Patented in 1914, Socrates Scholfield’s “illustrative educational device” uses two spiral springs to demonstrate the existence of God. Or to demonstrate the tension between good and evil. Or to demonstrate the consciousness of an animal organism. Actually I’m not sure what it demonstrates, and I’ve read the five-page abstract twice.
This schematic device … provides an educational emblem of the conscious relation that must exist between the co-extensive dispensing mediums for beneficence and maleficence, in the terrestrial factory; and it clearly indicates that the attribute of maleficence, which is ascribed to the realm of the adverse medium, may, under certain changed conditions, be made subject to decrease, and to a change in its relative action; while the attribute of beneficence, which pertains to the realm of the controlling supreme governor, is unconditioned, unchangeable and everlasting.
Here’s the whole thing if you want to try it out. Be careful, I guess.
Visitors to Arizona’s Maricopa County Fair saw a surprising demonstration in 1884 — local inventor Lucius Copeland had added a steam engine to a bicycle to create a new vehicle that could travel 15 miles in an hour.
He sought funding for his idea but couldn’t summon enough public interest. It’s now recognized as one of the first motorcycles.
Peter Krovina’s “sailing system,” patented in 1981, replaces a conventional sail with an adjustable windmill — while it’s driving the boat forward, it’s also storing power in batteries.
The batteries serve the boat’s need for electricity, powering the running lights, the cabin lights, space heaters, and the cooking stove.
Best of all, they eliminate the need for an engine — an electric motor drives the screw.
This is admirably simple: In 1876 Ethelbert Watts invented a portmanteau that doubles as a bathtub:
“The object of my invention is to provide a portmanteau, valise, traveling-bag, or other equivalent article used for the transportation of clothing, which shall be convertible into a bath-tub, so as to afford travelers in places where such conveniences are wanting the luxury or comfort of bodily ablution.
“Articles of clothing, &c., may be packed and carried in it as in any portmanteau or equivalent device. When it is desired to use it as a bath-tub the portmanteau is opened, as shown in Fig. 1, and the contents removed. Water is then poured in, when a bath may be enjoyed, as in a permanent tub or fixture. When the bath is over, the water is poured or dipped out, the interior dried by any suitable means, and the device is again ready for use as a portmanteau.”
In 1904 Emmie Alice Thayer lamented that a lady had to hold a hand mirror while attending to her hair or addressing the fit of her garment. The answer, she decided, was to wear the mirror by attaching it to her ears. Kudos.
In the same vein, in 1950 John Kozloff invented a “mirror-attached spectacle frame” (below) to free one’s hands for applying cosmetics or shaving. If you’re nearsighted they can even be fitted with glasses. With a pair of these Narcissus wouldn’t have been tied to that boring pool …
Here’s one way to prevent ants from ruining your picnic — surround the tablecloth with parallel strips of electrically conductive material and attach them to a DC battery. Now any bug that crosses the border will close the circuit and get “a sensation which will discourage further travel across the edge of the cloth.” (Humans will feel only “a slight tingling sensation.”)
This idea, patented by Richard Mahan in 1992, has a proud history — Thomas Edison tried essentially the same thing as a young man.
Here’s a simple way to deal with enemy submarines — hang giant electromagnets over the sides of your ship:
The magnets being projected outwardly from the ship’s sides, a submarine within the fields of the magnets is attracted and drawn thereto until the glass caps are struck by the submarine and broken. The contacts will now be against the submarine which will close the circuit through the submarine, lighting the lamp and ringing the signal bell, thus notifying the crew of the ship of the capture of the submarine. The submarine will also be electrified, shocking the crew thereof and killing or rendering them temporarily helpless.
Inventor Louis Schramm offered the scheme in 1914. I don’t know whether anyone tried it out. Let’s hope not.
George Meacham invented this convenient planting device in 1856. Strap a seed bag to your waist and a plunger to each boot and you can plant corn effortlessly while strolling in your fields.
And maybe afterward you can dispense popcorn at the campfire.
In 1943, Colorado broom factory worker Mary Babnik Brown saw an advertisement in a Pueblo newspaper soliciting blond hair, at least 22 inches long, that had not been treated with chemicals or hot irons. Brown had never cut her hair, which she combed twice a day and washed twice a week with pure soap. When her samples were deemed acceptable, she cut off all 34 inches and sent it in, considering this her contribution to the war effort, though “I cried for two months.”
At the time she was told that her hair would be used in meteorological instruments. It wasn’t until 1987, the year of her 80th birthday, that she learned that it had been used in the Norden bombsight, a top-secret instrument that guided bombs to their targets. Engineers had determined that fine blond human hair worked ideally in crosshairs, but the technology was a closely guarded secret, so the donors weren’t told how their contributions would be used. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” Brown said. “All I knew was that they needed virgin hair.”
She did get some compensation: Pueblo declared Nov. 22, 1991, “Mary Babnik Brown Day,” she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society’s hall of fame, and Ronald Reagan sent her this letter:
Speaking of ship strandings, Charles Dornfeld offered this novel solution in 1902. Each steamship would be fitted with a giant spring-loaded plunger; if the ship strikes a solid object, the plunger will cushion its stop and automatically reverse the engines, sending the ship backward out of danger.
“As soon as she is backed off the springs 10 and 16 restore the plunger 8 and head 15 to their normal positions ready for like service upon the next occasion.”
In 1859, Irish priest Edward James Cordner reflected that most strandings of sailing vessels occurred on a lee shore; that is, the wind was blowing inland from the vessel’s location. This gave him an inspired idea: If the ship carried a selection of kites, these could be attached one to another and payed out until they sailed steadily over the land, and the line might then support a sort of gondola that could ferry crew and cargo to safety.
When a sufficient power of elevation and traction has been attained, a light boat of basketwork or other material, capable of containing one or more persons, is attached to the suspending rope of the last kite, more rope is then veered away and the light boat with its cargo will eventually reach the land without any chance of its being submerged in the sea, no matter how great may be the elevation of the waves.
It’s not known whether Cordner’s idea was ever adopted, but he does seem to have tried it out: In his 1894 Progress in Flying Machines, Octave Chanute reports that “it was tested by transporting a number of persons purposely assembled on a rock off the Irish coast, one at a time, through the air to the main land, quite above the waves, and it was claimed that the invention of thus superposing kites so as to obtain great tractive power was applicable to various other purposes, such as towing vessels, etc.”
Thomas Jefferson, already absurdly accomplished by 1795, somehow found time to delve into cryptography, where he devised this cipher system. The letters of the alphabet are printed along the rim of each of 36 disks, which are stacked on an axle. One party rotates the disks until his message can be read along one of the 26 rows of letters, somewhat like a modern cylindrical bike lock. Now he can record the letters in any one of the other 25 rows and send that string safely to another party, who decodes it by reversing this procedure. If the message is intercepted, it’s useless even to someone who has the disks, because he must also know the order in which to stack them, and 36 disks can be stacked in 371,993,326,789,901,217,467,999,448,150,835, 200,000,000 different ways.
This is pretty robust. The cipher below, created in 1915 by U.S. Army cryptographer Joseph Mauborgne, has never been solved. “The known systems from this year (or earlier) shouldn’t be too hard to crack with modern attacks and technology,” writes NSA cryptologist Craig P. Bauer. “So, why don’t we have a plaintext yet? My best guess is that it used a cipher wheel” like Jefferson’s.
(L. Kruh, “A 77-year-old challenge cipher,” Cryptologia, 17(2), 172-174, 1993, quoted in Bauer’s Secret History: The Story of Cryptology, 2013.)
This “device for teaching swimming,” patented by James Emerson in 1896, teaches good technique mechanically. The teacher places the machine in a swimming pool or open water, the student climbs aboard, the teacher turns crank handle 13, and the machine guides the student through the motions of swimming, “these arm movements being so nearly like those performed by an actual swimmer that the beginner who has these movements mechanically imparted to her arms thereby shortly acquires the swimming arm stroke.” What could go wrong?
When electricity became widely available in the late 19th century, some American cities put it to its fullest use: They replaced the moon.
Fitted with powerful carbon arc lamps, “moonlight towers” could illuminate a city’s streets “brightly enough to read a watch from as far away as 1,500 feet.” At first they were greeted as symbols of progress: A visitor declared the citizens of Aurora, Ill., to be “in a state of delighted enthusiasm over the splendid practical results,” and one Detroit resident reported that “the foliage is weird and beautiful. All places within the scope of light are bathed in the faint but fairy-like illumination of the moon in its first quarter.”
But in time residents found that simple streetlights provided better illumination and eliminated the disorienting shadows cast by an artificial moon. Most of the old installations have been dismantled, but 17 of the original 31 towers in Austin, Texas, are still in use — the 165-foot landmarks have stood since 1895, and have been listed since 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places.
This is rather unpleasant. In 1883 John Fleck patented a “life-saving apparatus for privy-vaults,” “to provide a means of escape from the vaults should a person by accident fall therein.”
Apparently this was a problem. “In various sections of the United States deep vaults are commonly used, generally constructed of masonry, and, as is often the case, they are but imperfectly covered or otherwise protected at the top to guard against persons falling therein.”
Fleck’s solution is basically a ladder set into the wall of the vault. Good for him, I guess. I hope he wasn’t inspired by some personal tragedy.
At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.
In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”
That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”
Angelo Lerro hated the thought of a body mouldering in a traditional casket, so in 1910 he offered this tidy alternative: The body is embalmed and arranged in a natural posture in a hermetically sealed glass bell filled with a preservative gas. This way the survivors can view the deceased without distress, and entire graveyards can be filled with sealed bells to keep soil and watercourses clean. (I suppose it will also keep down the vampire population.)
“It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation.” — RCA president David Sarnoff, 1939
“Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good can come of it.” — Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott, 1928
“Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.” — Rex Lambert, The Listener, 1936
“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — movie producer Darryl Zanuck, 1946
“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” — BBC school broadcasting director Mary Somerville, 1948
“How can you put out a meaningful drama or documentary that is adult, incisive, probing, when every fifteen minutes the proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” — Rod Serling, 1974
“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” — Orson Welles, 1956
Here’s an old-timey way to prevent oversleeping, patented by A.J. Nordmann in 1885. Set your alarm clock as normal but attach it to a lever on Nordmann’s “alarm and waking bed.” Now if you don’t turn off the alarm in time, the head of the bedframe will drop to the floor.
“Thus a person sleeping is awakened as the alarm sounds, and should he fail to rise he is immediately dropped down with the head portion of the mattress F, which then has its bearing upon the springs H.”
I suppose that really chronic oversleepers could remove the springs, to make the jolt even more jarring.
Viennese inventor Adolf Herz patented this “portable bath or sack for washing or bathing purposes” in 1904. Fill it with “bathing agent or fluid,” step in, and close the upper end around your neck, and draw your soap, sponge, and towel from pockets in the interior.
Bathing or washing can be effected in the sack with every convenience. Splashing of water and wetting of the floor is thus entirely prevented. Also by means of the sack the evaporation of the water on the body otherwise taking place in bathing and washing is prevented, whereby the catching of colds is avoided. The bathing and washing can therefore be done in cool places. Also radiation of the heat of the body is considerably reduced, whereby a very agreeable sensation is produced when using the sack.
Afterward you can drain it through a runoff pipe. “After the sack has been emptied it can be folded together, so as to occupy a very small space, and then, if desired, tied or fastened together and kept in a bag, satchel, knapsack, or the like.”
Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.
Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.
Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”
Allen Cowan patented this portable milking stool in 1887. From the look of the abstract, he had tested it extensively in actual practice:
In operation, the wearer buckles the waist strap around his or her waist, for this stool is peculiarly adapted for use by women, the stool hanging down behind out of the way, as shown in Fig. l of the drawings, leaving both hands free to carry two pails. As soon as the wearer is ready to sit down to milk, by merely leaning slightly forward, as one sits, the stool swings directly underneath the person, and one can sit down upon it without touching it with the hand.
“If the cow should move away a few feet or commence to kick,” he adds, “the person milking can get up quickly, and catch up the buckets with both hands without paying any attention to the stool, and follow up the cow, sitting down as before.”
- What time is it at the North Pole?
- The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
- After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
- 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
- PRICES: CRIPES!
- “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial
When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.
Edward O’Brien patented this “body-attached rearview mirror” in 1905 “to facilitate the dressing of the hair and the inspection of the back of the head and head dress.” Essentially it’s a harness that bears three mirrors and an illuminating bulb, replacing a bothersome hand mirror.
“By this means, both hands of the wearer are free to properly arrange the head dress, brush the hair and the like, without disturbing the adjustment of the mirror and illuminating means.”
Just remember to take it off afterward …