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Monty Hyams - father of the patent family

By RICHARD POYNDER

1st November 2000

Although nowadays dominated by large multinational corporations, the information industry was not created by these behemoths, but by visionary individuals. People who saw the potential of the information age long before the rest of us, writes Richard Poynder.

One such individual is Monty Hyams who, in the late 1940s, realised that patents were not just arid legal documents but a unique source of technical and competitive information. This realisation led him to create the world's leading value-added patent information provider, Derwent Information.

In recognition of his lifetime contribution to the industry, Monty was recently presented with the first International Patent Information (IPI) award, sponsored by San Diego-based TPR International. The award was presented to him at the Derwent European Users Conference in London on September 25th.

Early days

Where did the interest in patents come from? Funnily enough, says Monty, it was serendipity, and a fondness for card playing.

Having qualified as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, Monty went to work for the Pyrene Company, where his bridge partner was the company's patent manager who, when he moved on, recommended that Monty be given his job.

"I guess you could say that I played my cards right," jokes Monty.

But while he found the work at Pyrene fascinating, there wasn't much of it and the pay was mediocre. So, during his visits to the British Patent Office, Monty began to identify passages of particular interest in chemical patents. The line numbers were passed on to his father, a retired tailor, who transcribed the passages in neat longhand.

From these records, Monty created expert abstracts, which were typed, duplicated and dispatched as weekly bulletins, including what became the British Chemical Patents Report and the Commonwealth Pharmaceutical Patents Report.

Later, he took a part-time job with a patent agency in order to devote his afternoons to the new enterprise, run from his suburban house in London - which a previous owner had dignified with the name Derwent.

"In those days you couldn't patent a chemical as such, only its method of preparation", explains Monty, "hence companies were on the look-out for new compounds so they could then patent new methods for manufacturing them."

The great trick, he discovered, was to identify families of patents.

"In other words, instead of reporting individually on the same invention as it came out in different countries, once a first member was published (which I called the parent), subsequent filings in other countries were referred back to the parent, saving a lot of time and space in abstracting and registration.

"In fact," he adds, "I like to think of myself as the father of the patent family!"

The Belgian connection

Breakthrough came when Monty discovered that patents filed in Belgium were available for public inspection within three months of filing, as compared to two or more years in other countries. However, there was only one copy of the patent available, and this had to be inspected in the patent office in Brussels.

Monty began making fortnightly visits to Brussels, where he sat in the patent office translating and abstracting the patents.

"I was only able to transcribe six patents per session," he says, "and there were only two sessions of three hours per day." The end result was the Belgian Patents Report, launched in 1955. "I was not convinced of being on to a winner until the Belgium Patents Report," says Monty.

The next challenge was to market the results. "I adopted a two-pronged approach," he says. "First, I sent sample copies of issues to those companies who had a patent reported in the current issue. Second, I sent copies to competitors. So, for example, I sent Kodak patents to Gevaert and Glaverbal patents to Pilkington."

Word spreads Nevertheless, it was a slow start - until the Ziegler patents began to appear in the late 1950s.

Foreshadowing the development of the plastics industry, they led to Derwent being cited in the chemical journals. "By the end of the second year subscriptions had peaked at 800," says Monty.

In 1960, Derwent was able to move into proper office premises, in London.

With the aid of a staff of around 10 full-time and 20 part-time employees, plus an in-house printing facility, the company launched a range of new abstract journals, covering British, then German, Soviet, and eventually Japanese, chemical patents.

Soon Monty's activities were attracting some unlikely clients. One day, for instance, he received a call from 'someone' in the British government.

"They said they had heard of my antics in Brussels and wanted me to look out for patents about something very secret - so secret that they could not tell me much about it. The only clue was that it was a vehicle that floats on air." Shortly afterwards Monty came across a number of patents for hovercraft technology, and duly reported his findings.

Robert Maxwell also made frequent contact. "Maxell always had a fascination with patents. I don't know why," says Monty.

"Once he called me in to his office and said: 'Monty, I am onto a winner, and you can share it with me. I have the sole right to translate the Russian Patents Gazette.' "As I already had access to all Russian patents, and published full abstracts of them, I was not interested." He adds: "Maxwell was a very energetic man, but if there were two ways of doing something, he delighted in the more devious."

FARMDOC and RINGDOC

By 1962 Derwent had abstracted over a quarter of a million patents in the drugs field alone for its Pharmaceutical Patents Journal.

Subscribers to the weekly printed abstracts complained that they found it hard to retrieve information from them. So a solution was devised of punched cards on which the holes denoted chemical structures.

Using this it was possible to mechanically search for these patterns, then read the abstracts printed on the cards.

Monty could now offer drugs companies a state-of-the-art documentation and retrieval service. But the costs of joining FARMDOC would be forty times higher than the Pharmaceutical Patents Journal.

"I called a meeting of potential subscribers in New York," says Monty.

"They appeared interested, but just before lunch I told them the annual subscription would be #1500. Very few returned in the afternoon." However, the Europeans and Japanese were more enthusiastic and, eventually, the product proved to be a great success.

Customers also wanted a journal literature service. Fortunately Monty discovered that a group of Swiss companies already had such a system, which they were prepared to hand over.

Additionally, a group of 12 German companies had a separate system. "It is a long story how I created RINGDOC by combining the two systems," says Monty. "But the remarkable thing was that I was able to get great competitors - including the 100 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world - to come to rely on RINGDOC."

To encourage take-up, Monty announced that he would cease to take any new subscribers after the first 50. Faced with anti-trust complaints from US companies, Monty 'reluctantly' backed down.

But his ploy had succeeded: there were soon over 100 subscriptions.

Thomson takes an interest

After receiving its first Queen's Award for export achievement in 1965, Derwent was approached by several suitors, including McGraw-Hill and Thomson Corporation.

Monty welcomed the approaches. "By now I had a large staff and financial control was becoming difficult," he explains. "After all I was an information scientist, not a financier. I chose Thomson as they were happy to buy only 50 per cent initially, and let me carry on without hindrance." Customers then began clamouring for one overall service covering the entire chemical industry. In response Monty developed the Central Patents Index. Launched in 1969, this was a modular service that each organisation could tailor to its in-house business needs.

Later patent coverage was extended to embrace all technologies and, in 1974, the service was renamed the Derwent World Patents Index (Derwent WPI).

Today Derwent WPI is the world's largest value-added patent database, containing more than 10 million records, covering more than 20 million patents, and 4 million diagrams and images - and all translated into English and enhanced with extended abstracts, titles, coding and indexing.

Monty was also among the first to make his data available online. There was in any case a clear need for this.

While Derwent's backlog had become available in computer-readable format in the 1970s - with subscribers able to receive it on magnetic tape - the huge volumes of data made searching frustratingly slow.

In 1976, therefore, Derwent became one of the first information providers to host its data on the SDC ORBIT service. Later it also went up on DIALOG, and eventually all the major hosts.

Significant contribution to the industry

Monty continued to run Derwent until 1984, when Thomson bought the remaining shares and he retired to become Life President.

Like many other talented entrepreneurs, Monty is modest about his successes.

"All I really did most of the time was simply see chances, and then organise the people to do the work," he says.

But in creating Derwent, Monty Hyams made a significant contribution to the industry.

"Three entrepreneurs will be remembered for creating commercial database companies from nothing in the 1950s and 1960s, and then demonstrating that money could be made from information," says Charles Oppenheim, professor of Information Science at the UK's Loughborough University. "These are Sam Wolpert, who founded Predicasts, Gene Garfield of ISI, and Monty Hyams." With Derwent due to celebrate its golden jubilee next year it is clear that Monty also created a very durable business.

A sprightly 82-year-old, Monty still travels into Central London twice a week, where he manages a number of new abstracting projects, including the Index to Theses.

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