Mother of invention

The Material World: It seems the buggy is one of those artefacts which fulfil their purpose so efficiently they can't be improved
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In his book The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski, a design historian, draws the conclusion that form follows not function, but failure. Inventors notice the shortcomings of existing objects and produce new versions, eliminating the faults. Although Petroski looks at all sorts of things, from knives and forks to push-button telephones, he nowhere glances in the direction of anything to do with babies. This neglect is shared by other designers (did Leonardo come up with the changing table?), and may partly explain why the umbrella-fold baby buggy - a light, slim, portable pushchair that can be collapsed and erected with one hand and one foot - is such a recent addition to our material comforts. But if Petroski had looked here, he would have found a neat illustration of his theory.

Alain Prost never drove one

Thirty years ago, a retired British aeronautical engineer called Owen Finlay Maclaren (no relation to the McLaren F1 supercar) found himself spending a lot of time at airports helping his daughter to get her young family on and off aeroplanes. Again and again they struggled with a pushchair that was heavy and bulky, even when folded. Back home, Maclaren drew on his knowledge of lightweight but strong structures to invent a prototype buggy. It was made of aluminium and weighed, at 6lbs, less than most newborn babies. But the crucial innovations were the two X-shaped hinges at the back and under the seat, which enabled it to get narrower as well as flatter when folded.

The plot unfolds

Maclaren filed his patent on 20 July 1965. The first buggies went on sale in 1967. Ten years later his Northamptonshire factory was producing more than half-a-million a year. Today, the simple Maclaren E-type, built at the same factory (now the single largest user of aluminium tubing in Britain), is still a best-seller, and you will see the inventor's name on many other models (he died in 1978 a rich man). There have been refinements - twin versions, better brakes, swivel wheels to improve steering, reclining seats to accommodate babies as well as older children, shoulder carrying straps, feet to make them free-standing when folded - but the basic design remains the same, whether it's part of the E-type (pounds 39.99 from Mothercare) or the swallow-top deluxe (pounds 195 from Harrods).

It seems the baby buggy is one of those artefacts which fulfil their purpose so efficiently that they can't be improved. The wonder then is that no one thought of those X-hinges sooner. Back to Petroski: form follows failure, but different innovators perceive different failures at different times. In other words, inventions reflect the needs and priorities of their time. For centuries parents depended on their arms for carrying their children. When longer journeys became necessary, along came litters and wagons pulled by adults, or ponies if you were rich. Pulling was arduous and undignified, but everyone could push. Enter the perambulator., to be usurped in turn by folding carrycots and pushchairs. Thirty years ago, when people became dissatisfied with these awkward contraptions, it must have been because they wanted their children to be much more portable than they had ever been before.

Children? What children?

The beauty of the buggy is that it allows us to carry on with our hectic lives almost as if we had never had children. Will it, too, come to seem unsatisfactory? It is certainly possible to envisage a time, at least in London, when the pavements become so broken and uneven that it will become impossible to push anything along them. Hoverbuggies? Jetbuggies? Meanwhile, I would like to suggest a motor. You laugh? They have motors on golf trolleys. Maclaren, as it happens, is one of the biggest suppliers of wheels to the golf trolley industry, and its parent company, Sunleigh plc, has another subsidiary - Powakaddy - which makes nothing else. That distant hum you hear from the future is the Powabuggy.