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In Britain: 'That's quite an invention! Let's not try it!'

Dr. Sydney Jones always felt it was "a nonsense" that the wheel had to be rigid as well as round. Despite the incredulity of his fellow scientists, he says he has invented a new wheel, as firm as a normal one yet flexible enough to roll up a flight of stairs. . . .

Ron Hickman accidentally sawed through a chair while trying to make some household repairs, so he set out to design a home workbench. Twenty years and many battles later, the 10 millionth has just been sold. . . .

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David Goodwin invented a virtually vandal-proof type of public seating for bus and train stations, parks, and other places. Now Andrew Smyth has put his heart into marketing it and has licenses with 18 countries. . . .

Howard Calvert, age 18, has invented a "pocket gymnasium." The metal contraption fits in a pocket, yet can exercise various parts of the body. The gym is soon to go into production and Mr. Calvert has hopes of selling hundreds of thousands in the first year. . . .

All these men are the kind of private inventors who have long given Britain a leading role in the world for innovative thinking.

But in Britain, such new thinking often faces immense difficulties in obtaining finance and support from the banking and financial community -- so Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is trying to help.

Recently she chaired a two-hour seminar in the state dining room at 10 Downing Street. Eighteen inventors sat down with 10 financiers, three consultants, four industrialists and a high-powered collection of senior ministers.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe visited the session briefly.

Three participants told this newspaper later the discussions had been succinct, to the point, and well organized by the prime minister.

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The idea was to encourage inventors and those willing to invest in them -- "to turn the movement of 'eureka' into a commercial success," as one official put it.

"Yes, it was a good meeting," said Andrew Smyth by telephone later from his Amstad Systems Ltd. company in northwest London.

"What suprised me was the unanimous way the inventors there thought very little of the private and government institutions supposed to help them."

Warming to his theme, Mr Smyth said British business was far too conservative. "In fact there is no such thing as British venture capital," he said.

"Our seating uses injection moulding. It's new. The man in Japan who has a license has just sent me the catalog he has already printed, and he's put up about L50,000 [$120,000] already, all in six months. Catch a British financier moving that fast! Where people here see problems, they [Japanese] see opportunities."

Dr. Jones, an eminent scientist with British Rail before retiring four years ago, worked on the original concept of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT).

But not even his reputation (he was a member of the British Rail Board) could interest British companies in his new flexible wheel.

"Then I went public," he said from his home in Malvern, Worcestershire. "I sent an article to the transportation editor of the [London] times, and now all kinds of people are interested."

Dr. Jones agreed with Mr. Smyth that Britain's economic decline worked against the innovator. "Why should people take a risk on a new invention," Mr Smyth asked, "when they can put their money in a deposit account with a bank and get a comfortable 16 percent?

"Exactly," said Dr. Jones. "You know, I don't want to sound critical of the country in which I live, but in America, they say of an invention: 'It's new -- let's try it.' In Britain, they say, 'It's new -- let's not try it."

"I believe utterly in this principle I am working on -- a wheel that is soft when you press it from the rim toward the hub, but firm if you press the rim parallel to the axle and if you apply traction or braking force to the rim.

"The wheel can be used over rough ground -- or on wheelchairs so that the disabled can roll up curbs or stairs," says Dr. Jones.

"I would have thought that britain today needs innovation more than at any time in its history," Mr. Smyth remarked. "Mrs. thatcher listened carefully to us. She seemed genuinely interested."

The government is to consider a number of tax changes to encourage inventors, including capital gains tax relief and tax credits for first-time investors.

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