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 …
George and May Southgate patented these rather alarming “jumping shoes” in 1922. Each is a giant replica of Schistocerca americana made of spring steel and secured by a strap over a child’s shoe.
“He will spring or jump much farther than he would be able to without our improved device; and furthermore, the shock upon the system when alighting will be greatly reduced, thus enabling the user to cover considerable ground with a minimum effort.”
This will all end in litigation, but in the meantime “the flapping of the wings will greatly increase the enjoyment of the users.”
In 1993, I attended a technology and art conference, ‘Ars Electronica,’ in Linz, Austria, where my former postdoctoral student Pattie Maes gave a talk titled ‘Why Immortality Is a Dead Idea.’ She took as many people as she could find who had publicly predicted downloading of consciousness into silicon, and plotted the dates of their predictions, along with when they themselves would turn seventy years old. Not too surprisingly, the years matched up for each of them. Three score and ten years from their individual births, technology would be ripe for them to download their consciousness into a computer. Just in the nick of time! They were each, in their own minds, going to be remarkably lucky, to be in just the right place at the right time.
– MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines, 2003
Royal Navy officer Peter Halkett designed this lightweight “boat cloak” in 1844. When deflated, its hull could be worn as a cloak, the oar used as a walking stick, and the sail as an umbrella, but a portable bellows could inflate it in four minutes into a craft that could carry eight people.
Explorer John Richardson, who had nearly died of hypothermia trying to cross an arctic river during John Franklin’s disastrous Coppermine Expedition of 1819, wrote that “Had we been possessed of such a contrivance in our first expedition, I have little doubt of our having brought the whole party in safely.” But the navy saw no use for Halkett’s boats, and his efforts to promote them to outdoorsmen similarly failed. The two remaining specimens reside in museums.
This “scholar’s shoulder brace,” patented by Isidor Keller in 1884, is advertised as “a brace for supporting the shoulders in writing”:
In using my shoulder-brace, I propose to secure the bracket A on a school-desk, as shown in Figs. 1 and 3, then I adjust the standard B to suit the scholar occupying the seat in front of said desk, and finally I pass the loops f f of the shoulder-straps over the shoulders of the scholar, and adjust said loops so as to retain the scholar in a position that will not be injurious to the health or to the eyes.
What if there’s a fire?
William Lance invented this “improved serving table” in 1866. It bears a set of food-laden shelves that revolve continuously past the diners, driven by steam. The shelves are “so loaded with viands, to move at the rate of fifteen or twenty feet per minute, or to pass before each guest at such speed as to exhibit before each guest the entire bill of fare once per minute, giving each one ample opportunity to help him or herself to such viands as may suit their tastes.”
“All persons at this table are put upon an equality and free to act for themselves, and these shelves so arranged as not only to contain the full bill of fare, and that kept hot by lamp or otherwise, but also to contain all the necessary dishes, knives, forks, spoons, glasses, &c.”
The attendant in the hidden “pantry” at the bottom replenishes the offerings and discreetly removes dirty dishes from the bottom shelf, where they’re left by departing diners. Lance estimates that such a table might serve 150 diners with only two attendants, “except those required in the pantry to put away the last dishes of each guest and brush off the crumbs and adjust the chair.”
One wonders if there’s a personal story behind this “method of concealing partial baldness,” patented by Donald and Frank Smith in 1977. The hair is grown to a length of 3 or 4 inches, divided into equal portions, and brushed over the bald area, using hair spray to hold it in place. “By lightly sweeping the hair into the desired style as the hair spray dries, an appearance of a full head of hair is given.”
Henry Bourne patented this combination mattress and life preserver in 1840. Essentially it’s an ordinary berth mattress split in two; each half is filled with broken cork and waterproofed, and then the two are reattached and fitted with leggings, an oar, and two shoulder straps.
If your ship is sinking, you leap out of bed, stuff the mattress with “papers, moneys, clothes, and provisions for many days,” pull the straps over your shoulders, and jump overboard. When you’re in the water the buoyant mattress keeps you afloat, the waterproofing keeps your valuables dry, and you can navigate using the oar. Thanks to the leggings, when you reach the shore you can waddle up the beach “beyond the reach of the returning wave.”
Johnathan Crawford’s “facial muscles exercise mask,” patented in 1987, is a plastic face mask with an inflatable lining “which provides the resistive force for the facial muscles to work against.”
Strap the mask to your face, inflate it to the desired pressure, and exercise your face against the mask’s resistance. When the timer goes off you can gauge your progress using the attached “calorie-estimating device.” (The patent abstract includes instructions for exercising the brow, eyebrow, eye, nose, lip and mouth.) Just don’t answer the door while you’re doing it.
Interestingly, in discussing prior art Crawford notes that someone had patented an earlier facial exercise mask that contained weights to provide resistance. He notes that one disadvantage of this scheme is “the potential for causing bruises to the wearer’s facial tissues with the weights smashed against them for effectiveness.” Fair point.
Lewis Carroll was a poor sleeper and did a lot of thinking in bed. The notes he made in the dark often turned out to be illegible the next day, but he didn’t want to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in order to scribble a few lines.
So in 1891 he invented the nyctograph, a card containing a grid of cells that could guide his writing in the dark, using a peculiar alphabet he invented for the purpose:
“I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “each to hold one letter (quarter of an inch square I found a very convenient size), but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’ I soon found that, to make the writing easy to read, it was necessary to know where each square began. This I secured by the rule that every square-letter should contain a large black dot in the N.W. corner. … [I] succeeded in getting 23 of [the square letters] to have a distinct resemblance to the letters they were to represent.”
“All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. Think of the number of lonely hours a blind man often spends doing nothing, when he would gladly record his thoughts, and you will realise what a blessing you can confer on him by giving him a small ‘indelible’ memorandum-book, with a piece of paste-board containing rows of square holes, and teaching him the square-alphabet.”
In 1963, New York inventor Einar Einarsson quietly patented a flying car.
The patent abstract is only two pages long. “The car, after traveling on land, may be easily converted for air travel by removing the stabilizers and wings and placing them in position on the outside of the vehicle. The road wheels may be raised and the propellers are now in position for operation. By suitable adjustment of the wings the car can take off, and when in the air the wings are further adjusted for cruising speed.”
I wonder if he built a prototype …
When the Erie Canal was opened on Oct. 26, 1825, the fact was known in New York City, 425 miles away, within 81 minutes. This was before the advent of radio or telegraph. How was it done?
Cannons were placed along the length of the canal and the Hudson River, each within earshot of the last. When the crew of each cannon heard the boom of its upstream neighbor, it fired its own gun.
As a result, New Yorkers knew within an hour and half that they had a navigable route to the Great Lakes — the fastest news dispatch, to that date, in world history.
10/07/2013 Wait, that last bit ain’t right — Claude Chappe’s semaphore telegraph covered 120 miles in 9 minutes in 1792. (Thanks, Michael and Lorcan.)
Henry Hunt’s “graffiti prevention apparatus,” patented in 1997, offers a novel way to keep city walls clean: Paint manufacturers would mix magnetic material into their products, and a sensor near each building would sense when a vandal was near.
“When a proximity sensor on, or in the vicinity of, the structure is triggered by an approaching intruder, a magnetic field created along the targeting surface acts to repel the spray of marking media directed at it.”
Alternatively, the sensor would direct a signal to the spray-paint can, turning the nozzle away from the wall or shutting off the flow of paint. But I guess the spray-paint manufacturers would all have to participate … and vandals may be their biggest market.
From the Strand, January 1900: As a novel entertainment, George W. Patterson of Chicago fitted a pair of Indian clubs with electric lights powered by a custom-built 35-pound battery. “To give a display the room is darkened, and Mr. Patterson, taking his stand in front of the audience, turns on the current and swings the clubs with the most wonderful results.” The time of these exposures is 5-10 seconds:
“We notice two distinct ‘O’s,’ with a very thick outer circle or ring. This larger circle is produced by a thirty-two candle-power, fifty volt lamp which is usually run on 110 volts, fixed to the tip of each club. Some idea of the power of these two lights, which are necessary to make the figures, may be gauged from the fact that they are too dazzling for the naked eye when lighted and stationary, and are so powerful that they are capable of illuminating an entire church or public hall of average size.”
“A pretty design produced by lighted clubs in a darkened hall is seen in our third photograph. The clubs are always swung to music, so that the effect to the audience is still more pleasing. The patterns or figures which may be obtained by the swinging of the clubs are almost infinite in variety. The lights on the clubs are under the control of an operator behind the scenes, who turns on and off the lights of both clubs by means of a switchboard.”
“In order to produce such a charming picture as seen in our next photograph, the clubs, of course, have to be swung fairly rapidly. Indeed, it would be impossible to obtain so many circles with one pair of clubs unless they are swung quickly, while the grace and style of the whole effect speak volumes for Mr. Patterson’s ability as a club-swinger. His club swinging has rightly been termed ‘poetry in motion.’”
“A complication” and a “running figure.” “Although this kind of electrical display with Indian clubs is entirely new so far as the public is concerned, Mr. Patterson has given much time and thought to the subject, and his entertainments have not reached their present high degree of excellence and novelty without a great deal of patient study of that vast and marvellous subject which we call electricity.”
James Savaria’s “hand-held decoy and hunter shield,” patented in 1996, is pretty straightforward: You hold up an oversized silhouette of a game fowl and peer through a screen at your quarry. It can be held with a handgrip or planted in the ground.
It seems just as promising as the alternatives.
Vincenzo Lunardi undertakes the first aerial voyage in England, Sept. 14, 1784:
When the thermometer was at fifty, the effect of the atmosphere and the combination of circumstances around, produced a calm delight, which is inexpressible, and which no situation on earth could give. The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful. My horizon seemed a perfect circle; the terminating line several hundred miles in circumference. This I conjectured from the view of London; the extreme points of which, formed an angle of only a few degrees. It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it. I could distinguish Saint Paul’s and other churches, from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous beehive, but the industry of it was suspended. All the moving mass seemed to have no object but myself, and the transition from suspicion, and perhaps contempt of the preceding hour, to the affectionate transport, admiration and glory of the present moment, was not without its effect on my mind. I recollected the puns on my name, and was glad to find myself calm. I had soared from the apprehensions and anxieties of the Artillery Ground, and felt as if I had left behind me all the cares and passions that molest mankind.
In 2010 Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas designed the Euthanasia Coaster, a 7,500-meter roller coaster designed to kill its riders. After a 2-minute climb to the top of the drop tower, the 24 riders plunge 500 meters into a series of seven loops designed to subject them to 10 g for 60 seconds. This forces the blood away from their brains, causing first euphoria, then loss of consciousness and finally death by cerebral hypoxia.
Here’s what that looks like if you don’t black out:
When the train returns to the station, the corpses are unloaded and a new group of passengers can board. Urbonas says, “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies, and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”
In April 2005, when the Vatican began to seek a successor to John Paul II, technology author Rogers Cadenhead registered the domain names ClementXV.com, InnocentXIV.com, LeoXIV.com, BenedictXVI.com, PaulVII.com, and PiusXIII.com, hoping that the new pope would take one of these names.
“Someone else already has JohnPaulIII.com and JohnXXIV.com,” he wrote on his blog, “but otherwise I put a chip down on every name of the past three centuries.”
When Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI, “I felt like my horse had come in first at the Kentucky races,” he told CNN. As owner of the new pope’s domain, he made a few requests, including:
- Three days, two nights at the Vatican hotel.
- “One of those hats.”
- Complete absolution, no questions asked, for the third week of March 1987.
“Whatever decision I make will be guided by the desire not to make 1.5 billion people mad at me … including my grandmother,” he told the Washington Post. As I write this, the domain appears to be unused — perhaps they’re still negotiating.
This kitchen cabinet dates from 1895, but it’s as ruthlessly efficient as any modern appliance. The steel frame holds containers for flour, meal, spices, and condiments, and it’s fitted with an egg beater on the left, a coffee grinder on the right, sifting screens, and a scale. Inventor Michael Shanley even stood the whole thing in two cups of water to keep bugs from reaching the meal.
Under the counter is a tiny forlorn drawer marked Miscellaneous. What’s in there?
- Fathers can mother, but mothers can’t father.
- The Mall of America is owned by Canadians.
- Neil Armstrong was 17 when Orville Wright died.
- LONELY TYLENOL is a palindrome.
- 258402 + 437762 = 2584043776
- “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” — Plutarch
Edward Gorey’s pen names included Ogdred Weary, Raddory Gewe, Regera Dowdy, D. Awdrey-Gore, E.G. Deadworry, Waredo Dyrge, Deary Rewdgo, Dewda Yorger, and Dogear Wryde. Writer Wim Tigges responded, “God reward ye!”
Dan Kincheloe patented this “motorcycle safety apparel” in 1989. The rider wears an inflatable suit that’s connected by an umbilical cord to a container of compressed or liquefied gas. A much shorter pull cord connects the rider to the container’s valve. When the rider leaves the bike in a crash, the pull cord opens the valve and (hopefully) the gas inflates the suit before the umbilical cord separates.
“Thus it may seen that the jacket … expands upon separation of the rider from the motorcycle to essentially encase the rider within a protective cocoon to protect the rider from abrasion, to hold the body in a substantially rigid form, to minimize back and leg injury, to provide an air bag leg cushion around the body, to cushion impacts with hard objects and to grossly augment the protection provided by any other more conventional protective device worn by the rider such as gloves, helmet and boots.”
In 1830 engineer James Nasmyth visited England’s Black Country:
The earth seems to have been turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder-heaps and mounds of scoriae. The coal, which has been drawn from below ground, is blazing on the surface. The district is crowded with iron furnaces, puddling furnaces, and coal-pit engine furnaces. By day and by night the country is glowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hovers over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered with smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving about amongst the glowing iron and the dull thud of forgehammers.
Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted. The ground underneath them had sunk by the working out of the coal, and they were falling to pieces. They had in former times been surrounded by clumps of trees; but only the skeletons of them remained, dilapidated, black, and lifeless. The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphureous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly gray — the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect. Vulcan had driven out Ceres. In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no! the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains, which were placed in small tunnels beneath the hedgeless road.
He added: “I sat down on an elevated part of the ruins, and looked down upon the extensive district, with its roaring and blazing furnaces, the smoke of which blackened the country as far as the eye could reach; and as I watched the decaying trees I thought of the price we had to pay for our vaunted supremacy in the manufacture of iron. We may fill our purses, but we pay a heavy price for it in the loss of picturesqueness and beauty.”