Levitating cutlery made for the Science Museum.

Since receiving funding from Peter Jones on Dragon’s Den back in 2004, prolific inventor and designer, Mark Champkins, hasn’t looked back. Recently, he became the first inventor in residence at London’s Science Museum, where he has designed a gift for Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday as well as creating a range of homeware inventions such as levitating cutlery, word count pencils and biodegradable baubles. Humans Invent sat down with Champkins to get an insight into the mind of a designer who never stops thinking about what to invent next.

Were you interested in design from a young age?

I did design at school and all the way through it never really felt like work, it felt like play. You get to go in and make something and I would do that in my free time anyway. Even now it doesn’t feel like work. If you feel that way about a job then that is the thing you ought to do and I guess I’ve been lucky that way.

It follows the profile of how light disappears into a black hole

What is really enjoyable about it is to have something in your mind and then translate that into something you can see and touch. It’s incredibly satisfying.

Tell me about the Black Hole Light you made for Stephen Hawking?

For Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday the Science Museum had an exhibition on his work and they decided it would be nice to give him a present. I had three weeks over Christmas to come up with something and it was obviously quite daunting. I wanted to make something that would be useful as well as being applicable to some of the work he had done. I came up with a desk light that was based on a black hole that borrowed from different elements of his work.

There is this piece of equipment in the museum that was used to identify the electron by J.J. Thompson which is a bit like a neon tube and gave rise to the whole field of quantum physics. One of the curators also showed me this amazing, curved structure that modelled how light falls into a black hole. We ended making a neon spiral that followed this profile of how light disappears into a black hole and in doing so tied together the sub-atomic with the cosmological.

Pencils that tell you how much you’ve written.

I got the chance to present it to him. I sat down in front of him and started talking about some of the scientific principles behind it and I just thought, “I’m talking to Stephen Hawking now, if ever there is a time to be scientifically and factually accurate it’s now.” I kind of dried up if I’m honest, but it was a real honour.

What other designs and inventions have you made for the Science Museum?

I was asked to come up with some inventions for Christmas and after some brainstorming I came up with three designs. One was a kit for kids to identify what presents they had under the tree without opening them (it was a kind of scientific investigation kit with magnets and magnifying glasses).

The second, most likely for blokes fed up with wrapping stuff up, is like a re-usable vacuum bag you can close with a zip seal and then put a vacuum cleaner on it. It is opaque with Christmas patterns and you can reuse it year on year.

You can have a Harry Potter-style dinner party

The final thing was a transparent bauble for your Christmas tree that was biodegradable and inside there was a plug of earth and fertiliser and a little Christmas tree sapling. After Christmas you take it off the tree, plant it in your back garden and grow a new tree.

For the shop I’ve made various things including the word count pencil, an alternative to a word count on a word document. I took a pencil, measured it very accurately then wrote exactly 1,000 words with it. I saw how much it had worn out and from there could extrapolate from that distance where it’ll be at 2,000 words etc. I put a scale down the pencil so, as it wears out, you know how many words it has written. It can actually write 37,264 words.

I also did a chopping board with magnetic strips on it. The magnetic strip is just beneath the surface and there is a little hard wood insert that I’ve put over the magnet so you can see where the magnets are. It is near the top edge of the long side of the board and when you are chopping, it holds the end of the knife down so that you can chop quicker.

Biodegradable bauble which contains a Christmas tree sapling.

When you’re mixing the food you can stick a steel-mixing bowl to the board so it doesn’t topple over. Lastly, when you have finished with it you can flip it upright and use it as a knife rack.

Inspired by this I actually came up with a set of levitating cutlery. Both the place mats and cutlery have magnets attached to them, repelling each other. The cutlery floats about an inch above the place mats at little contact points so you can have a Harry Potter-style dinner party.

What does your company Concentrate do?

It came out of some research I did for 12 months and I spotted there were lots of opportunities to intervene and do things that help kids focus. There is a lot that often gets overlooked. The comfort of the kid’s seats, the provision of water, the way the class is structured, how long they do an activity for and what they eat at lunch.

All these little things have an effect on how well they concentrate. Essentially I work with schools and work with kids to try and figure out how to intervene and ensure enough water is being drunk etc and make the teacher’s life easier as well. All the products I’ve designed are aimed at making school life better and a little bit more productive.

Brain USB stick for children.

Has the business been a success since receiving funding from Peter Jones?

It’s been good. It was one of those things where I didn’t know what to expect. After having received the funding you wonder whether it is like winning the lottery and obviously it’s not.

It’s more of the same hard work but what it does do is it opens doors. You can go to a retailer like Sainsbury’s, you can get an appointment with them and then it us up to you to prove you can deliver but it adds a bit of credibility to the business that you don’t have as a graduate designer.

Are you still in contact with Peter Jones?

I did when I started out, speaking to him every week or couple of weeks and then, as the business gets older, firstly they start to trust you that you’re working on the plan you drew up together and also they are dealing with other investments that come along. We don’t see so much of each other now but we are still partners.

For more information go to: Mark Champkins

Photo credits: Champkins-1 by Flavio Ferrari.


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