Reality TV - Innovation Nation

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Eeyore discovers the grim reality behind Reality Television

After hiding his identity for many years under the pseudonym Eeyore, Researcher U112242 has come out, blinking, into the lights of a television studio.

A canny h2g2 researcher might ask why? Well, Eeyore entered the BBC Innovation Nation competition.

The BBC insisted that every invention entered in the programme had to be represented by at least two people. This suited Eeyore down to the ground because he was already two people. We are Rollo Metcalfe and Julia Davidson, back legs and front legs respectively of the entity known as Eeyore, and it's too late to deny it. We've been on the telly every Wednesday night for weeks, and people in the street give us funny looks as if they think they might know who we are but aren't quite sure.

Together, we have invented a revolutionary new pen, which we hope will take its place in history alongside the fountain pen, the ballpoint pen and the felt-tip pen.

Getting Through to the Final

Innovation Nation is Pop Idol for nerds, with the emphasis on Pop. It's organised by the BBC in association with NESTA1 the lottery-funded organisation that backs ideas in exchange for a share of the profits.

Back in May 2003, we and 4,999 other teams of inventors filled in forms and sent off video tapes. The next thing that happened was we got a phone call to say that we were down to the Final Eighteen. This, in itself, is weird. When we spoke to other teams we discovered that some of them had been told they were in the Final Hundred, and had already had camera crews visiting their homes.

It is the very essence of a reality show that the victims are kept in the dark.

We were invited to the offices of NESTA next to London Bridge on Friday 21 August. All the teams were kept in a small, hot room being poked about by hand-held cameras and asked difficult questions. Nevertheless a camaraderie evolved between the contestants, as we cracked jokes and slyly opened the window, which the BBC kept closing again to shut out the noise of the traffic that interfered with their recordings. We were led off to make our pitches team by team, which took the form of a three-minute presentation (timed by a stop watch) and then being asked questions for ten to twenty minutes. Each team had to present their ideas to a panel of six judges, and then undergo ten minutes to half an hour of questioning, some of it apparently quite aggressive.

After everyone had delivered their pitches, we were given lots to drink and not much to eat. Then we were taken into the room where the presentations had been made; the failing contestants were announced and had to make a 'walk of shame' to the door.

When the three finalist teams had been announced, the BBC handed us champagne bottles that had been previously shaken up so they made telly-friendly explosions as they were opened.

So What's the Big Idea?

We've told you it's a pen. Perhaps we'd better let you know a bit more about it.

This is harder to do than you think, because our Patent Attorneys have told us that if we discuss the details with anyone before the patent is published, we lose control and anyone can make a pen according to our design without giving us a penny, or even a thank you.

So, being very basic, our invention is an ink delivery system that controls the flow of ink in a different way. It writes the moment the tip touches the paper, and stops the moment you lift it up. It writes very smoothly, and the mechanism is extremely small, so that the casing built around it can be any shape you like.

A Shocking Statistic

As the programme keeps reminding you, having an idea doesn't mean anything unless it fills a need.

When we started out, we didn't have a 'killer application' in mind. We were vaguely dissatisfied with pens in general: fountain pens need maintenance, felt tips run out quickly, ball points make your hands ache. As part of the process of making the programme, we visited schools, talked to university students, consulted a graphologist and a distinguished ergonomist. We spoke to and read books by a world expert in handwriting: Dr Rosemary Sassoon.

We found the following quote in one of her books:

40% of girls and 25% of boys of school-leaving age could be counted as suffering pain when writing … surveys with higher achieving pupils of the same age pointed to an even higher proportion of pain. Tension tremors can occasionally be observed in children under stress... Occasionally, the pain and tension can be so intense that pupils become unable to use their writing hand. This is often related to overuse at examination time, but cases of younger children appear to be on the increase worldwide, especially in countries where the education system is highly competitive.

We felt that, with the design flexibility of our new pen technology and its smooth, pressure-free writing action, we had found our 'killer application'. A pen made with our ink delivery system can be made in any shape, and writes without the need for pressure of pen on paper. In contrast fountain pens, ball points and felt tips are all stick-shaped, formed round the mechanism rather than the hand or the needs of the writer.

Unfortunately the BBC didn't agree with us, or at least they didn't allow us to mention any of this in their programmes. They relented slightly in the one broadcast this week (though the point is not clearly made) but they told us it wasn't their role to help us with the marketing of our product: that paying for us to discover this need was as much as we could expect.

100 Heirlooms to be won!

One way Eeyore has come up with to explain this idea to the world is to post a web site on the net with the domain name: We'd love h2g2 researchers to visit the site. We've tried to make it interesting by exposing some of the more ridiculous things the producers have done to us. What's more, to tempt you to make that final mouse click, there's a prize draw to win one of a hundred individually numbered, Limited Edition pens which (our marketing adviser assures us) will one day be worth a fortune.

Support an Old Donkey

One thing Innovation Nation shares with Fame Academy and Pop Idol is a Live Final, decided by the votes of viewers.

H2g2 researchers are an independent lot, and we wouldn't want to persuade or to plead. However, we'd very much appreciate it if you vote for our invention. There are three ways to register your vote:

  • By phone on 09011 90 44 55. Calls cost 10p
  • By text on 81222
  • Online at

Alternatively you can click onto our web site,, and link to the voting page directly from there.

Why We're Not Already Famous Inventors

Both Julia and Rollo know how to come up with ideas, but making money as an inventor is so difficult that we decided not to even try.

The reason is that, as Dickens told us, the law is a ass. If you write a book or a song, your intellectual rights are automatically protected under British and international law until many years after your death. If you invent an actual physical device, your first few years of protection cost thousands of pounds. A few years later, your patent will cost you tens of thousands. The situation is so unfair that James Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame, took the Department of Trade and Industry to the European Court of Human Rights over the appalling state of patent law, and how it makes it virtually impossible for individuals to profit from their ideas.

Those of you who watch late night television will have seen commercials by unscrupulous companies inviting inventors to send off for an inventors' pack, promising help with marketing new ideas. This is an iniquitous business, similar to vanity publishing, in which creative people are charged for having their dreams smashed in front of them.

Innovation Nation is an attempt to square this circle and has many faults. On the other hand, we were so disenchanted with the plight of the amateur inventor that we had given up. When the call for entries went out, we sat down and deliberately invented a piece of new technology. Without the show, very few of the other ideas in the competition would have stood a chance in the market place, and Eeyore's pen would not have existed at all.


11.12.03 Front Page

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1The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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