The words of Thomas Edison still hold true 81 years after his death. The American inventor and businessman developed the phonograph, motion picture camera and long-lasting light bulb – all leaving an indelible mark on society. Each week Humans Invent scours the globe in search of more cutting edge design and innovation, from Sir James Dyson re-inventing the vacuum cleaner to ‘the Flying Scotmsan’, Graeme Obree building his world-record attempt bicycle in his kitchen. But what is the mysterious impulse that links these master makers together?
Returning to Sharp Labs, based in an Oxford science park we met Director, Mike Brownlow. Welcoming us into his office, having swapped a lab coat for a suit, it is clear immediately he misses the buzz of the laboratories and testing facilities below.
My natural instinct was to make a speech controlled Space Invaders game…as you do
Brownlow is in part responsible for some of Sharp’s groundbreaking modern technologies such as colour mobile displays in smartphones and tablets - chances are the smartphone in your pocket carries the hallmarks of his impact – as well as a unique food sensing microwave. But he is currently leading new activities in Health and Energy such as next generation diagnostic devices and energy storage – in particular the express blood test tech of the future already featured on Humans Invent.
Growing up in Liverpool, Brownlow won a place at University College Oxford to read Chemistry. But it was before his University studies that he started to invent, setting up a small business making and selling house alarms to neighbours. At University he then began developing his own solar powered lawnmower and even a voice activated Space Invaders game, before producing a large portfolio of patents and inventions at Sharp.
“It was all purely driven by curiosity,” Brownlow says. “If necessity is the mother of invention then curiosity is the father in some sense and I think you approach a problem and find a solution, or you are just curious and eager to explore the items around you. In the early days I was curious about learning electronics and engineering but then I applied that to more practical thinking, in particular my home inventions.
“They say you need a lateral view on things but I believe you have to be aware of a human need and that is where the curiosity comes in. It is seldom the case you are presented with a problem that needs a linear solution, so being aware of the human needs around you actually comes from being curious.”
Even Edison would not have been able to invent the light bulb without the desire to explore the practical uses of electricity. And likewise, it was plain curiosity that allowed Brownlow to develop voice-activated technology as a teenager, decades before you had even heard of Siri.
“I was fascinated by the low level code and eager to learn. I was keen on making games. I started by coding my own Space Invaders game and I had read an article in an electronics magazine about the future being speech recognition. So my natural instinct was to make a speech controlled Space Invaders game…as you do. I built an analogue filter bank out of conventional analogue electronics, hooked that up to the BBC and did things like dynamic time warping and pattern matching. All with the main aim of controlling a Space Invaders game that I talked to with a headset and a microphone. As I say this was on a BBC Micro with a 2 MHz clock.”
“From that I thought what else can I do with my very own speech system?” Brownlow says. “I thought it would be a good idea to control all your mundane household appliances around the home. It is kind of well known now, but then it was completely unheard of. I used to go across to the phone box across the road and phone the house up to talk to my voice recognition system. I would then watch my bedroom lights turn on from across the road. Silly really.”
Even now, the curious Brownlow can still be found taking apart gadgets at home, from vacuum cleaners to laptops; improving, modernising and finding solutions to problems that have never been solved or even found. Take Brownlow’s legal camp fire, which solved a simple need for the regular camper.
“I love camping, and campsites don’t let you have campfires. So I thought, why don’t I build my own legal campfire?!” Brownlow says. “Essentially, it was very similar to a modified bunsen burner where you have an all-in-one unit, where you could cook with a blue flame and then turn it down to a yellow flame. It was just amazing to see so many fellow campers come round and say, ‘where can I get one of those?’ I knew there was a need so I created it – and that is the same with lots of inventions. I think it always comes back to curiosity and being in an environment where you are open to solve human needs.”
If necessity is the mother of invention then curiosity and determination are the father in some sense
One of his most innovative home inventions is his lawnmower – that is being constantly updated. Before you start picturing your classic Mountfield, think again – this is a robotic solar powered mower that cuts your lawn in double quick time.
“The idea was the lawnmower being self sustainable, as well as being lightweight and extremely accurate. I built the first version in the early 2000s and when I came to sell my house the purchaser actually said to me, ‘I will only buy your house if you throw in the lawnmower’. He was an older gentlemen with the early signs of Parkinson’s and obviously he thought this would be perfect for his time in life. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it, and I still want to develop it commercially.
“But I am employed by Sharp and so cannot focus on it so much just yet. I have learned so much from my time as an inventor but I like to still invent at home – to be honest, my life is dedicated to invention because I am curious by nature.”
Whether it be Sir James Dyson, Thomas Edison, or Graeme Obree, what all these makers have in common is an obsessive need to discover how things work allied to a genuine openness to the world around them. From being curious in one subject, you can end up solving a human need in another.
And if we are looking for some kind of formula for how and why human beings invent, as good a place to start as any is with Brownlow when he says, “being aware of the human needs around you actually comes from being curious.” Without this spark, we are just surviving.