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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
A patently absurd invention?
From left, delousing bag; spider ladder; parachute hat

Inventors have been registering bright ideas with the UK Patent Office for 150 years. While the flush toilet, computer and aspirin have proved invaluable, the same cannot be said of every innovation.
It must have seemed like a great idea at the time: an alarm to be fitted inside a coffin, just the thing to guard against premature burials.

Moustache protector
A moustache protector, handy for the soup course
Or how about a moustache protector and trainer, or a ladder for spiders to climb out of the bath?

Maybe spectacles for chickens, or a two-handed glove for couples who wish to maintain palm-to-palm contact even in chilly weather?

These are but a handful of the devices registered with the Patent Office since it opened 150 years ago this month.

Each year the office processes thousands of patent applications. Examiners assess each one to check that it is genuinely new or at least involves an "inventive step". Filing a patent costs relatively little - but gives the inventor a monopoly on their invention for 20 years.

Steve van Dulken
Steve van Dulken: "We forget the impact inventors have made"
While many ideas have been groundbreaking - as evidenced by the clutch of inventors voted on to the BBC's top 100 Great Britons - others could charitably be described as far-fetched.

Steve van Dulken, who oversees the patent archive at the British Library, says: "For every 100 applications lodged, I'd say that 10 are a bit whacky."

Among the more fanciful devices to catch his attention is the parachute hat, pictured at the top of this page.

Helmet fitted with gun
The military declined to develop this gun helmet
Then there is a helmet fitted with a rifle, designed by a man by the name of Pratt - "the recoil broke a man's neck during early trials".

Also notable are the many contraptions dreamed up by the late Arthur Pedrick of Sussex, a former Patent Office employee who took to inventing after his retirement.

Mr Pedrick filed more than 50 patent applications for a succession of weird and wonderful devices in the 1970s.

A Cold War era cat-flap to deter intruders
Among these was a cat flap connected to an atomic bomb in space. The device was fitted with a colour sensor, designed to admit his ginger cat but block the passage of a neighbour's black moggie.

Not only did Mr Pedrick file drawings and specifications for the device, his application recounted his discussions with Ginger (the aforementioned cat) on nuclear physics, for it seems Ginger was a cat of rare intelligence.

"Sadly, we don't know if Ginger ever got his hi-tech cat-flap," Mr van Dulken says. "And Mrs Pedrick eventually took exception to her husband's inventions as the cost of all the patent applications got a bit much."

Problem solved

Mr van Dulken points out that many of the seemingly ridiculous inventions have a serious purpose.

UK inventions
the pill
mobile phone
jet engine
flushing toilet
"Spectacles for chickens may seem odd, but the birds do have a tendency to try to peck each other's eyes out."

And anyone who has ever tried to put flea powder on a cat will no doubt see the logic in the delousing bag pictured at the top of this page.

"Often inventions come about because people want to meet their own needs," Mr van Dulken says. "The man who invented Velcro, for instance, was inspired by a stuck zipper on his wife's dress."

First bra, with uplift provided by a band of metal or cardboard
The first bra, patented more than 100 years ago
Likewise a century ago, women came up with numerous innovations on the restrictive fashions of the day.

"This was largely in response to the popularity of the bicycle. Bikes helped women feel free, so they wanted clothes they could cycle in."

So next time a seemingly far-fetched solution pops into your head, give it a second thought. It could be that you have just hit upon a goldmine.

See also:

15 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
08 Nov 01 | Americas
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