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BACKYARD INVENTORS; In Britain: a state-aided tradition

By David FishlockSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1981


The British, like Americans, have a passion for inventing - there is even a government organization to encourage it. Some of their recent inventions are now in use on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Ronald Hickman claims he has given men what Isaac Singer gave women with his home sewing machine.

Mr. Hickman is the inventor of the Workmate, a portable home workbench that combines ''a vise and sawhorse all in one.'' Over 10 million have been sold so far in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere - undoubtedly to hammer-wielding women as well as men. But for Hickman, hitting upon the idea was perhaps the easiest part; building it into a success was a long, difficult project.

It all started in 1961, when he inadvertently sawed into a chair he was using as a workbench. Staring at what was left of the furniture, he conceived a way to save other home hobbyists similar grief.

Central to Hickman's invention is a working surface that splits right down the middle, forming the jaws of a powerful vise. On some models the surface can be lowered to hold an object at sawhorse level, and the entire unit can be folded flat for easy carrying and storage.

Hickman abandoned his job as design director for a specialty car company to develop his workbench idea. But for an entire decade his efforts to nail down a contract with Britain's do-it-yourself industry proved futile.

As the years went by, he formed his own company and continued his development efforts. Finally, in the early 1970s, an improved design generated greater industry enthusiasm. Black & Decker, a manufacturer that had previously rejected the Workmate, this time competed for and won a license to make it.

Although Hickman happily anticipates a world market for 200 million Workmates , he says he has spent at least $2 million to fight off the competition. His latest and biggest legal battle is against Sears, Roebuck & Co., which now offers a similar ''Companion'' workbench.

Hickman belongs to a tradition of independent invention in Britain that saw perhaps its brightest hour during World War II. In those dark days, British leaders were unusually receptive to any innovations from private citizens or small research groups that might aid the war effort.

Mindful of their useful role, the British government created a public patron for inventors shortly after the war. Called the National Research Development Corporation, its mandate is to ensure ''that a full and proper use is made of British inventions.'' Last year the NRDC invested some (STR)12.5 million ($23.4 million) in promising projects from industry, universities, research establishments, and individuals. (See accompanying story.)

Undoubtedly the most famous NRDC-funded invention is the Hovercraft. The revolutionary boat design was originated by Christopher Cockerell. He proposed trapping a bubble of compressed air beneath a flat-bottom hull, so that the boat would hover on an ''air cushion.''

The former electronics engineer built his first working model of the Hovercraft in 1955, using a couple of food cans borrowed from his wife's pantry. But not until he met with the NRDC three years later could he persuade anyone to help develop it.