There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And One

Ian Shanks (1948 – present)

Whilst a laudable idea in principle, patents, which give the inventor some time to exploit the fruits of their inventive streak without giving them an everlasting monopoly, can be fraught with difficulties and often the only winners seem to be the legal profession. One area of difficulty is who owns the patent when an employee invents something during the course of their employment and, even if they concede ownership of the patent, are they entitled to a share of the profits made by the invention, over and above their normal employment benefits? The case of Ian Shanks has done much to clarify this grey area, in the UK at least.

I am a bit of an aichmophobe and so I have the greatest admiration for diabetics who regularly puncture their skin with a needle to get their shot of insulin or to test their glucose levels. If it was a matter of life or death, I am sure I would overcome my fear, it is only a state of mind, after all. Undeniably, though, what has helped diabetics immeasurably is the nifty little glucose testing kit which has simplified the process and improved the accuracy of the readings. This was the brainwave of Scottish scientist, Ian Shanks.   

Shanks was already a leading scientific pioneer, publishing the first paper on 3D televisions and being at the forefront of the development of liquid crystal display (LCD) technology. Around the summer of 1982 he wondered whether he could deploy LCD technology to make some form of biosensor. If you could suck a liquid, blood, for instance, between two glass plates and coat one of the plates with a material that broke up the molecules you wanted to measure, say glucose, then you should be able to measure its concentration.

Using the glass slides from his daughter’s toy microscope, Shanks played around with his idea until he had developed a working model. Excited by his discovery, he had the prototype for a cheap, pain-free device to test glucose levels, he took it to his employers at the time, Unilever. As Shanks was their employee, Unilever took ownership of the idea and filed for a patent, which was granted. And then they did nothing.

Grudgingly, in the 1990s Unilever began to sell off licences relatively cheaply to other companies to manufacture and sell the glucose sensors. They revolutionised the lives of diabetics but, for reasons best known to themselves, Unilever had missed the boat, earning around £24 million from the licences rather than a billion or so they would have amassed if they had taken the trouble to market and distribute the device themselves. As for Shand, apart from his salary and employment benefits, he got nothing and he wasn’t happen.

Now Section 40 of the Patents Act 1977 enters our story. Under this piece of legislation an employee, who invents something from which their employer derives an “outstanding benefit”, is entitled to a “fair share”. Suitably vague wording, a clause described by an Appeals judge as drafted “on Friday night and after closing time”, it nonetheless offered Shand some hope. He sued his employers and after many a knockback, it took him thirteen years to get justice, in October 2019 the Supreme Court found in his favour.

Lord Kitchin, in his judgment, opined that the rewards Unilever enjoyed “were substantial and significant, were generated at no significant risk, reflected a very high rate of return and stood out in comparison with the benefit Unilever derived from other patents”. Their lordships awarded Shand £2 million. He had got there in the end. The first award made under section 40 was not made until 2010.

Millions of diabetics around the world owe a great debt of gratitude to the genius of Shand.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

And look out for The Fickle Finger, now available in e-book format.

What Is The Origin Of (264)?

Waiting for dead men’s shoes

Workplaces were much more structured and hierarchical when I started out on my career. I remember that in order to move up to the next meaningful step in the ladder, you had to have a certain number of years’ service or have attained a certain age, as if either factors had much to do with whether you could do the job. The other problem was that there were strict caps on the numbers of employees on any particular grade so, even if you qualified on the grounds of experience or age, you had to wait for an opening to crop up. These only materialised if someone else was promoted, left, was fired or died in harness. It was extremely frustrating for young guns who thought they were the bee’s knees.

In such a situation, you might describe yourself as waiting for dead men’s shoes, promotion not being solely down to your merits, or otherwise, but achieved only when someone to retire or die so you can take their place or, in a figurative sense, step into their shoes. It was a forlorn and frustrating situation to find oneself in and must have been even more so in days gone by when there was no retirement age and people only relinquished their position when they were carried out in a box.

The origins of the phrase go back until at least the 16th century and it is clear from the contexts in which it was used that there was little sympathy for anyone who found themselves in such a situation. Indeed, the explicit message was that you use your time much more profitably by doing something else. In 1562 the English playwright and epigrammatist, John Heywood, published his Dialogue contaynyng the number of the effectuall prourbes in the Englishe tounge. There we find, “who waitth for dead men shoen, shall go long barefoote”.  

A variant of this phrase, slightly more grandiloquent but the result is the same, appeared in Old Meg of Herefordshire for a Mayd-Marian from 1609; “it were no hoping after dead mens shooes, for both vpper-leather and soles would bee worne out to nothing”. And in The Independent from Wexford on July 14, 1847, in an article full of advice in proverbial form, we are told “he who waits for a dead man’s shoes may have to go for a long time barefoot”.

Twentieth century variants included “he who waits for a dead mans shoes may get cold feet” (Evening Telegraph and Post, September 1, 1913) and “while waiting for a dead man’s shoes you could probably earn a better pair” (The Pall Mall Gazette, April 7, 1916). How pathetic a practice it is was encapsulated by The Daily Mail from Hull on January 16, 1932; “the man or woman who waits for dead man’s shoes, or who lives in the future, is a most pathetic figure”. These days when the phrase is used the consequences of such action or the pejorative sense of the phrase is omitted.

Corporate and management structures a re much flatter these days which means, in theory at any rate, that opportunities are less restricted for genuine talent and that promotion is not dependent upon placeholders shuffling off elsewhere. Whether that is a good thing, of course, is another matter entirely.    

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Three

William Mumler and the Spirit Photographs

There is a thin line between a hoax, a fraud and an innocent mistake that gets out of hand. Into which category the curious case of William Mumler and his spirit photographs falls, I will leave you to decide.

William was working as a jeweller in Boston, dabbling in photography as a hobby. In 1861, after printing off a portrait of himself, he noticed what seemed to be the shadowy figure of a young girl behind him. He thought it must have been an accident, the vestiges of an image of an earlier photo that was still on the plate, but friends, when he showed them the picture, identified the wraith as Mumler’s dead cousin.

Word of the remarkable photograph soon got around and was pounced upon by the spiritualist community. The tragic death toll of the Civil War meant that interest in the paranormal was never greater, grieving relatives wanting to get in touch with their lost loved ones. Spiritualists in the Boston area quickly proclaimed Mumler’s photograph as the first ever taken of a spirit.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Mumler set up shop as the world’s first spirit photographer and did a roaring trade. During the course of the 1860s he took thousands of photographs, all with a characteristic grainy wraith in the background. The greatest showman, PT Barnum, never one to miss a trick, displayed several of Mumler’s photographs in his American Museum.

As Mumler amassed his fortune, more conventional photographers poured scorn on his work, accusing him of blackening the reputation of the nascent profession. Even the spiritualist community was divided, some claiming that the photographs were frauds, even suggesting that some of the so-called spirits were not only still alive but also bore a remarkable similarity to some of the subjects of Mumler’s earlier photographs. Nevertheless, there were still enough people desperate enough to try to contact loved ones from beyond the grave to give him a healthy income.

Mumler’s troubles, though, began in 1869 when he moved to New York. Despite moving he couldn’t shake off the allegations of fraud and after the local Police Department sent an undercover agent to have his portrait taken. Sure enough, a wraith appeared in the background. The Police launched a case against Mumler for fraud.

The trial pitted supporters of spiritualism and sceptics against each other and caused a minor sensation. Some photographers testified that what Mumler was doing using a technique called double exposure, superimposing one image on top of another. The photographer, Abraham Bogardus even produced an example, a portrait of PT Barnum with the gjostly image of Abraham Lincoln behind him.              

But for every naysayer, there was a believer prepared to speak out on behalf of Mumler. In a rather touching testimony Paul Bremond, who lost his daughter in August 1863, told the court that “she told me when she died that if I were permitted she would return to me from the spirit land. By this photograph I see that she has returned”. The court were prepared to give Mumler the benefit of the doubt and acquitted him. He continued his business, producing perhaps his most famous photograph, in 1871, of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly image of her dead husband, Abraham, embracing her. It is claimed that she introduced herself to the photographer as Mrs Lindall.

Mumler’s business never really recovered from the court case and he gave up spirit photography in 1879. He did, however, invent the Mumler process which allowed the first photographs to be printed on newsprint, revolutionising the look and feel of journalism for ever. But by the time he took his own place in the spirit world in 1884 he was penniless.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

What Is The Origin Of (263)?…

Put on your thinking cap

If you are about to engage upon the lengthy consideration of a question or a problem, particularly when you might be thought to require some inspiration or guidance, you might be encouraged to put on your thinking cap. This metaphorical cap presumably warms the little grey cells in your brain ensuring a more considered opinion or the right answer, if you are endeavouring to crack what Sherlock Holmes called a three-pipe problem.

This metaphor has been around since at least the seventeenth century, although the cap in question was a more satisfyingly alliterative considering cap. The English comic writer and actor, Robert Armin, used the term in his Foole upon foole, published in 1605, thus; “The Cobler puts off his considering cap, why sir, says he, I sent them home but now”.   

Perhaps the most famous considering cap was the one described in The History of Little Miss Goody Two-shoes, an anonymous work published by John Newbery in 1765. In a chapter entitled The Whole History of the Considering Cap, the author describes a considering cap possessed by a Mrs Margery which was “almost as large as a Grenadier’s, but of three equal Sides; on the first of which was written, I MAY BE WRONG; on the second, IT IS FIFTY TO ONE BUT YOU ARE; and the third; I’LL CONSIDER OF IT”. Whoever had it was encouraged “whenever he found his Passions begin to grow turbulent, and not to deliver a Word whilst it was on”. It was also described as “an universal Cure for Wrong-headedness”.    

This figurative use of a cap has prompted some to speculate as to whether it has its roots in practice. Judges did put on caps to pass sentence, at one time for all cases, not just those involving the death sentence. But, methinks, the deliberation had been completed before the headwear was donned. Others point to the fact that in the 16th and 17th centuries the educated classes, those who practised law or taught, often wore caps. Perhaps, they surmise, the uneducated, working classes thought that the headwear enabled them to think more clearly. We are in the realms of speculation and, perhaps, the idea is no more than that the cap helps to keep the head warm and thus ensures that the brain has an environment conducive to thinking clearly.

The, to my mind, less satisfactory, phrase thinking cap appears to have appeared early in the nineteenth century, at least in the printed page, in America, possibly by way of Ireland. The Western Carolinian, on October 16, 1821, exhorted the editor “to put his thinking-cap on, before he hazards another such assertion”. My reason for suggesting an Irish connection is this quotation from the Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet from November 18, 1824; “if thou art not wise enough to take a hint from these proverbs, thou mayest put on thy thinking cap again to guess at my intentions”. Irish migrants took more than their good selves to the Americas.        

Back in America the Kenosha Times from Wisconsin in July 1857 wrote, “this tendency is a very good thing as the safeguard of our independence from the control of foreign power, and it obliges every man to keep his thinking cap on”. It is this version of the phrase that has found favour to this day. That said, I shall use considering cap from now on, in the event I ever need to think deeply about anything, which, somehow, I doubt.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred

Royal Mint Street, E1

Running from its junction with Mansell Street at its western end and merging into Cable Street in the east, Royal Mint Street was so named in 1850 in (belated) recognition of the Royal Mint which had moved into the Tower Hill area in 1810. Methinks it was a rather belated attempt to refresh the reputation which, under its previous name, Rosemary Lane, had developed a certain reputation. I may return to the Mint another time but I will focus attention on other aspects of the street’s history.

From the beginning of the 18th century Rosemary Lane hosted a Rag Fair where Alexander Pope noted in footnotes to his satirical poem, Dunciad, published in 1728, “old cloaths and frippery are sold”. A contemporary commentator added more colour to the area by noting that “much of the clothing that was sold there was stolen; the market was also the final destination of all cast-off rags, in an epoch notorious for its careless habits and for seldom or never changing its linen”. Such was its reputation that in 1733, when a draper in Great Turnstile in Holborn noticed that he had lost 43 pairs of stockings, he immediately sent a boy to Mr Hancock’s in Rosemary Lane to look for them.

Its great rival was the market in Petticoat Lane but it had some advantages, namely being a wider and airier street, with taller buildings and the added attraction of a gin house. One of the attractions of the stalls, apart from cheap second-hand clothing, was that you were never quite sure what you would find within the garments. This snippet from the Public Advertiser from February 17, 1756 makes this point as well as shedding some light on how the transactions were conducted. A woman by the name of “Mary Jenkins, a dealer in old clothes in Rag Fair, was selling a pair of breeches to a poor woman for seven pence and a pint of beer. While the two were drinking together at a public house, the purchaser unripped the clothes and found eleven gold Queen Anne guineas quilted in the waistband and a £30 bank-note, dated 1729, of which she did not learn the value until she had sold it for a gallon of twopenny purl” (warm beer flavoured with something bitter). A case of caveat venditor.    

There was some dispute amongst the authorities around the turn of the 19th century as to whether the Rag Fair was simply a marketplace for old tat. Thomas Pennant in his Of London, published in 1790, talked of tubs in which customers paid a penny to dip their hands to pull out a wig and that someone could clothe themselves for little or nothing. Joseph Nightingale, in his London and Middlesex from 1815, vehemently refuted Pennant’s account, recording that “the houses in Rosemary Lane, or the so called Rag Fair, are mostly occupied by wholesale dealers in clothes, who used to export them to our colonies, and to South America. In several Exchanges, or large covered buildings, fitted up with counters, &c. there are good shops, and the annual circulation of money in the purliens of this place, is really astonishing, considering the articles sold, although their cheapness bears no kind of proportion to Mr. Pennant’s conjectures”     

Whoever was right at the time, by the middle of the century it was characterised by disorder and tawdriness. Henry Mayhew gave us a vivid illustration of life in the street in his London Labour and London Poor, published in 1861. He reported that it was “chiefly inhabited by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpers, &c., as well as the slop-workers and “sweaters” employed in the Minories”. He went on to give a detailed description of the bric-a-brac on sale and the disorder to be found on the streets. “Some of the wares are spread on the ground, on wrappers, or pieces of matting or carpet; and some, as the pots, are occasionally placed on straw. The cotton prints are often heaped on the ground, where are also ranges or heaps of boots and shoes, and piles of old clothes, or hats or umbrellas. Other trades place their goods on stalls or barrows, or over an old chair or clothes-horse. And amidst all this motley display the buyers and sellers smoke, and shout, and doze, and bargain, and wrangle, and eat, and drink tea and coffee, and sometimes beer”.     

The fair lasted until 1911. I shall return to this street to talk about some of the colourful characters who lived on it.

The Tale Of Charles Dickens’ Turkey

‘Twas the day before Christmas and the novelist, Charles Dickens, was waiting with great expectations for a 30-lb turkey that his tour manager, George Dolby, had promised to send him. But it didn’t arrive. Dickens dashed off a frantic note to Dolby; “WHERE IS THAT TURKEY? IT HAS NOT ARRIVED!!!!!!!!!!” What promised to be the best of times turned out to be the worst of times.

The bird did not arrive. Entrusted to the tender care of the railway companies it was making its way from Hereford to Dickens’ home in Kent when, somewhere on the Great Western Railway (GWR) line between Gloucester and Reading, the wooden horse box in which it was stored, a sort of goods carriage, caught fire, possibly caused by an errant spark from the engine.

Suffice it to say, Dickens’ turkey was well and truly cooked and GWR considered it to be too badly damaged to present to the novelist. Instead the meat was sold off to the needy at sixpence a portion.

Dickens did receive a letter of apology from GWR and an offer of compensation.

The incident, which has just come to light as a result of some correspondence unearthed at the National Railway Museum in York, happened in 1869. Dickens died in June the following year and so was deprived of turkey on what turned out to be his last Christmas. Hard times, indeed.

Quite what he ate instead is anybody’s guess.

Season’s greetings to you all. The next post is scheduled for Monday December 30th.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Two

Paul Kammerer and the Midwife Toad

We tend to think that Charles Darwin was single-handedly responsible for developing the theory of evolution but he was not working in a vacuum. An important and controversial contribution was made by the French naturalist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who posited a theory that acquired characteristics were passed down through the generations. He thought that giraffes originally had short necks and legs but, in order to get to the succulent upper leaves, had to develop the long legs and necks they have today. Lamarck though that if a parent had a limp, their child would also inherit one.

Lamarckism fell out of fashion but the Austrian scientist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), spent part of his career trying to establish whether there was anything in it. He chose to concentrate on the Midwife Toad which, unlike most toads, does not mate in water and so lacks the black, scaly bumps on their back feet, known as nuptial pads, which allows other male toads to hang on to their partners as they mate. If he forced Midwife Toads to mate underwater, he wondered, would they too grow those bumps? If they did, Lamarck might have been on to something.

After getting his toads to mate underwater, Kammerer discovered, after a few generations, that the males were beginning to develop black nuptial pads, which were then inherited by their offspring. If his findings stacked up, there may have been something in Lemarckism after all. In 1923 and 1924 Kammerer travelled extensively across the United States and Britain, giving lectures and writing about his experiments. In 1924, he published The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, claiming that his experiments and results showed that Lemarck was right.

Kammerer split the scientific community. His findings were enthusiastically embraced by Soviet Russia, the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics fitting into the prevailing Marxist philosophy, so much so that Kammerer was appointed as director of a laboratory in Moscow’s Communist Academy in 1926. Other scientists, though, were not so sure.

In 1926 an American scientist, Gladwyn K Noble, curator of Reptiles at the Museum of Natural History in New York, travelled over to Vienna to see for himself. By this time Kammerer was in Moscow and so a colleague showed him the one preserved toad that was left from the experiments and photographs taken while the research was ongoing. Noble claimed that the specimen was a fake, the nuptial pads being nothing more than swellings caused by the injection of black Indian ink.    

Noble published a letter in the journal, Nature, on August 7 1926, claiming that Kammerer had faked the results of his experiments. In a letter to the Soviet Academy of Science written in September 1926, Kammerer admitted the hoax, but claimed that he was not responsible for faking the exhibit Noble had seen and had no idea who had done it or why. With his academic and professional career ruined, Kammerer’s body was found, on September 23, 1926, at the top of an Austrian mountain in Puchberg am Schneeberg with a gun shot wound to his head and a pistol by his side.

Kammerer’s case has become a notorious example of academic hoaxing but more recent developments in genetic research suggest that he might not be the villain he has been made out to be. In 1942 scientists began to understand a phenomenon called epigenetics whereby circumstances or the environment can make changes to the way gene information expresses itself without changing the genetic code itself. Those changes can be passed on to offspring.

A famous example of epigenetics in practice was to be seen during the famine that hit occupied Netherlands in the winter of 1944/5. Malnourished, pregnant women gave birth to children with a higher incidence of mental problems and a tendency to become obese than normal. Some of these traits were passed on to the women’s grandchildren. And a midwife toad has been found in the wild with nuptial pads.

Perhaps the remaining specimen had been faked but the results of Kammerer’s experiments were as he portrayed them. If so, he will have the last laugh.        

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone