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Is Britain losing its inventive spirit?

By Mark Andrews | Features | Published:

We gave the world the steam engine, the internet, television and of course the Iron Bridge.

Steve Rawlings

But Britain may be in danger of losing its reputation as the great innovator, if new figures released by the Santander banking group are anything to go by. Last year the number of patents granted to British inventors fell by eight per cent, the biggest fall since 2013.

And while the UK is ranked ninth in the league table for the number of patents granted, we now lag way behind European rivals France, Italy and Germany, let alone China, Japan and the US.

John Aston knows a thing or two about inventions. The 77-year-old from Kingswinford, near Dudley, is the man who invented the electronic key cards now used in hotels all around the world.

And as chairman of Black Country Inventors' Club, the former head of research and design at lock giant Yale now helps a new generation of inventors devise the technology of the future.

He believes Britain's decline in the innovation league probably stems from changing attitudes among the young, and feels schools may have a role to play.

Inventor - John Aston

"Kids don't grow up with Meccano sets any more," he says.

"A lot of it is down to schools, what they do in engineering and design lessons.

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"They used to invite us in to schools to talk about inventions, we used to encourage the children to come up with ideas for inventions, but we don't get asked to do that much any more."

The Santander report makes for gloomy reading. Last year, 3,001 patents were granted in the UK, just eight more than in 10th placed Iran. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China takes top spot, with a staggering 345,959 patents granted last year. Even allowing for the country's huge population, the gap between China and the UK is still vast – 246 patents per million people, compared to 45.

Japan, in second place, registered a staggering 152,440 patents last year. While this is less than half of those in China, the country punches way above its weight, with 1,210 patents issued for every million people. South Korea took fourth place, with 89,227 patents issued, but with a population of 51 million, it is a smaller country than the UK. The number of patents per head is a massive 1,749.5 per million, meaning that one in every 572 people will have invented something.

In France and Germany, the number of patents issued last year were 10,789 and 10,574 respectively, while in Italy there were 6,340.

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The Iron Bridge. But where are the inventions of today?

While this sounds rather gloomy, John Aston says there are still plenty of people with good ideas. Members of Black Country Inventors, which meets at the Merry Hill centre, have come up with a number of successful ideas.

One member, Mick Thompson, developed a radio-control system which allows narrowboat owners to navigate locks while standing on the towpath, Stu Hampton devised an advanced infra-red night sight for rifles, and Ian White has created a special spirit level for electricians.

John, who has been involved with the inventors' club for about 25 years, says his creation came in response to a 1976 court case in the United States where the pop singer Connie Francis successfully sued the Howard Johnson chain for 2.5 million dollars after being raped at its one of its motels.

"The case made the hotels responsible for the guest's security, and with mechanical keys it is quite typical for an hotel with 1,000 bedrooms to get through 400 keys a month.

"From that, we saw the need for an electronic system."

The club provides advice and support for inventors, navigating them through the process of securing patents, and John says a handful of these have made big money.

"Three or four of our inventors have become millionaires, although most inventions never see the light of day," he says.

"I became an expert in patents because I did that sort of thing in my work.

"We find that most can't afford the fees charged by patent attorneys, as they rates they charge are huge. But getting a patent isn't that hard if you have got something that is different and is worth patenting."

John Logie Barid showing the apparatus with which the world's first successful demonstrations of instantaneous, living, moving scenes by wire and wireless were made

In Coalbrookdale, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, Steve Rawlings has developed a range of odour-control products using a carbon-based material he discovered while working in the oil industry in the late 1970s.

Since then, his company Odegon has adapted the material to provide protection from hazardous chemicals, for use in clothing as a form of body odour control, and most recently as an environmentally friendly form of odour control in bins and cat-litter trays.

He believes Britain still has plenty of creative inventors, but says there is a lack of support from both government and industry.

"There isn't enough goverment help," he says. "If we were in China, Korea, Japan or even America, there would be governmental help, but in Britain all anybody wants is a short, sharp fix.

"Britain used to be the most inventive country in the world, but I don't think we are any more."

He says British businesses are much more risk averse when it comes to trying new products.

Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine in Dudley in 1712. But is Britain losing its reputation as an innovator?

"Why can I sell a quarter of a million units to Australia, just by giving them half a dozen samples? They can see the potential of it instantly.

"I can sell in Taiwan to a distributor who will take out an order for 10,000, and then come back with an order for 100,000, whereas in Britain a supermarket will take a few dozen, and see how it goes.

"It seems all the buyers in the big companies are only interested in making sure they don't upset their bosses and that they still get a pay cheque at the end of the month. They are not prepared to dip their toe in the water in case it doesn't work."

He says big business's attitude to Brexit is another example of how cautious we have become as a nation.

"Everyone is frightened, instead of seeing it as a new opportunity to go out there like we used to do," says Mr Rawlings.

"We're just going to become a nation of clerks and pen-pushers rather than the innovators we used to be."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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