There goes another one

When British inventors come up with brilliant ideas, British manufactur ers reject them and they go elsewhere. Such caution is costing us dear
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Willy Johnson is an inventor, a good one worth tens of millions of pounds. But he does not expect honour in his own country. "Invention is a dirty word in Britain. Inventors are seen as nutty professors," he says.

When one British inventor, Paul Barker, is on hunger strike in an Oxfordshire prison in a desperate attempt to publicise the inadequacies and punitive cost of the patent laws in this country, and another, James Dyson, is seeking a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on the Government's treatment of inventors, you can see what he means.

But Johnson is capable of changing our lives. Early in the next millennium, for example, many of us will be watching television on portable headsets. Communal TV viewing, one of the last remaining vestiges of family life, will become rare.

Instead, we will sit in our lounges, in the backs of cars, on park benches, lost in our own private world. Nobody will know what we are watching, or what we are thinking. The headset, no bigger or heavier than a pair of ordinary ski goggles, will be our only companion. If the phone rings, we will not be able to hear it. If the children speak and interrupt the programme, we will not need to say "shhh".

We will be entirely focused on the screen. When we tilt or turn our heads, the picture will still be there: crystal clear, magnified, captivating. Do not be confused: this is not virtual reality, this does for television of the what the Sony Walkman did for audio - it's personal TV.

This TV revolution has yet to reach us. But it is coming. In Japan, at Christmas, the headsets went on sale for the first time. The DynoVisor HMDs, as they are now known (Johnson christened his invention Goggle Vox) were marketed as "personal TV, video and computer games systems".

All 50,000 were sold instantly, at $350 a time. Production by the giant Japanese electronics company, Takara, has been increased to 1,000 units a day. In the West, Philips is believed to be lining up to take the DynoVisor into the US and Europe.

On every set and in the accompanying blurb, will appear the trademark, Microsharp. This is a reference to the technological breakthrough that has made the personal TV possible. Before the advent of Microsharp, whenever a TV picture was magnified, the pixels, the tiny dots that make up the screen, were enlarged too.

The new technology involves the use of smaller pixels and a screen coating, which ensures that when the picture is blown up, the dots do not intrude. The result is a sharp, clear image. Put the screen on the inside of a headset which creates the sensation of being in a darkened room with just the picture to watch and soundtrack to listen to, and the effect is stunning.

As the DynoVisor takes the world by storm, as it surely will, Microsharp will become as commonplace as Dolby, which should be uplifting for Britain. And the inventor of Microsharp - the Mr Dolby of the 21st century, if you like - is 57-year-old Willy Johnson, who researched and developed his idea when he was living in Chiswick in west London.

Sadly, though, that is where the connection with this country ends. The headsets are being made by a Japanese company. The technology has been sold to Nashua, a US corporation. None of the potentially vast royalties will filter through to this country since Johnson, who stands to make a fortune from this and at least two other inventions in the pipeline, has become a tax exile. He lives and works in Guernsey.

The Microsharp story could have been so different: the headsets could have been manufactured in Britain, creating British jobs; the technology could have remained here; Johnson could have been persuaded to stay.

But when Johnson took his piece of genius to the City of London for financial backing, to allow him to build a manufac- turing plant here, nobody wanted to know. And when he approached British companies to see if they would join him, they were not interested.

As for Johnson, who was left to finance the crippling pounds 150,000 cost of taking out the patents himself, at one point he had to sell his furniture and send his Singaporean wife and child back to her parents while he moved into a one-room flat. As soon as he saw his dream being realised, he moved to Guernsey.

In the country of Watt, Stephenson and Whittle, no one takes an inventor seriously any more. Johnson says that the only modern British inventor whose name springs readily to mind is Sir Clive Sinclair, and, hearing it, people smile at the recollection of his ill-fated C5 electric car.

That image of an obsessive boffin with a product that is flawed, has stuck. "Clive Sinclair did tremendous harm," says Johnson. "It is very easy in hindsight to say he was wrong but someone should have stopped him before it was too late and said, hang on a minute, do we really want to go out on the road among the lorries and buses in this thing?"

Rather than being ridiculed, inventors should be seen as a national asset, he says. "I cannot understand why the Government is not saying, 'We have this asset, now let us try and encourage them.' We need a royal commission to investigate how we can become Inventions (GB) Limited again."

The reason why Paul Barker is on hunger strike in Oxfordshire and James Dyson is seeking redress in Strasbourg is the financial burden of protecting their work. Inventors must renew their patents year after year to protect them, unlike authors who receive copyright protection for 70 years after their death.

"Jeffrey Archer can sit down with a notepad and a pen he bought for pounds 1 and write a novel and be paid to write it and receive automatic protection for 70 years, whereas we have to spend whatever future earnings we might have on our copyright," says Johnson.

That, plus the unwillingness of the City to back new ideas, leaves the inventor on his own and out of pocket. "We won two world wars and conquered the world. But now we are tired," he says. "Maybe our role is to become just the bankers to the world. That is OK, but bankers are very, very cautious people. When I took Microsharp to them, they said come back when it is up and running, when it is being manufactured. They were not prepared to help me get it manufactured."

One well-known British household name, an electronics manufacturer which has seen better days and could do with a fillip, was shown his idea and said: "No thanks, we are not in that business." Impossible, says Johnson, since until Microsharp there was no business in personal TV headsets. His product was forging new ground, creating an entirely new market.

"Business in Britain is all about safety," he says. "Everyone has a 'hang on to what we've got' syndrome. People are very nervous of anything that is new and will change things." One firm, he claims, said: "Willy, you're a man of enormous vision but we are not in the vision business, come to us when it is made."

The City and manufacturing industry are interested in innovation, adding something to an existing product they know and understand, and in which they might have much invested - not scrapping the product in favour of something new. "We have so much vested in the past that anyone who says 'we will not need that but this' is regarded as eccentric," says Johnson.

Eccentric. That is the word commonly used to describe inventors in Britain. It is a word that has been used in the past to describe Willy Johnson.

He talks 19 to the dozen, spraying out idea after idea. After our conversation, over lunch in a pub in Guernsey, he forgets his coat because he has just dreamt up a way of making the clockwork radio more practicable and affordable.

He left public school with qualifications and was excused from the Army after just three weeks because, in his own words, "I was a nightmare. I was unemployable. I really didn't have the temperament to work for someone else."

To prove him right, a string of jobs followed, in a brewery, Lloyd's of London, an insurance broker, a construction company. Always, he was sacked or left just before his P45 arrived. "I could not stop talking and saying, 'Why don't we do it this way?'"

He tried to write a book. When that failed he turned to inventing. "There is a saying, that everyone has a book in them. I say that everyone has an invention in them." His first was a Wendy house for children made from folded cardboard. It sold 100,000.

Next there was the Electromate, a device for heating car rear windows. His first big break was in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics. He invented the Micropacer, a pedometer inside a training shoe and Adidas, anxious for something to promote at the games, was hooked.

The idea never took off. For Johnson, that did not matter since he was paid up-front and could pay off his debts. More importantly, Micropacer showed him he could deal with a multi-national. His CV began to look much better.

In 1986, he saw the new fibre- optic screens Nasa was using for the space shuttle programme and how they were producing images of far greater clarity than anything seen in people's living rooms.

The Nasa screens cost $20,000 a piece. Johnson set out to do it much more cheaply and in a way that could be mass-produced. After eight years, he had Microsharp and a deal with Nashua. A further two years later, the TV headset is at last hitting the streets.

It is not, he maintains, anti- social. "It is the most irritating thing in the world to have someone interrupting while you watch a programme. And if someone talks at a cinema you go mad." Wearing the headset, he maintains, is "you saying I am engaged, leave me alone. It is like reading a book - there is nothing more irritating than someone ruining your concentration."

Children will focus their minds on educational programmes. "It is really one to one and they will concentrate. Viewed so close-up the screen is so vast they cannot fail to."

Johnson is now on a roll. Two further ideas could propel him into the stratosphere. One is an alarm to prevent the theft of video recorders, TV sets, car radios and mobile phones. Called Elarm , it works from a small battery and emits a piercing shriek at random intervals when the power is switched off or the set is pulled out of the wall. Because the shriek is random, the small batteries can last for two days and any attempt to remove them kills the set for good. This device is bound for a German electronics company.

The other could be the biggest money-spinner of all. Tantalum, a rare metal found mainly in Russia, is the least corrosive metal in the world - 10 times less corrosive than titanium, the metal currently used to coat parts to prevent rusting. But scientists have been unable to use Tantalum commercially to coat parts - until now. Scientists in Russia have come up with a method of Tantalum coating and Willy Johnson is bringing it to the West. Already, a company in the US is lining up to take over the project.

The good news is that Johnson has not entirely lost his faith in Britain. He has teamed up with Southampton University, just a short flight away from his Guernsey base, to help develop Elarm and Tantalum coating. Currently they have 20 such projects under way.

He is putting thousands of pounds into a research programme with the university. He will help the university's scientists find commercial buyers for their collaborative inventions. Sadly, if past form is anything to go by, they will not be British.

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