The pioneering lobster traps that were invented in Lancashire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 January 2019
Someone once said build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door. Two men from Lancashire have taken the old adage and applied it to a very different creature
Bob Norburn has been inventing things – very worthwhile things – since his teenage years. But the lobster trap he and business partner, Steve Simpkin, are about to launch on the world should be the most significant by far, saving lives and, hopefully, making pots of money.
The first time Wigan born-and-bred Bob demonstrated his knack for practical creativity was as an apprentice at De Havilland in Lostock, when he designed and built a device that let one man manoeuvre and work on key components of an aerospace engine where previously it needed four hefty lads to turn it. ‘I was made apprentice of the month and given 50 shillings,’ he recalls. ‘It was the first money I made from an invention.’
Later, a neighbour’s golf practice in the garden saw Bob create a net that kept golf balls where they hit it, allowing the player to assess shot accuracy. Patented and licensed (for cricket and baseball too) it paid nicely.
Living in Canada where he and his family emigrated in 1982, his engineer’s eye saw another opportunity. ‘Canada had mountains of sawdust that were made into fuel pellets, but they doused the fire in wood-burners. The makers came up with an Archimedes screw to feed pellets in. I installed a home-made stainless-steel basket used for cooking on my fishing trips and it burned them perfectly.’ The patented device was licensed by the biggest stove maker in the US for $100,000 and a royalty on each one sold.
It was sea fishing trips off Nova Scotia that started the 20-year journey now reaching its end. When a calm sea suddenly turned to a life-threatening swell he headed his small boat back to the safety of Halifax harbour, passing lobster boats going the other way. ‘It’s a hard life, and very dangerous. Every year boats are overturned and the fishermen drown or die of hypothermia. The traps are heavy and have to be stacked high on the deck, making the boats unstable. And if someone gets snagged in a rope from a 100lb trap being dropped they’ve little chance.’
Traditional traps, it seems, have changed little in thousands of years. Made of wood, they have to be weighted to counteract wood’s buoyancy. The curved upper part makes them stack poorly, and if they hit the seabed incorrectly an entrance is blocked. And to add insult to injury, academic research has shown that 94 per cent of lobsters subsequently escape the trap.
Steve Simpkin became involved after overhearing of a pub conversation in Poulton-le-Fylde resulting in his business partnership with Bob.
‘I was talking to a mate, and showing him some drawings, and Steve was standing near us. He was interested in what I was doing and looking for a project to get involved in.
‘Eventually I said write on a piece of paper what you’d pay for a half-share, and I’ll do the same, then we’ll compare.’ Steve wrote £10,000 and Bob £5,000. ‘It wasn’t the money really, it was having someone to push things along, and a fresh pair of eyes,’ says Bob. The deal was done for his figure, and the partnership has been productive.
As an engineer Bob had seen the basic solution at once: make the traps Toblerone shaped, with an entrance on each triangular face so two will always be off the seafloor, and make them in stainless or galvanised steel, needing no ballast. They fit together tightly on deck too, take up 40 per cent of the deck space of conventional traps, and a standard one weighs about 15lb compared to 60lb, saving fuel and making handling easier and safer. But solving other problems like keeping lobsters in the traps, and achieving the optimum design, has meant that a project started when he was 50 and living in Canada is reaching fruition when he’s 70, enjoying retirement in Cleveleys – where he’s known as Canada Bob.
Bob expresses his gratitude to Sea Life in Blackpool, where the invention was tested in a holding tank out of the public gaze. Fleetwood Fisheries supplied live lobsters for those tests, creatures now enjoying their own retirement at Sea Life. And Fran, a Fleetwood lobster fisherman sworn to secrecy, helped with sea trials.
Their patent has now been filed in Maine, home to the world’s biggest lobster fishery, and a third partner in the US is beginning negotiations with major manufacturers. It could make them big money.
‘But it wasn’t the money that started it off,’ says Bob, ‘it was reading too often about families who’d lost three or four members in a fishing accident at sea.’ He hopes such accidents will be far rarer in future thanks to his idea. But he wonders why it took thousands of years to happen. ‘Everybody I’ve shown the trap to, especially lobster fishermen, has seen immediately what the advantages are. It’s so obvious. And they all ask why they didn’t think of it themselves.’