"I'm taking a forced holiday,” says Dr John C Taylor, the serial entrepreneur and inventor. The 80 year-old recently broke his arm in a plane crash – a plane he was flying.
“The whole plane actually crashed?” I ask, dumbly. “Well, they don’t tend to crash in parts.”
Taylor started flying at 16 – a few years before he realised he’d inherited his father’s talent for invention. Eric Taylor was the founder of engineering and manufacturing firm Otter Controls. When he died in 1971, Taylor (the younger) took over.
Today, he has over 400 patents to his name – he developed the thermostat of the engine cooling system in E-Type Jaguars in the 1960s, and is currently working on a solar-powered cooker for use in developing countries. But he is best known for his revolutionary work on kettles.
Taylor invented a bimetallic thermostat for cordless kettles called Otter Gs, which is what ensures your kettle turns off once it starts boiling.
The control is now found on over 1bn kettles globally – about 75 per cent of the world market. In fact, it was Taylor who came up with the cordless kettle in the first place, along with internal filters, and stainless steel elements. Behind each innovation, there’s a great anecdote. Stainless steel elements, for example, emerged from the pride of German housewives.
“The continent was decimated after the war, particularly Germany. They’d melted all their pots down, and when they did start using British-made aluminium kettles, they were not popular. In the traditional German kitchen, pots and pans were hung above the cooker.
These had to be kept clean – inside and out – which meant the chrome covering on the copper elements got scrubbed off. So British kettles became known for producing green water.”
It’s obvious that Taylor notices things about people. “How do you know if a product is needed? You just talk to people. It’s all folklore, really. I take things in, then those pieces of information become useful 20 years later.” I ask why Americans still boil water on the hob.
“For two reasons. Part of it is a Dickensian ideal – the family around the fire. I think that’s stuck there more so than here. But their use of aluminium kettles is also down to the mains electricity supply and the way American houses are wired.”
In the UK, we can supply up to 2,990 watts to an appliance. In the US, mains voltage is limited to 120 volts and a limit of 15 amps per outlet, so you can only get a maximum power of 1,800 watts. The upshot is that it takes over 90 seconds longer to boil an electric kettle in the US than the around 130 seconds it takes in the UK – enough to put people off buying them.
Invention vs innovation
It seems pertinent to ask Taylor what the difference is – if there is one – between invention and innovation.
“I imported an Apple computer in 1980. There was no software, I had to write all my own programmes. I took that little computer, and I taught it to do my accounts, to calculate order volumes, to do a whole host of things. That’s innovation. I didn’t create the computer, but I learnt how to use and improve it.” He picks up his empty tea cup, which flops to one side. “I’ve got arthritis, so I can’t really grip this. If the handle was divided into two sections, so I could hold it with two fingers, it’d be an awful lot better. But for too many people, it’s about what looks beautiful – not about what actually works.”
Taylor practises what he preaches. His home on The Isle of Man, where he grew up, is entirely bespoke. Shaped in a series of ellipticals, even the cutlery is made to specification – extra light and balanced, so your food “doesn’t ping off the plate”.
And it’s not just tangible objects that Taylor will make work. In the 1970s, he was trying to sell Otter Gs to the Japanese. “I’d met all their requirements, I’d done all this face – danced with Geisha girls. They’d give me all these rice wine shots, so I’d toast the Emperor, then they’d all have to drink.” In the end, Taylor took a different approach to wooing his would-be Japanese partners. “I flew my plane from Britain to Japan. That was seen as sufficiently impressive, and they signed on the dotted line!”
Taylor, who has never borrowed a penny from anyone, has little time for piling money into potentially exciting technology – I ask what he thinks of the lofty valuations you see these days.
“It’s not just lofty, it’s downright stupid. Once you’ve got a product, sell it to the retail market. When you’ve got enough money, you can go for approval. Then, you can go to manufacturers. My great-grandfather borrowed money from a bank and the following two generations spent their lives trying to pay the money back. I’d been living in Canada for a while, and when I came home he was dying. The last thing he said to me was ‘never borrow money from a bank’. So I was indoctrinated. Banks will lend you an umbrella, provided it isn’t raining.”
The greater good
Yet since retiring in 1999, Taylor has been ploughing his own money into others. “I lost contact completely with Cambridge. But when I retired, I went back and said I wanted to help. I didn’t have to pay for my education. If something’s free, you don’t value it as much. Now students are paying, facilities need to be world-class.” Taylor “couldn’t believe” the Corpus Christi library was the same as it had been in his day, so he paid for a new one.
Now, it’s famous in its own right because of his “time-eating clock” – the chronophage. A giant grasshopper makes its way round the face, devouring time. Having spent his life making things that cost less than a pound, the chronophage can be commissioned for £3m. “It’s art, it’s fun. But it’s also interesting. Time is something you don’t get back – and the grasshopper chews up each minute.” Taylor has now made four chronophages and is working on a sundial that logs every second.
Taylor and I meet in the new home of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Hub, the Taylor Centre. In four years, the Hub has supported 45 startups. The Centre provides space to work, meet investors and experiment with ideas.
He’s also given £2.5m to Cambridge to appoint a Professor of Innovation, a position that will be taken up in October of this year. “We need people to keep inventing. The issue is that it’s too easy these days to design a product that’s completely new, patentable, but no-one wants to buy it.”
Taylor ascertains that someone in the room has a wifi kettle. “And do you use it?” (“No.”) “There we are! Of course the internet can control everything, but most of it’s too complicated so people just ignore it. My hero is John Harrison, the inventor of the first sea clock. He solved the problem of calculating longitude while at sea, and spent his whole life improving his design. But the first one worked – it was that one that met people’s requirements.”