Home / Business Focus
Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 12 News List

Mothers of invention are oftentimes a rare breed

By Fanny Johnstone  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Not many teenagers can say they have contributed to changing the world, but Emily Cummins has a credible claim. Last year, at the age of 19, she was named innovator of the year in the British Female Inventors and Innovators Awards for her solar evaporation refrigerator. Made from sustainable materials, it enables developing countries to refrigerate medicines and food without electricity.

Cummins, who is now studying business at Leeds University, England, began inventing things in that spiritual home of British ideas, the garden shed, at the age of four, when her grandfather gave her a hammer.

"I used to spend hours in his shed," she says. "He would mess around, turning a lawnmower into something else. With the leftover parts, he taught me and my cousins how to use machinery. I got a buzz from being creative and by the time I got to secondary school, I was using pretty hi-tech tools."

For her technology course, she designed a toothpaste dispenser for her other grand-father, whose arthritis had left him unable to squeeze the tube. This invention brought her the title of regional winner of the Young Engineer for Britain Award in 2003.

Driven by her concerns about climate change, Cummins came up with the idea for her solar evaporation refrigerator at just 17. Having designed the fridge and got it produced, she took it to Namibia after she had finished her school leavers' exams to test it.

"With the help of a translator, I was able to get the opinion of township inhabitants, which made me want to continue to develop the product. What I love about inventing is the fact that you can solve a problem with a design, get rewarded for it and help other people all at the same time," she says.

Cintra Jaggan-Vince, a former nurse, was motivated by a more immediate and personal problem. Debilitated by a bad back, she had to rely on her nine-year-old daughter to help her dress.

"She got so fed up with dressing me, she told me to invent something `to pull on your own pants, Mum.' So I did. I got some suspender clips and attached them to a harness I'd made out of webbing -- and it worked. Well, obviously, I'm not the only person in the world with a bad back. So I road-tested it on some 80-year-old neighbors who were healthy but not flexible, and my mother-in-law who had just had spinal surgery," she said.

"I had great feedback, but they found the clip difficult to operate, making it impossible to use for people with arthritis or only one hand. I made a new protoype from hinged plastic knife handles. It worked like a cross between a clothes peg and a bulldog clip: strong on the grip, but soft on the squeeze," she said.

The Clip & Pull, as it was christened, is now manufactured and produced in China and has aroused considerable international interest.

So has she made a lot of money?

"Not yet, because it's a brand new idea. But potentially, it will make millions. With a global population of six billion, it's entirely plausible to sell 20 million a year. We're making the product economically viable for poor economies, but more expensive for rich economies. So I don't care if I make 25p or a £1 per item, it's the benefit to people that matters," she said.

The British Female Inventor and Innovator of the Year Awards, which celebrate their 10th anniversary this March, were founded by a self-confessed "failed inventor," Bola Olabisi, to encourage and stimulate the work of female inventors, a notoriously rare breed.

This story has been viewed 3643 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top