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Wednesday, December 3, 1997 Published at 11:12 GMT


The real world of the mad scientist
image: [ A design from the Patent Office's filling cabinet: the horse-powered car might be bizarre but it would work ]
A design from the Patent Office's filling cabinet: the horse-powered car might be bizarre but it would work

The relationship between madness and creativity has long intrigued scientists and artists alike.

The observation that an increasing number of mentally-ill patients were attempting to register their ideas as patents led two British psychiatrists to examine the link.

David James and Paul Gilluley reasoned that the British Patents Office should provide a rich repository of the type of bizarre ideas put forward by psychiatric patients.

But they found their theory was incorrect after comparing inventions from a group of patients with those patented by members of the public.

Madness lacks method

For the main part, the ideas of "mad" people could never be made and therefore cannot be patented.

The psychiatric patients had big plans, but little prospect of realising them: a cure for all known cancers and Aids, a formula for time travel and a way of achieving cold fusion in a test tube.

Among the stranger patents recorded in the UK, however, the psychiatrists found an array of inventions that could certainly be built yet would be virtually useless: a machine for patting babies on the bottom, a car propelled by a horse on a treadmill, a ladder to help spiders escape from baths and two-handed gloves to allow couples to hold hands.

Join the club

The latter group do not exhibit signs of mental illnesses, but instead satisfy the requirements for membership of Japan's Chindogu Society, the psychiatrists said.

Chindogu is a society of 50,000 members "the purpose of which is the production of useless inventions," the report said.

"The stipulation for these is that they must be possible to construct, must accomplish their stated aim, but must be totally useless."

The psychiatrists concluded that mental illnesses may occasionally play a part in the process of creative invention. But it can never substitute for an understanding of scientific fact.

"This is the conclusion lent support by this study of patients, that scientific creativity requires a firm base of knowledge, and that psychopathology, when present, can only colour the process of invention; it cannot in itself produce strength out of weakness.

"In other words, the only creative 'mad scientists' are those that were creative scientists before they became mentally ill."

The psychiatrists detail their study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

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