Inside the mind of an inventor: ‘Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home’ on TV screens st

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In his new TV program, Tom Lawton will take inspiration from his six-year-old son, Barney, for their boat

Tom Lawton and his six-year-old son Barney are set for their TV debut when the four-part series Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home kicks off on Channel 4 on Sunday 27 July.

Inventor Tom Lawton has featured a number of times in DEVELOP3D over the years, his Bubblescope invention graced the cover in November 2012 .

Those who attended DEVELOP3D Live 2013 will also remember his entertaining talk about the trials and tribulations of being an inventor and designer (the video is still available to watch here).
The premise of ‘Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home’ is that over the course of one summer Lawton will transform an old, derelict boat into a fantastic and magical floating home filled with practical inventions.

In fact, there were over two dozen original ideas that he had to conceive, conceptualise and develop into a first stage prototype in a period of less than four months.

We caught up with Tom and asked him a few question about the experience:


What was the experience like and did you find it challenging to come up with inventions on the fly, so to speak?

The experience was utterly brilliant, such a creative challenge and so fulfilling yet insanely frustrating at the same time. I would never normally put myself under such pressure – to conceive, conceptualise and develop a first stage prototype for over two dozen original ideas – all in a period of less than 4 months, starting with no pre-conceived ideas whatsoever.

There was no master plan! The budgets weren’t big either which meant we had to be pretty resourceful. I looked for inspiration in a design movement in India called Jugaad where people adapt and hack things that already exist. I barely referred to the internet because I found it too distracting. At the start, every time I thought of something novel I found something similar on the web, which isn’t surprising given there’s seven billion of us with similar aspirations, experiencing the same frustrations, so I turned it off.

Sketches of how to transform an old boat into a fantastic and magical floating home, including an armadillo-inspired retractable roof

Of course, I wasn’t alone – I had essential support from Hadrian Spooner (my onscreen engineer) and a couple of key individuals in the production team. We also drafted in specialist fabricators where and when needed. We all learned a lot. That quote about jumping off a cliff and building a hand glider on the way down, well, I jumped and built a dreamboat with my series producer and two guys called Graham.

Tom and Barney with their onscreen engineer

From the start, I saw the whole experience as an experiment. Me in the world of telly and telly in the world of innovation – they are two very different places. TV’s only really interested in what’s happening in front of the camera while, as your readership knows, designing real things is all about finishing off the back of the drawer – the bit that no one normally ever sees. There was no time for that approach. It was all a bit manic. But wow! What an experience.

To me the whole thing was like taking a highly creative sabbatical from my normal work. I will be forever thankful to Channel 4 for that opportunity. When we met each other 18 months ago I said I didn’t want to be a TV presenter, but I like creative challenges and I want to inspire people to be inventive, not to conform, to live unconventional, creative and colourful lives. I guess I got what I asked for.

What sorts of problems/challenges did you have to find solutions for?

I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the show as we start right at the nebulous beginning for each idea. We explored dozens of themes through the show. All were relevant to the boat but we wanted to create ideas that had a wider, more general application also.

How to collect and pipe light from the sun into the dark corners of the boat. How to build an amphibious bike to get to the shore. How to create a flexible indoor/outdoor living space. How to look after your plants when you’re away from home. What figurehead to put on the boat and why. How to cook indoors and out. How to create a bed that puts you to sleep. How to be creative with space and occasional furniture. How to wake up with daylight on your face… and so on.

Challenges included how to create a flexible indoor/outdoor living space

I generated over 30, maybe 40, original ideas and we whittled these down to what would work best for TV. So sadly my ‘un-welcome doormat’ security system that triggers the sound of a scratching, growling guard dog from behind the boat door didn’t make the cut because sound doesn’t translate as well on TV as big visual things. Neither do any of my ideas that were too small or fiddly.

As a body of work I am chuffed – it’s original and eclectic. To individually scrutinise each idea’s inventive merit is to miss the point of the show – they are inventive ideas that demonstrate the spirit of innovation. At no point did I make any commercial consideration about anything and I haven’t filed any patents since. But that’s not to say a few ideas aren’t worthy of merit.

Did your son Barney help out at all with the inventing side?

Barney turned six while we were filming so he’s at the age where his imagination and creativity are as bright as the sun. He was the perfect companion on such an adventure for many reasons, but mostly because he made it more fun. He quite liked to see himself as the client, I was happy to oblige.

Kids are brilliantly honest too – you can’t sell them an idea, they either get it or they don’t. Most of all it was a lovely excuse to be really creative and free from commercial realities that make life more boring. It was almost as if we drew a cartoon together that came to life.

Goodness knows if he’ll ever decide to follow in my footsteps but he’s pretty comfortable with a radio mike on, standing in front of or behind the camera and talking with authority to a crew of grownups. I can see him being a future Spielberg. I’ll gladly design the props. I remember the night we filmed staying on the boat, he said to me ‘Daddy, I’m hungry. In the real world’. He knows the difference between reality and what actually makes the cut of a TV show and I think one day he’ll thank me for that. Television, after all, is only an invention.

How did you create these inventions – did you use modern design tools (CAD, 3D printing etc) or more traditional hand tools?

The producers and I decided from the beginning that we wanted to portray design and innovation as universally appealing as possible. One of the key things we did was to take away barriers that would stop folk acting upon their own ideas, so I ditched CAD tools in favour of pencil and paper with the hope that anyone watching could do the same.

I know CAD is commonplace and there are free tools available but not everyone has access and the inclination to use them. I wanted to pull in an audience that wouldn’t normally watch this type of show. I also, kind of deliberately, didn’t 3D print anything. It was such a media buzz word last year that I kind of got bored of every conversation about it.

At one point the producers wanted me to 3D print something, anything, as if that was inventive in its own right – I didn’t support that so we didn’t.

What was your favourite invention during the show and why?

The aquaponic grow and go cascade garden for your windowsill is neat – there is huge potential in hydroponics and aquaponics so I wanted to popularise that.

The aquaponic grow and go cascade garden

The solar jelly fish is also neat – it’s like a high tech version of the water bottles they use in the Philippines to pipe sunlight into the roofs of the slums.

I love the hero seat – it only get a 30 sec feature in the show but the twenty year old me gives it a big nod of approval. It’s simple and is about changing your perspective.

The hero seat

The pop-up furniture is slick and was the only thing that was executed very well, perhaps that’s because it wasn’t made by me, ha! We went to CAD/CNC for that one!

The pop-up furniture

Why do you think people will enjoy watching this and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?

To me the show is already a success, not because I invent anything wildly brilliant or actually useful but because 1). I have an appetite to do more and 2). It celebrates the inventive spirit that underpins why I actually do what I do – the whole process reminded me of that more than anything.

It’s tough being a self-funded-motivated designer, inventor. It’s hard for anyone that runs their own business or has to deliver to a client’s expectations despite that fact we all got into this because of our passions. I was reminded that I simply love creating. I love ideas. I love giving them life. I want people to dare to dream, to be unafraid of taking a risk and be bold. It’s more fun to create than just to consume stuff.

More than anything though, I hope that by doing this show it gives other designers, engineers, makers and inventive souls – young or old – the Dutch courage to be more visible with their work and process, maybe to invite TV cameras into their world and show what an inventive nation we truly are.

Not because they should try and make stars of themselves but because designing and making stuff is how we change the world around us and there’s quite a lot that needs improving!


DEVELOP3D Live: Tom Lawton, Inventor from DEVELOP3D on Vimeo.

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