A Good Invention

Searaser, by Dartmouth Wave Energy

‘A good invention isn’t something crazy… It’s simple, it helps, you’ve got the materials, it’s useful and it makes everyday life easier.’ So goes the design philosophy eight-year-old Sam Houghton, one of the ‘inventors’ whose idea for a double-headed broom is one of fifteen inventions from the first decade of the 21st century on display at the British Library. The exhibition is free and in a part of the library that gets plenty of footfall – the idea being presumably to inspire inquiring minds on their way to learn.

The exhibition is an interesting mix of the technologically complex and the disarmingly simple, although a couple of the examples might not fully meet the above criteria. Most notably questionable is the entry from the British Library’s own inventor-in-residence (which sounds like a very cushy job), a new design for a Smarties – or indeed any other confectionary – tube, whose lid pops open with a simple squeeze. I’m not sure that was a problem that needed solving. But it’s interesting how many of the inventions on display were dreamt up by users with a specific problem, not always trained designers or engineers, underlining the ‘necessity as the mother of invention’ paradigm. Similarly, the brief for the Dyson Foundation Award is ‘Design something that solves a problem”. I’m not sure where Dyson’s Air Multiplier Fan fits into that: the standard fan design seems to perform an acceptable job. But it probably solves the problem of ‘making money for the Dyson brand.’

One very telling aspect of the exhibition is a board where visitors are invited to submit their ideas for problems they think need solving. A few genuine suggestions sit alongside a plethora of facetious comments: ‘a tool that picks up wet towels and returns them to the bathroom when left on the floor by husbands and children’, or, alternatively ‘something to stop wives/ girlfriends nagging’. How British.

With this couple of caveats, however, the exhibition is a nice tribute to the diversity of British invention, and a reassuring reminder that we do have some basis for national confidence in a global market.

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