than the early ‘atmospheric’ engines, but this video illustrates the difference in the scale of early pumping engines and steam locomotives. 

 On the railways the change from static pump engines to locomotives was not made with the application of steel cylinders alone. A whole system had to evolve. Steel also made possible the control system that depended on cables to operate signals and points (or switches, in the USA). The railway system that we see today could not have evolved without an effective signalling and control system as well as the pistons that powered the locomotives. Similarly the rapid production of newspapers make possible by the linotype would not have resulted in a mass circulation industry without distribution by the railways. The steam engine was not an invention that operated on its own, it created a whole system. Perhaps the real invention behind the railways was not so much the steam engine per se, but the Bessemer process that enables the locomotives, the rails and the steel cables to combine into a complete system through the use of mass produced steel.

A similar step-change occurred with the newspaper industry. The linotype machine enabled a skilled operator to created line of type as fast as several people working as typesetters assembling words from individual letters. The resulting increase in efficiency changed printing from an expensive low volume process to a cheap mass produced product. It was the linotype machine that established the newspaper industry as we have known it.

It is not just steam engines and printing that were initially just not good enough. Baird’s mechanical television system used a clumsy rotating disc which directed the varying output from a lamp to different parts of the screen. By matching the movements of a similar disc in a camera which exposed different parts of a scene to a photo-sensitive electric cell, the view could be re-created at home. The resulting image was composed of only 30 lines and flickered a lot. A team at EMI designed a purely electronic version which had an electron beam scanning a photoreceptive cathode plate. They realised that their 405 line electronic television was better and could be improved further in the future. Just as the first atmospheric steam engines were not up to the task of powering railways, Baird’s electromechanical television was superseded by the purely electronic ‘high definition’ system developed by EMI.

The Name of the Game

If steam power was the paradigm for the 19th century it was electricity that defined the 20th century. Despite the improvement to Baird’s patent made by the EMI team, television would not have prospered without the widespread availability of electricity made possible by the electric grid. Neither Railways nor Television could have developed without a supporting system. Railways needed signalling and a means to change points and television needed electricity. In Britain it was the Central Electricity Generating Board’s programme of national electrification that increased the availability the standardisation of electric voltage supply. This meant that television sets could be mass produced. The pattern that emerged in the industrial era is the development of systems that are as important as individual inventions. After all, a telephone is not much use on its own; you need someone else to buy one.

By contrast, the golden age of motoring was when not many people had cars. The first cars were difficult to drive. As well as the familiar controls there was a lever to manually advance and retard the timing of the ignition system. This had to be continually adjusted as engine speed varied. To avoid crashing gears together the engine speed had to be matched to the speed of the wheels when changing gear.  Automatic ignition advance and retard and synchromesh removed these problems and made the driving process easier. Although these changes internal to the motor car were needed to improve its performance to the point of acceptability, it was the publicly funded road system that made the explosion of car ownership possible. The motor car is a slightly different example of the interaction between the development of the invention and the system to support it.

Historic attempts at making parishes responsible for road maintenance and later raising funds through turnpike trusts failed to create useable road networks. Only government taxation created a road system with any quality. It was investment in roads funded by the public that made driving accessible to millions. While the infrastructure system for the railway was entirely the affair of the railway companies, the motor car could only develop with a publicly funded road network. The symbol of personal freedom that is the car only exists as a result of the collaborative effort from mass society through money from taxation. The support of technical innovation by infrastructure was the name of the game since the start of the industrial revolution.

While the jet engine might appear to have re-invented the aeroplane, flying would not have developed into a mass industry without the development of reliable radio communications and air traffic control. Just as steel cables coordinated the railways in the previous century, Radar controls the flow of air traffic to a density that makes possible the present era of cheap mass flight. While the jet engine is significantly more efficient than the piston engines of the first generation aeroplanes it is the economies of scale combined with safety that are made possible by radar.

Automatic for the People

The widespread ownership of telephone and an efficient connection system is the most important factor in its success. Just as steel cables enabled a relatively small number of men to control a railway network; it was the automation of telephone exchanges with the electromechanical Strowger system that realised the potential of the telephone. 1936 was a watershed in technology. The 405 line VHF black and white television standard produced by EMI was a harbinger of the age of electronic devices that would revolutionise the world. The electric grid is subtly different from the railway system in that it gave rise to more inventions using electricity than the number of inventions needed to created the grid.

The Strowger telephone exchanges enabled calls to be connected by the caller without the help of a telephone operator.

The electricity grid is a system that is half way between the age of railways and the age of the internet. The railway network needed several inventions to make one system. If we ignore the complexity of hardware behind the internet and treat the protocols that enable it as a single entity, then it seem that the World Wide Web gives rise to many more things than the system itself. It is also possible to exaggerate the speed with which change occurs. The electric age took over 30 years to develop. The first photocopier to use electrostatic xeroxography produced its first print in 1938 but some wet duplicators were still used in 1980s.The last manually operated telephone exchanges were only phased out in Britain in the 1960s. The age of the human telephone operator was finally ended by the 1930s Strowger equipment and the and 1950s T-bar system. (Fans of the 1960s TV series of ‘Dr. Who’ can hear a recording of a T-bar exchange used as background noise inside the Tardis when it is ‘ticking over’)

No More Heroes.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the success of the EMI television system over Baird’s design is not just symbolic of the end of the age of purely mechanical devices and the emergence of the electronic era, it was really the end of the age of the lone inventor working without support. This process had already started in the 19th Century. Although Thomas Edison had over 150 patents to his name, most of these were really thought up by his employees. Edison created what was in what was in effect the first technological research institute.

While Edison is remembered more than his workers, Bell Labs is as known as its founder, Alexander Graham Bell. The organisation is the research division of the AT and T telephone company and is focused on communication technology. The labs pursue commercial and patentable ideas but along the way they have made scientific discoveries. Karl Jansky was researching radio interference there in 1933 when he discovered radio emissions from the Milky Way galaxy. As well as starting the scientific discipline of radio astronomy Bell Labs advanced it even further in 1964 when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This relic radiation was emitted when matter first formed and is the only direct evidence for the ‘Big Bang’ origin of the Universe. The research effort at Bell Labs is usually directed at commercially valuable devices and these devices outnumber the discoveries that belong to ‘pure’ Science.

Edwin H. Land was another inventor who started a research institution. Known for his invention the instant self-processing photographs he was able to use resources from his Polaroid Corporation to undertake fundamental research into human vision. After retirement he founded the Rowland Institute for Science which continues research within Harvard University. His initial business success was not with photography but with a process that enabled thin films of polarising filters to be manufactured. Before Edwin Land’s invention the polarisation of light was a phenomenon studied in laboratories but his process enabled it to be applied to sunglasses and photographic filters. He did not invent polarising filters, but he created a process that made them thin and affordable.

Polarising filters had to be re-invented through a radical change to their manufacturing process for them to find other uses but Jacques Cousteau made a small change to an already existing valve, originally designed to enable car engines to work on gas. In 1943 he realised that it could be used it for the automatic regulation of compressed gas for diving. In the 1930s some divers were already using modified submarine escape equipment to swim underwater but they found that it was necessary to adjust the pressure of the flow from the cylinders as they moved up or down. Cousteau’s automatic demand valve freed divers to swim up or down at will without water entering their mouth or air being wasted by bubbling out of the mouth piece.

What came to be known as the ‘aqualung’ gave Cousteau a large income which launched a writing and documentary film making carer lasting until his death in 1997. Like Bell, and Land he left a research legacy in oceanography which is dedicated to conservation and environmental protection. With the exception of a few people like Trevor Bayliss, individual inventors now seem to have a smaller role in innovation than those working within organisations. Perhaps there will now be fewer inventors establishing research institutions and more organisations supporting inventors and designers. Sir Peter Mansfield invented the improved version of MRI scanners that are now widely used in medicine while working a Nottingham University in the 1970s.

Come Together.

The Laser is an example of an invention that sits halfway between science and technology. The possibility of the creation of a coherent beam of electromagnetic radiation was predicted by Einstein in 1917. For the next three decades the idea was worked on by theoretical physicists until a laboratory experiment detected lasing in 1950. By 1953 a microwave version of the laser, the maser, was demonstrated at Columbia University. At this time masers and lasers were mainly seen as exploration of the physics that made them possible. When they were made to work they were imagined mainly as a laboratory tool. From a practical point of view the laser was once famously declared to be “a solution looking for a problem”.

Theaodore Maiman suggested that the power of a laser could be described as one “Gillette” if it could burn through one razor blade.

Subsequently the laser became so important that patent disputes arose and the attribution for the creation of the first laser is still debated. The light emitting version of the maser is an example of the device that was so good they invented it twice. Today lasers are vital to the transmission of signals for the internet. There are now ten main types of Lasers.  They vary from tiny diode Lasers in CD and DVD players to massive 500 terawatt neodymium-doped phosphate glass lasers designed to produce hyrdogen fusion at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.The proliferation of types of lasers suggests that inventions can evolve like living things. Even though they are based on ideas that can be owned there is a sense in which the course of the development of inventions is outside the control of those who originally designed them.

There is one similarity between the development of the helicopter and the evolution of living cells. The ancient ancestors of animal cells benefited from the acquisition of the ‘energy factories’ known as mitochondria. It is widely believed that that these organelles were originally bacteria which were absorbed by cells and stayed on as symbiotic additions. Even today, Mitochondria have their own RNA which is separate from the DNA and the RNA of the cell in which they live. Similarly, ancient plant cells obtained their photosynthetic Chloroplasts by acquiring Cyanobacteria. By an analogous process helicopters gained a huge increase in their lifting capacity when their piston engines were replaced by more efficient gas turbine engines. The US army HU1 helicopter was one of the first to utilise this increased capacity. During the Vietnam War an empty HUI could lift another damaged HUI and fly back to a base with the rescued helicopter slung beneath it.

The gas turbine engines have since become standard in all helicopters. The inclusion of gas turbine engines into helicopters illustrates that the re-invention of a design is really the moment of convergence of ideas. Rather than different devices moving smoothly through time to intersect at a moment of history, some elements of inventions seem to have been held in abeyance. The Camera Obscura was known to ancient Chinese and was established as a drawing aid by the 18th Century. Only the advent of light sensitive chemistry in 1826 allowed it to be transformed into the photographic camera. By the end of the 19th century the replacement of photographic glass plates by flexible film enabled the mechanism of the sowing machine to mutate into the cine camera.

Keep the Customer Satisfied

If inventions evolve like living organisms then the course of their development will necessarily be influenced by the environment in which they operate. While the laser was initially seen as an invention with little use, the World Wide Web is famously not an invention. Tim Berners-Lee deliberately chose not to patent the system he devised at CERN. Unlike Bell labs which are dedicated to industrial applications, CERN researches the fundamental aspects of nature, but nonetheless it was employment from CERN that enabled Tim Berners-Lee to spend a year creating the protocols that enable the World Wide Web to function in a way the internet was never originally imagined. Unlike Bell Labs and other corporate research facilities CERN is a ‘pure’ science institution but the internet has become the high seas of commerce. The World Wide Web is not so much an invention as an ocean of information over which capitalism sails. It has become the environment in which other inventions operate.

The types of systems that can operate on the internet are less physical than the industrial products of the last 150 years. As the internet becomes accessible by mobile devices it can combine with satellite global position systems to give location based services. As well as showing a consumer what shops and restaurants are nearby there could be a subscribed service whereby they could offer discounts to the scheme members as they walk into the vicinity. The reduced prices offered by the retailer could be reclaimed from the subscribed system that the consumer has already paid into. As these pre-contributed funds would be separate from the consumer’s bank account the system would be different from a debit or a credit card. It would be a form of saving account. The operators of the system could operate on small profit margins as their overheads would be hard working electronics.

The consumer would worry less as they would not be racking-up a bill but spending already saved money. The location aware discounts might appeal to the wandering tourist. In that case different operators would be competing with each other in the same area.  In either case the navigation satellites needed to enable this system are provided by governments. Even the Galileo system started with the intention of funding it by private investors but they pulled out. Just as the road systems are provided by taxations the location based service industry will be dependent on government subsidy.

Whether the world needs this type of corporate trading is debatable. A location aware trading information system could form the basis for an allegiance between community based credit unions and local businesses. The FOAP website already allows users of smart phones to offer photographs for sale. In a two way advertising system owners of smart phone can be made aware of what types of photographs people are looking for in connection with a specific area and potential buyers can see what is already available. It would not take too much of a tweak to put users of food in connection with allotment producers. This type of electronically enabled localism may be important from now on.

The current economic crisis has built up over decades as property prices became based on exchange value instead of use value. So much money has been sucked out of the western economy by property price inflation banks it may be beyond the ability of banks or governments to help. Perhaps the future will see a return to interest in concrete reality. The recent advent of 3D printing offers intriguing possibilities. Freed from reliance on mass produced technology based in factories who knows where this will lead to? The financial disasters of the last few years might concentrate our attention on real objects and real needs.

Future Days

The latest invention to be re-invented is the Maser. The radio version of the Laser has remained a relatively obscure device used in a few specialist applications. Their need for high vacuum, cryogenic temperatures and strong magnetic fields has restricted the use of Masers to applications such as atomic clocks and satellite communications. The National Physical Laboratory has developed a crystal formed from p-terphenyl doped with pentacene that can generate the masing process at room temperature. It is expected that this huge improvement in the operation of Masers will make them cheaper to operate and much more common. The new re-invention of Masers is already being discussed in terms of medical diagnostic applications. Perhaps the new Masers could be used to activate drugs.

Light sensitive drugs are already being researched at the National Cancer Institute, Maryland. These anti-cancer drugs are intended to be inactive until exposed to a specific wave-length of light. By limiting the action of the drug to the area of tissue that has been penetrated by light, it is hoped that side effects can be kept away from the rest of the patient’s body. If the property of sensitivity to light could be changed to enable a radio wavelength to activate a drug then two masers could create the critical wavelength where they intersect. Constructive interference would cause a specific wavelength to be generated where the beams intersect. Perhaps a drug could be made which responds to specific wavelengths that only occur where constructive interference of intersecting beams occurs.

If the maser beams were very narrow the area of activation of a drug could be limited to the inside of a tumour. By moving the beams around the point of intersection could be made to correspond to a 3D shape inside the tumour. The co-ordinates of this volume would have to be precisely mapped out by MRI or other means. If the area to be treated was very small some form of motion compensation might be needed. This technology is already used for robot assisted radiotherapy. Another possibility for a maser generated region of radio energy would be the modification of surgical plastic implants. If it were possible to make a type of plastic that shrinks under the influence of a specific wavelength of radio waves it could be used to gradually correct the shape of tissues over a period of time through repeated sessions of irradiation.

At a much larger scale the region of constructive interference produced at the intersection of maser beams of different wavelengths could be used to melt ice. If the designated wavelength was the same as that used by microwave cookers the region of ice just in front of a drill bit could be melted. When drilling into ice sheets the need to pump hot water into a drill string could be obviated in favour of melting the ice in front of the drill bit. If the process was successful perhaps the drill string could be replaced by a discrete probe that was steered by maser induced patch of melted ice in front or to one side of it. If sub-ice lakes such as Lake Vostok or Lake Ellsworth are to be explored in the future, ‘tractor beams’ from large masers sited on the ice surface could melt a pathway for a probe to sink its way to a target. Without the need for a drill string, contamination could be minimised. Perhaps the masers could even sterilise the outside of the probe on the way down.

Speculating about opportunities is fun but the future is always uncertain. In a speech to mark the occasion of the opening of the GPO tower in London the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, said that he had been told that in the future most telephone traffic would be computers talking to each other. That comment now seems to be prescient. The Internet has been made possible by a combination of computers and a telephone system, but the World Wide Web has produced a paradigm shift that could scarcely have been imagined in 1965. The internet in sense created the home computer as a mass phenomenon. In the 1960s an article in New Scientist magazine predicted that by the 1980s families would have home computers that used magnetic information tapes borrowed from public libraries. How wrong can you be?

Whatever form future inventions take they will often be transformations of earlier developments or they will combine elements from other inventions. The split differential drive for motor cars was originally produced in China over 2000 years ago and was patented for a tricycle transmission in 1877. When we see a new invention come into being we are often observing the convergence of ideas. Occasionally an invention like the laser comes out of nowhere. Rather like art it is not possible to predict where new designs will come from. As soon as the new design is described we are fascinated by the realisation of a possibility that has always existed   


Apple v Samsung