It's all make-believe

The British are famed for their powers of invention, but rarely translate this into commercial success. Peter Popham asks if a new school for inventors will help

The late afternoon sun steals into a classroom in the bowels of Richmond upon Thames College, near Twickenham Rugby Union ground, a shabby, exhausted-looking room dotted with old television sets which have been eviscerated and their innards turned into pieces of sculpture for which the sets become frames. "Nothing to do with us," growls Bill Harding as he takes his seat at the front of the room and introduces the theme for today's lesson: an autopsy on his students' first lamentable, laughable shots at Presentation.

This is Britain's first ever academic course for inventors, and if it is true that mighty oaks from little acorns grow, this is a pretty diminutive acorn. When word about an inventors' course got around, says Harding, a successful inventor himself, "the reaction was fantastic, we were inundated with inquiries from all over the country". But one's first impression of the students selected for this first course is not brilliant. Most are in their thirties; two are women, two are black, most are thin, shy, intense, taciturn; an aura of quiet desperation hangs about several of them. Fortunately, Bill Harding, the teacher, is big, bluff, bearded and chuckling, or one might suppose one had blundered into a branch meeting of Gamblers Anonymous.

That idea is not in fact so far-fetched. Felicity has developed what appears to be an electronic method of palm reading. Her neighbour has invented an improved "hand applicator" for dispensing glue or cake icing. Manfred confesses that he is working on 48 different projects, "though I realise it's important to focus on one thing at a time". What about you, I asked a student called Kishore. "I started off inventing nuclear fusion technology - I still haven't got around to talking to somebody professionally, but it's a device that overcomes some of the four major problems with plasma; using primary and secondary induction of electricity, it's a way of getting from A to B, reducing your travel costs ..." In their different ways, all the students are gamblers, taking a mammoth, life- sized punt on their own genius. The atmosphere is thick with anxiety and yearning.

Bill Harding is not here to teach these inventors how to invent, but what to do next: how to protect (and how not to protect - taking out expensive patents across the world may be quite unnecessary). How to find a buyer. And today, how to present: how to take this gizmo or concept or brainstorm or whatever it is and put it over in a way that communicates some of your own excitement and conviction to your audience. Last week all the students stood up at the front of the class in front of the video camera and sold. Today we watch the video played back, while Bill tries to hold back his guffaws long enough to explain what they are doing wrong.

Of the five we watch, none are any good at all. They cling to their notes like a comforter. They mutter, darting hostile glances at the audience. They apologise. They tell the customers to take it or leave it, and that they might be better off using a rival product.

"I'm not a marketeer," declares the first victim, when the laughter has subsided.

"You might be a closet marketeer," rejoins Bill. "Don't write yourself off."

"My strength is I can think and make things with my hands - I think with my hands. I've made things since the age of eight ..."

The hand-applicator man grinds through his presentation in a soporific monotone. "You've got to set them on fire with your hand applicator!" chides Bill. "From the moment you first drew breath you were selling. The first thing you sold was your vulnerability. Every time you make a friend you have sold yourself ..."

For serendipitous reasons, British inventors are suddenly at an interesting historical moment. The old refrain that accompanies all talk around this subject remains true and inescapable: with our individualism we are, as we have been for centuries, peculiarly gifted at invention; but with our financial short-termism and our apathy about manufacturing, we are less and less willing or able to exploit what our inventors conceive. So all the good stuff goes abroad to Tokyo, Taiwan, Seoul, those Valhallas of enterprise and opportunity.

That is the old tune, but suddenly it's being played over with a more urgent lilt. A new culture hero is born: one James Dyson, founder and boss of Dyson Appliances, inventor of the ballbarrows (a wheelbarrow which runs on a ball), inventor of the see-through, centrifugal, no-bag vacuum cleaner. He is thin and bony and brooding like any of Bill Harding's students, but ensconced now in David Puttnam's beautiful old house in Wiltshire, because after 25 years of designing and dreaming and presenting and paying huge worldwide patent bills, and being given the brush-off and the kiss- off by every big name in industry, he's done what all young inventors dream of doing: cocked a snook at the lot of them, set up on his own account, made a million or two, made them all sit up and take notice.

Dyson is interesting because he shows how the circle can be squared: the brilliant British invention can not only be conceived but also built and perfected in Britain, by the inventor himself, then manufactured here in deepest Wiltshire. On the cusp of the new millennium, Brunel and Stephenson and John Logie Baird walk again. It doesn't have to end in tears and the Far East.

But it can still end in far worse than tears: despite Dyson's success, all the old bogies are still close at hand. Paul Barker, an inventor from Anglesey, has fortunately given up his hunger strike, but he is still in prison, midway through a nine-month sentence which was imposed when he staged a bomb hoax outside the offices of a company which he believed had cheated him.

Barker had invented two devices to catch thieves attempting to remove goods from supermarkets. He offered the rights for the inventions to a security and engineering firm called Halma plc of Amersham, Bucks. After a year and a payment of pounds 10,000, they returned the rights to him, saying they were unable to exploit the devices commercially. But Barker maintains that during their custody of his inventions they had failed to protect his patents worldwide, with the result that he had lost control of them. The bomb hoax was staged with the wild intention of frightening Halma into admitting their culpability.

Barker is the figure of the solitary, abused British inventor, the other side of the coin to James Dyson. But the coincidence of the success of Dyson and the catastrophe of Barker has pushed inventors into the limelight as never before. There is now a concerted effort to turn them for the first time into an effective body of people.

Trevor Baylis is at the forefront of these initiatives. Baylis was catapulted to fame by his invention of a clockwork radio (which needs no batteries), now being turned out in South Africa by Baygen, the firm he partly owns, in a factory staffed by 160 mostly disabled workers. He lives in an eccentric wooden house he built himself on Eel Pie Island, on the Thames in Twickenham, with a well-equipped workshop in place of a porch, and a large swimming pool where you would expect to find the living room.

In just about every respect Baylis is in the mould of the whacky inventor. But he sees himself and his type with blinding clarity. And now that he is suddenly a success and a name, he is bending everything he's got to improving the inventors' condition.

In the upstairs den he shares with his girlfriend, several computers, a collection of antique Dinky toys, a Goblin Teasmade and his top-secret new device for alleviating Repetitive Strain Injury, he explains the "dreadful stigma" that attaches to the word "inventor".

"The perceived image of the inventor is that he's got to have a Viennese accent, a pair of broken glasses fixed with tape, a rotating bow tie that squirts water. I've got to be a wimp. I must have an anorak. I must have a garden shed."

But essentially inventors are thought of as mad, and the galling part of it is that this is largely true. Here's why. "If you go down the pub and tell everybody about your invention, you've disclosed it, and it's no longer your invention. So you can't talk to anyone. Who do you talk to? Yourself - first sign of madness.

"Now, as your ego talks and agrees with itself, it gets bigger and bigger until you're insufferable and you go to the front room and start working on your invention and the wife says, `Here, you're not working on that here, you go out to the shed.'

"That's the next element: banishment. Banished to the garden shed. You start the power drill up right in the middle of Coronation Street so all the neighbours want to know what's going on. So they all start looking through the windows. So you draw the curtains and bolt the door and you become paranoid. Then you go to the house one night and there are two letters: one from the bank manager, saying he's going to foreclose - now you've got poverty. The other one's from the wife, she's gone off with her boyfriend Derek. Now you've got rejection, humiliation and anger, because you want to punch Derek down the throat."

Solitude, silence, banishment, abandonment: this is the inventor's sorry lot. One solution, for which Baylis is partly responsible, is the course at Richmond College, which is intended to expand in the next academic year (a show of the students' inventions will be held at the college on Saturday 22 March). Another, for which he hopes to enlist royal support, is the creation of a Royal Academy of Inventors, on a par with other royal societies.

"What you need is an asylum for inventors, a sanctuary. That's what the Academy would be: a place inventors could go instead of going to the asylum.

"It would set an ethical standard in the handling of intellectual property of this kind. The idea of the Academy is to bring inventors together. When they do come together they have an extraordinary camaraderie, they work together, they bounce off each other, they get enthusiastic about each others' inventions."

Unfunded, unrecognised, unorganised, inventors have been among the most atomised groups in our society. Trevor Baylis believes the time is ripe to fight back. "We've got to elevate the status of the lone inventor, because today he does truly stand alone."

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