So, I asked the butcher if he had sheep’s head. He said, “No, it’s just the way I comb my hair.”
Terrible jokes aside, it’s time to look deeper at another everyday item you don’t usually give a second thought to, so welcome to the world of combs.
Combs are simple devices for styling one’s hair, even if it’s just trying to tidy up a bit. In its simplest form it’s a one piece item, usually made of plastic, and sometimes with two sets of teeth with different spacings.
Combs are well defined in the International Patent Classification (IPC), and fall into class A45D24. Here’s the first part of the class, but you can click on the link to see the whole thing.
The one piece idea doesn’t get much attention. This class looks in more detail at other aspects such as combs with more than one part, and some functional detail that we will see later.
If we look at the class as a whole and see what trends or other detail we can pick out, we see that patenting innovations in combs has been occurring for a long time.
There’s not much activity until you get to the early 1900s, but from then on, we see an almost exponential growth, and this isn’t looking at total patent families over time, but families per year. There is year on year growth in comb technology right now.
What’s driving this growth? and what happened in the seventies?
The answer to both questions lies in Asia. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but that’s where it is. Look at the following chart. It’s a variation on the one above but looking at individual jurisdictions, and only the top ten filing countries at that.
As you can see, the spike in the seventies was all Japan, and the acceleration from about 2005 is all China. It’s beyond the scope of this article to wonder what happened in Japan 50 years ago that made being well groomed so important, but the increase in filings from China in comb technology mirrors filings from China in general. This graphic from WIPO, published earlier this year, shows that China is filing more patent applications than anyone.
To keep things simple from here, I’m only looking at a small subset of filings. I’ll only consider anything filed in A45D24/02, so single piece combs, and filed from 2016. Such a search in PatBase provides about 200 applications to comb through.
Filings are still trending up.
What innovations do we find in the field of combs?
Applications can be categorised into a few areas. There are hollow combs that dispense various products, combs you can hang up, combs for massaging, combs for children, multifunctional combs, and just plain weird combs. We’ll look at a few examples.
Combs have been manufactured to dispense products such as hair or beard oil such as US10806230, dyes such as TW202000076, water such as DE202016007227, powders such as KR20180138095, and cannabis oil such as US2021145145. They are all variations on the theme of hollow teeth with a reservoir of product either being part of the comb body or a separate, replaceable item, and where the product flows through the teeth onto the hair or the scalp.
I doubt the next few examples are particularly patentable, but some of the applicants have ‘school’ in their names, so perhaps there was some school competition to invent a better comb, and part of that involved filing an application for the winners. We have CN107280204 and CN111280756 from Zaoyang Experimental Middle School with their hangable combs, and DE102018007366 with an idea taken from a ballpoint pen.
The next couple of examples relate to massaging some part of your body while also combing your hair. CN107259764 has beads at the end of the teeth that massage the scalp as you comb, while CN105795682 has beads in the handle to massage your palm.
When I mentioned combs for children above, I was really talking about combs for parents to assist in dealing with some of life’s little problems: nits and knots.
CN211833237 and US2021378380 both have particularly shaped teeth, but one claims the gaps between to be inventive, while the other claims the teeth themselves, when removing lice from hair.
The second set of examples for combs for parents relates to combs for detangling hair, presumably without causing too much distress to the combee. It’s debatable whether US2020253351 is even a comb, but it does describe various attachments for your fingers to help with hair styling including detangling, while WO2020070530 has overlapping double arched teeth to prevent tension and breaking of the hair strands.
Multifunctional combs come in two flavours. Those that have additional features to assist with combing, and those that provide you with something else to do while combing.
DE202016003330 is a combination comb, shoe horn and bottle opener, made for thirsty people in a hurry to get ready, CN212280321 has a mirror, but how do you comb your hair and look at yourself simultaneously, and CN107713277 has a lamp so you can see what you’re doing, presumably in a room with a mirror but no light.
A few combs will even connect wirelessly to other devices or the internet. WO2019136232 will monitor hair loss through an array of sensors, and let you know by pinging your phone. CN108991702 will connect to the internet but it doesn’t really explain why. It has a heart rate sensor and a grease sensor. It also has a cavity for storing a shampoo bottle, so maybe if you’re getting a little anxious it will let you know it’s time to wash your hair before using an unwieldy looking comb to comb it.
Lastly, there are two just plain weird combs.
CN209403930 is a comb with a large ball attached to one end, with the ball perhaps as large as a cricket ball, so six or seven cm in diameter. The concept is also applied to a spoon and a toothbrush in an all-in-one device. Its utility lies in being unable to be swallowed by people in detention where, and I quote here from the specification, “the suspected criminal suspects are suspected”.
US2022183439 can only be used by manly men, and comes from deep in the woods of Virginia, invented by a guy whose middle name is Beard, and whose pappy’s middle name was also Beard. Yes, that’s right. It’s a comb in the shape of an axe. Behold…
In addition to highlighting a few odd inventions, and showing you that innovation continues in the most mundane of technological fields, this is an example of a landscape search where you can drill down into the data to discover otherwise invisible trends, technology hotspots and white space, and potential competitors and collaborators. You really don’t know what you’ll find until you start digging.