The challenges of researching the recent past: Tomorrow's World, today

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

I had a very sad conversation last week with the wife of my stepfather's patent agent. I had dialled their number, dug up from the family address books, crossing my fingers that after so many years they still lived in the same house. I was lucky, in that she answered, and remembered my stepfather, but unlucky in that her husband had died in December and therefore couldn't answer my (suddenly no longer important) questions about Douglas's work. His wife was clearly still in shock - he had died at home at their kitchen table, peacefully, but still, what a thing to deal with, and it reminded me of our own sudden family loss the year before. She told me in great detail about what had happened that morning, and then the conversation moved on to the relationship between the two men. My stepfather, Douglas Buchanan, was dynamic but could be stubborn, and it was clear that there had been some kind of falling out between the two men, which his patent agent clearly regretted in later years. However, by the end Douglas was suffering from Parkinson's and his patent agent was suffering from dementia, so a reconciliation was never quite managed. We ended the phone call with words of condolence on each side, and a promise that if she came across anything relating to Douglas and his inventions she was not to shred it ('I'm just shredding everything', she had said, much to my horror!) but keep it to one side for me.

This is the first time I have come across someone in Douglas's story who has actually died, but it has highlighted for me how long ago some of Douglas's work was. It all seems fairly recent in my head - I remember so much of it so clearly - but time slips away and here we are, 20-30 years later, and it is getting harder to track down people who played such important parts in Douglas's story. The call gave me a sense of urgency and has spurred me on to contact other people on my research list more quickly, especially as the 1990s is just before the internet was invented, and so if people haven't kept bits of paper, the records don't really exist.

I have had a bit more luck with another person on my list, David Wardell. David was editor of Inventor's World magazine back in the 1990s, and was very much part of the inventing community at that time. He is responsible for uploading this little video, copied from an old VHS he had; a segment from the Tomorrow's World television programme that lots of people my age will remember (he apologises for the film quality). It's interesting to look at it now for all sorts of reasons. Filmed at the Institute of Patentees and Inventors' 80th birthday party at the Science Museum, it's a little slice of 1990s' television, more ponderous and amateurish than we are perhaps used to now, both a celebration and a slight dig at the weirdo inventors and their crazy ideas. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, you can scroll to 4 mins 28 seconds to catch Douglas himself introducing his dog boots for the camera. David suffered from tongue cancer last year so is unable to talk to me, but he has dug up some articles from the magazine, including this feature about the London International Invention's Fair awards with a mini-profile on some of the winning inventors. The photo shows the Spectangle,a device for holding your spectacles, one of Douglas's inventions that actually sold. 

The articles are nice to have, and are relatively useful, because they confirm dates and prizes I didn't know for sure, but such a small snippet doesn't answer so many of my other questions that sometimes it feels like the jigsaw is fililng in very slowly. However, this is only part of the way through my reserach journey, so I add the articles to the pile of notebooks and press cuttings that are taking up more and more space on my living room floor, and cross my fingers as I write the next email, and make the next phonecall. 

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