World IP Day "Innovation - Improving Lives" with Engineering

27 April 2017

On World Intellectual Property Day – 26 April 2017 – we are encouraged to learn about the role that intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, industrial designs, copyright) play in encouraging innovation and creativity. The theme this year is how innovation is making our lives healthier, safer, and more comfortable, turning problems into progress.

On this day we are reminded that innovation is a human force that knows no limits, it can turn problems into progress, pushing the boundaries of possibility and creating unprecedented new capabilities.

With so many fascinating innovations in the world the improvements they promise can seem a remote concept and almost distant from our everyday lives. However, we have looked for inspiration from those engineering innovations which have had the most direct and personal effect on our lives, namely those innovations that are applied to our very own body.

When we look at the past, it is the way ordinary people have lived their lives that is, for most, an enduring interest. We like to think how it would have felt to live in those times and in those conditions. However, if you were unfortunate enough to suffer hearing loss then there was little technology could offer. If you wanted help to improve your hearing then you were reduced to holding a sea shell or trumpet to your ear.

In 1886, Thomas Edison applied for a patent on a carbon transmitter, which translated sound into electrical signals. This technology effectively allowed sound to travel through wires and then be translated back into sound again. The first electric hearing aids produced employed this carbon transmitter technology. Alexander Graham Bell was also concerned about deafness through most of his career and in 1872 he opened a school for teachers of the deaf in Boston. Bell also attempted to invent an electrical hearing aid and, although unsuccessful, it did lead him to his invention of the telephone.

In 1899 Miller Reese Hutchison held the patent for the first practical electric table top hearing aid which employed a carbon transmitter and a battery. In the 1940s the first wearable hearing aids, with printed circuits, were introduced and they were slowly improved to allow speech to be distinguished from background noise and to enable the aids to be used with electronic audio devices.

As we look to the future, early indications are that hearing aids will experience huge improvements in signal processing using models of the human auditory system that mimic the way the human ear works. New hearing aids will learn to distinguish not just speech but the speech of a particular person from background noise. We can also expect improvements in cochlear implants which require no external hardware, are wirelessly charged and use the natural microphone of the middle ear instead of an external microphone.

Another area of engineering that has improved our lives is concerned with our vision. In the past if your eye sight began to fail then you were required to use a magnifying glass or perch crude armless spectacles on the end of your nose. During the Renaissance, the first temple spectacles were invented by British optician Edward Scarlett but they too were crude and the arms gave readers headaches due to the pressure placed on the temples. Benjamin Franklin is understood to have conceived the idea of a split lens bifocal but the first patent for double spectacles, which rotated down, was awarded to Addison Smith in 1783. In the 1930s, technical innovation intensified and glasses became light, resistant, thin and a fashion accessory.

In 1508, Leonardo da Vinci illustrated the concept of a contact lens and in the 1880s they were manufactured from glass to cover the entire eye. It wasn’t until the 1930s were contact lenses first made of plastic and then quickly developed into the soft plastic contact lenses we know today. By the 1980s, corrective eye surgery offered the promise to eliminate the need for glasses and contact lenses altogether.

Glasses and contact lenses themselves are now being integrated with new technology with some now including sensors that acquire continuous data on the physiology of the body to provide advancements in personal medicine. Google Glasses allow the user to view, process and project visual information into the line of vision. Sony is looking to patent contact lenses that record what you see throughout the day. In Korea, scientists are now developing LED lenses that connect directly to the iris and can take pictures or scan an image.

A further area of personal devices which has shown huge innovation over the years is prosthetics. In the past if you were unfortunate enough to suffer an injury to a limb then it would probably need to be removed - the best you could hope for was a generous measure of alcohol, a fast working surgeon and, if you survived, your hopes for a normal life afterwards were remote.

The first known prosthetic limb was a prosthetic toe found on an Egyptian mummy as early as 950 B.C. Whilst there were advancements in anesthetics and pain killers over time there was not much in the way of advancement in prosthetics. Prosthetic limbs were mainly used by knights in battle to hold shields or to help them sit in a stirrup on a horse. Prosthetics were usually made of wood or metal, they were heavy and mainly for cosmetic rather than functional purposes, and we are all familiar with the images of wooden peg legs and hooks for hands.

In 1861 James Hanger, himself an amputee, developed and patented the “hanger limb” made of light wood with metal hinges. The limb included rubber bumpers at the knee and ankle joints. Hanger was later commissioned by the US government to develop prosthetic limbs for veteran soldiers – his company Hanger, Inc. still thrives to this day at the cutting-edge of prosthetics.

Modern prosthetics are continuing to change lives for the better and have evolved from the purely mechanical to the biomechanical. The BiOM ankle developed by Professor Hugh Herr at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) replicates the power and function of a normal ankle and includes a carbon spring to help propel the user forwards as they walk, helping to match a normal stride. This technology is now also being applied to knee prostheses.

Robert Gregg of the University of Texas has developed a prosthetic leg that automatically adjusts its function to match a user’s gait allowing the different joints of the prosthetic to automatically adjust their movement based on the activity being performed by a user. This innovation allows amputees to walk with more natural gait and which over time adapts to their movement.

As we look to the future of prosthetics we are promised more developments in battery technology to allow operation for longer periods (currently 3 or more batteries may be needed for a day’s activity). We can also expect prosthetics to be controlled directly by sensing nerve signals and eventually be able to provide a sense of touch to users. The use of 3D printing could also improve the fit and feel of the limbs and there are currently experiments with early stage implants that wire the brain to a computer to improve control over prosthetic movement.

As we have seen, innovation has had the most intimate impact on our lives to enable us to advance the shortcomings of the comparably frail human body. We are living through a fantastic time of progress and innovation and on World Intellectual Property Day we are reminded of the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man born at the tail end of the industrial revolution, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction, that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”

Emma Bevan

Emma Bevan


Our Expert

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