Friday, 18 February 2011

RIP: Ron Hickman

Black and Decker inventor Ron Hickman dies: Tributes have been paid to Jersey resident and inventor Ron Hickman who died on Thursday morning. He was best known for inventing the Black and Decker Workmate. Mr Hickman also worked as a car designer for the Rob Walker Lotus team and designed the Lotus Elan. His friend, Derek Warwick, said he would be dearly missed. "He was a kind, generous man," he added. (1)

I have no doubt there will be copious coverage, but here are a few anecdotes that are off the beaten track!

I went round his house just off Route Orange when it was still being built. I had a friend (Dick Poirrier) who lived next door, and his family were having a barbeque, and I was invited. Out of curiosity, and rather mischievously, as it was a light summer evening, we all trooped off for an uninvited exploration of the building. It was still being built, so there were no carpets, light fittings etc - just the bare shell of a building.

It was clearly more than a standard building, and showed the input of this remarkable man who had been involved in designing it himself. The sloping roof, which came at a gradual angle, almost came to the ground, so that it appeared to be more roof than building. I remember thinking that the proliferation of split-levels, where there would be about three or four stairs between different sections, would be something of a nightmare for the poor cleaner trying to Hoover. At that time, the swimming pool was not filled, and the sloping glass roof, with remote control blinds, had not been added.

Later, Ron was to open his house to raise money for charities, and it was possible to see the full extent of his design, and see the remote control which he used, both for the pool blinds, and for other aspects of his house. Unfortunately, it was a bespoke affair, possibly built to his own specifications, and he once had problems when it malfunctioned, and he didn't have a spare.

I also remember how he helped with the election campaign of Deputy Graham Huelin in St Brelade, and was most enthusiastic. Unfortunately, while all the other campaigners were dividing the district up into houses to visit and drop off election campaign literature, he took his list, and simply posted the leaflets at his own expense, thus giving the idea that Graham Huelin's campaign had plenty of money to spend - not the impression that was wanted. Fortunately Graham Huelin was re-elected despite this, but Ron Hickman was not asked to help with future campaigns!

He also was seen on national TV in "Floyd on Food", in the episode when TV chef Keith Floyd visited the Jersey, and the final sequence was a fish barbeque just outside his house, in the early evening, where he demonstrated what an engaging and pleasant raconteur he was.

Apart from the Black and Decker, Ron continued to invent. The "Ring Dri Chamois" wringer is still on sale - another invention of Ron Hickman. Maurice Willis and Ron Hickman OBE commenced development on the Ring Dri in 1994, and it was released after 8 years in 2002:

The Ring Dri Chamois wringer is the first of its kind! A hand wringer that attaches to any flat surface, the Ring Dri is a truly accessible way to dry your microfiber towels and chamois right on your vehicle! We were totally blown away by this device. It's like nothing ever seen, in any industry. The Ring Dri is extremely easy to use and small enough to transport in a bucket. It removes more water from towels and chamois in 60 seconds, than hours of hand wringing. Simple and fun to use, this handy tool saves time, energy, and number of towels you need to do a job. No matter where you are, simply lock the Ring Dri on to a smooth, non-porous surface with a simple turn of the suction cam lever and it's sticks in place until you release the lever. No matter how much pressure you exert, it cannot be moved. (2) (3)

But perhaps the most unusual patent, mentioned briefly on BBC Radio this morning, was for a child's toilet pot, which was filed in 1970. I managed to dig out the details:

This invention relates to of a toilet pot construction. At the present time most children's' toilet pots are manufactured from light plastics material but a major problem which occurs with all of them is that a young child finds difficulty in readily seating itself in the correct position, particularly where the construction includes a rising splash-guard. Equally the child finds difficulty when attempting to rise from the normal haunched or semi-squatting position without danger of the toilet pot being upset due to sticking or suction. Furthermore trailing clothes tend to get caught on parts of the toilet pot and also give rise to the danger of upsetting. (4)

Ron Hickman's invention remedied these deficiencies, although looking at the picture, it has a large area in front (to prevent tipping) with a place marked out for each of the child's feet, which makes it rather bulky for storage. I have to say that I've never seen anything like this on sale at any time! I don't think it was a huge success.

In 2004, the Jersey Archive, with Beth Lloyd, did a number of interviews with Islanders, and Ron Hickman was one of those chosen:

Personal View of Ron Hickman, inventor of the workmate, interviewed by Beth Lloyd. Born in South Africa and he was inventing from an early age. Remembers his first invention was a car that had a bridge over them so cars could travel on the same road. His family thought he was a bit made until he had his first burglar alarm that worked well at the age of 16.

Was an outdoor person and he enjoyed music-playing the piano and violin. At 12 he became the local church organist. If he didn't become an inventor wanted to become an engineer. When he was 18 he qualified as an associate of the Trinity College of Music in London. Never got as far with the violin.

When he left school he decided to go into the magistrate's office-moved around in different towns for 6 years-enjoyed the experience. Decided to come to England in order to pursue his desires to be come a car designer. When he first arrived in London he got a job in a music store and studied the organ part time. Talked his way into a job with Ford as a model maker-was rejected several times but eventually gave him a chance. Nine months later was promoted on to the drawing boards as a designer and he stayed with Ford for 3 years. Met Colin Chapman who had created the Lotus Car Company and was hired to help. Soon found himself as chief designer and stayed for 9 years. Got on well with Colin Chapman-respected you if you knew what you were doing. Owns a Lotus now. Bought a 1931 V16 Cadillac the previous year-drives around the Jersey roads in it.

Decided to leave Lotus Cars because of the responsibilities-decided to make a break from car design and tried to invent things. The first two inventions-one was a failure and the other was the workmate. His wife Helen backed him in his decision to leave his job. An inventor's working day is varied-have to have an idea, try it out-it gets a life of itself. Thought up the workmate because he was assembling a wardrobe and cut through a chair. There is a need to patent the invention or it becomes public property. The workmate was rejected by 7 British manufacturers and 3 American manufacturers. Black and Decker turned him down but came back to him 4 years later after he had put it into production himself. Had to put his money into it in order to put it into production. It took 6 years to start making money for him.

Decided to come to Jersey after he made licensing arrangements with Black and Decker-a nice environment to continue inventing in. Found it easy settling in Jersey-tried to run a Jersey company Techron but it lost money and now he runs it on his own. Is working on two major new inventions but are kept secret. He designed his own house in St Brelade-bought an old house with a good site and then designed his house with his wife and the architect. Have many inventions in the house-all for practical use. Created a fault reporting panel and an error took place without being reported-he discovered it was the fault reporting panel that had gone wrong. His most useful invention is a panel that tells him what doors and windows have been left open (5)


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