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A little bit of this, a whole lot of that


A few days ago, I was reading “Churchill’s Iceman”, a book about a cousin of TV personality Magnus Pyke who may have been a spy and was definitely an inventor, visionary educator… and an investor. What caught his attention was that, as the price of copper went up, the price of tin tumbled. And vice versa.

Guess what. In just a few months, Pyke had used that tiny fact to become what, today, would have been a millionaire. Sadly, that’s when a cartel put paid to his bright idea.

But it got me thinking about how sometimes, the tiniest thought is all we need to create something amazing. And we never know where that spark’s going to come from. I won’t bore you with the well-known story of how burdock plant burrs inspired the invention of Velcro (and, by the way inspired an April Fool prank by Lexus). But you may not have come across these less well-known burrs.

The little acorn. The mighty oak.

There’s a tiny house at 1438 Northwest 46th Street, in Ballard, Seattle, sandwiched between giant tower blocks. If that doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t seen Up. In this case, the person who lived in the little farmhouse surrounded by colossal edifices was Edith Macefield. Unlike grumpy yet loveable Carl in the animated film, Edith hadn’t lost a spouse. She’d lost her only son to meningitis. And if you believe her stories, she’d also buried three husbands, been a spy, been interned in Dachau and escaped with thirteen interned Jewish children. She also had three passports – all probably fake, but no one knows for sure. But someone, some time, saw that house and was inspired to create one of the best-loved feature-length animations. Check it out here.

Here’s another thought for you. What’s the value of a pixel on a computer screen? How about 1p? 10p? Or is it too tiny to value? Actually, Alex Tew of Wiltshire reckoned it was $1 (yes, I know, we’re talking dollars – but hold on a moment). In just over 4 months, he’d sold one million pixels, which raised over $1 million and paid for his uni education. You can see the million dollar home page here.

Think big small

Sometimes, the big idea is actually to create something really, really minute. Jasper Maskelyne, magician son of a magician son of a magician, was tasked with using illusions to defend North Africa against the Axis. Unbelievably big ones, such as making the Suez Canal disappear and getting Alexandria to move 10 miles.

Asked to make it appear that the Desert Rats had many more tanks than they did, and struggling with a distinct lack of raw materials, he realised that the desert’s lack of features made it difficult to judge size. So he simply built very small vehicles, and got away with it.

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple” Jack Kerouac

Ernest Hemingway is said (the jury’s still out on this one) to have written a story in six words – “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. True or not, it inspired IT magazine Wired a few years ago to invite SF writers (and a few others) to do the same. Some favourites: “It’s behind you! Hurry before it…”; “The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.”; “Tick tock tick tock tick tick”; and “I’m your future, child. Don’t cry.”.

Here’s another thought, again from Maskelyne. Take a look down at your shoes. If they’ve got laces, check out their ends. Got them? They’re called aglets, and they’re pretty small. Yet they inspired Maskelyne to turn them into compass needles to help downed pilots get home. He also turned nail brush handles into an escape kit containing a nail puller, file, hacksaw, screwdriver, wire cutter, spanner, compass and two maps. In your face, Swiss Army knife.

Finally, have you ever come across the Mega Tiny? Nor had I. It’s a case for iPhones that sticks to anything, thanks to nano-suckers. Small concept, big seller. Reminds me of the old joke about Mick Jagger: when he was a baby, his mum never needed a pram. She’d just lick his lips and stick him to a shop window.

So, don’t just think of big ideas. That small thought could find its way onto Amazon Launchpad. And boy, am I looking forward to seeing it.


Paul OBrien

About the author

Senior copywriter and former fencer who loves things he can’t understand. Which means he loves lots of things.


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