London resident Louisa Llewellin filed this dramatic patent in 1904. If there’s a story behind it, I haven’t been able to discover it:
This invention relates to improvements in gloves for self-defence and other purposes and more especially for the use of ladies who travel alone and are therefore liable to be assailed by thieves and others.
The object is to provide means whereby a person’s face can be effectually disfigured and the display of the article which forms the subject of my invention would speedily warn an assailant of what he might expect should he not desist from pursuing his evil designs, and the fact that he would in the case of persistance be sure to receive marks which would make him a noticeable figure would act as a deterrent.
In carrying my invention into effect I provide gloves having sharp steel nails or talons at the ends of the fingers with or without similar talons on other parts of the gloves.
In use the gloves could be worn during the whole journey or put on when required and by drawing them over a person’s face it would be so severely scratched as to effectually prevent the majority of people from continuing their molestations.
She adds, “The invention can also be used by mountain climbers to enable them to catch hold of whatever they pass over during a fall.”
In 1921 someone began stealing money, jewelry, and clothing from a girls’ dormitory at the University of California. When the residents themselves were unable to identify the culprit, student Margaret Taylor made a formal complaint to the police.
The police elected to try something new. One of their number, 23-year-old John A. Larson, had been experimenting with a lie-detecting device that measured a subject’s respiration, blood pressure, and other physical reactions as she responded to a series of questions. He asked the women’s consent to use the device in his investigation, and they agreed.
He started with Margaret Taylor, the student who had first reported the thefts. Part of his technique was to engage in preliminary small talk with the subject, to put her at ease. He found Taylor intelligent and witty, and she said she found his work fascinating and admired his ambition. She passed the test easily, showing no response to key terms such as crime, locker, or purse among Larson’s questions.
In reviewing the results, Larson realized that he might not have eliminated all the extraneous factors that could have affected the young women’s responses — he had tried to make them comfortable with the machine, but some of them also “might have been reacting to the questioner, not the questions.” So he called back Margaret Taylor to test this proposition. He connected her to the machine again and asked her to lie to him. Then he asked her out.
The two were married a year later. One of Larson’s assistants said, “It was an odd way to begin a romance.” The dorm thief was discovered among the other women, and Margaret recovered a $400 diamond ring she had lost. Today Larson is remembered as the father of the polygraph.
In recounting this story in his 2009 book The Lie Detectors, Ken Alder writes:
“Years later, he still had the record of their first meeting in his files, the zigzag trace of her heart as he asked her, ‘Are you interested in this test?'”
Xavier Henry Leder, who declares himself “by profession a seaman,” patented this “foul breath indicator” in 1902, perhaps after inventing it for his own use.
“It is an appliance in the shape of a tube, made of any non-absorbent material and curved so as to transmit without any obstruction the breath from the mouth to the nostrils. … By breathing from the mouth through the tube any foulness or unpleasant state of the breath may be readily detected by the sense of smell.”
The hard part is exhaling and inhaling at the same time.
Shropshire furniture maker Henry Addison patented these “elevators” in 1902:
My invention has for its object a new or improved device or stand for attaching to the foot by means of which those people who are at the rear of, or short people who are in the midst of a large gathering or crowd are enabled to easily and comfortably see over the heads of the people in front thus enabling them to witness a procession or game or other sight without any inconvenience or crushing which will be found of considerable advantage.
Addison thought they’d be particularly valuable at football matches, race meetings, sports, “or games of any kind where a crowd of spectators are assembled.” Of course, the people behind you will have to get stilts.
This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.
On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”
“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”
By 1905 parts of Winchester Cathedral were in danger of collapse — the 13th-century builders had rested their structure on a bed of peat, which had been sinking under continuous pressure of 40 tons per square foot. In order to shore up the building, diver William Walker was enlisted to work in the church’s flooded foundations, replacing the peat with sacks and bricks of concrete.
Walker worked in total darkness for more than five years, from 1906 to 1911, handling an estimated 25,800 bags of concrete and 114,900 concrete blocks while wearing a suit that weighed nearly 200 pounds. “In addition,” notes the cathedral’s booklet, “as he was working in a graveyard, there was some risk of infection. However, Walker seems to have regarded his pipe as his sovereign remedy against all possible ills and immediately on his return to the surface, he always lit his pipe.”
As he worked, the business of the cathedral went on as usual. A journalist for the Standard described the scene in 1906: “The last Amen is sung, and the choir and clergy pass slowly and silently into the vestry. Outside the foreman blows his whistle. The great helmet of the diver with its staring goggle eyes, appears above the brink of the shaft, and the diver is helped out of his slimy, dripping shell. And soon choristers and workmen mingle beneath the shadow of the Cathedral.”
When the work was completed in 1912 Walker received the thanks of the king and was appointed a member of the Royal Victorian Order. During World War I a memorial tablet was laid in his honor on the cathedral’s west wall, and a statue of the diver was unveiled in 1964. On a BBC memorial program in 1956, Walker’s assistant William West was asked to remember him. “I think his habits was like mine,” he said. “He was fond of a smoke and when he come up, spell sometime, somebody told him about germs, which didn’t worry him. And he say: ‘Where’s my pipe? Don’t lay it down there.'”
German engineer Robert Michael patented this “curved shoe” in 1905. It’s intended to increase the length of each stride “to serve for the quick forward movement of people in walking.”
It also beats bicycles because it won’t sink into rough ground. “The user can in walking use a stick as in walking with snow shoes.”
Marvin Minsky invented this machine at Bell Labs in 1952:
Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “It sits on Claude Shannon’s desk driving people mad.”
A great deal of the work of the post office would then be to regulate the use of these personal television channels. Much of the information now sent by mail could be sent through the air on the personal channel, to be viewed in the home or to be printed out for a more or less permanent record. …
Very likely there will be a signal light to indicate that a message is waiting to be viewed. When the personal channel is then activated, each item stored will be displayed in turn. Each can be scanned and erased, scanned and temporarily returned to storage, or scanned and printed out, after which the next item would appear. It will be very much like going through one’s mail today, with its mixture of personal items and advertising, in which some are discarded, some put aside, and some filed.
— Isaac Asimov, “The Individualism to Come,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 1973
In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci devised a mechanical knight that could sit up, open and close its arms, move its head on flexible neck, and open its visor. The plans have been lost, but we know it was made of wood, brass, and leather and operated by cables, possibly driven by a water wheel. The Duke of Milan displayed it at a pageant near the end of the 15th century, perhaps at the wedding of his niece.
Roboticist Mark Elling Rosheim built a working replica of the knight in 2002 using the sketches that remain, detailed in his book Leonardo’s Lost Robots. He thinks it may have been designed to accost an unwary visitor by remote control. “It is almost like something one would find in an old time amusement park, a piece for the scary haunted mansion or tunnel of love — or a labyrinth, which was the 16th century equivalent. The Knight would be excellent at grabbing someone with its arms in a bear hug. … Perhaps the visor would rise, revealing a hideously contorted, sculpted face.”
“Perhaps the great mystery surrounding this lost robot of Leonardo can be summed up by the master himself in the giant scrapbook known as the Codex Atlanticus. In the sheets for this project, we read an incomplete sentence with which Leonardo tried out his pen: ‘Tell me if ever, tell me if ever anything was built in Rome …’ Leonardo may be expressing his frustration and anxiety about a project near and dear to his heart that because of external pressures could not be born.”
As telegraph lines began to appear along London’s railroads, they came to fascinate commuters. One wrote to the Illustrated London News to suggest that cornet lessons might now be given on the moving train.
“The medium of tuition will be the wires of the electric telegraph. On these, being five, notes will be fastened by non-conducting materials, and the pupils will play them as they travel. The andante movements will be placed close to the stations, where progress is slow, and the tunes will be so arranged as to finish at all the stoppages. These will be constantly changed, to extend the benefit to all classes: for instance, galoppes will be chosen for the express trains; sets of quadrilles for the stopping ones; and marches, or dirges, for the luggage trains. At the same time, the passengers, generally, will be diverted with agreeable harmony.”
Another commuter responded: “The great objection is, that the notes once passed could never be taken up again, and especially the high ones; for, before the pupil could get his lips to the necessary embouchure, he would be a mile beyond the bar. A non-musical friend, given to senseless ribaldry, suggests that fugues should be chosen for the music; because, as he says, those compositions never appear to have beginning, end, middle, or anything else, and may be commenced or left of anywhere with equal effect.”
He adds, “It would be better, sir, for you to confine yourself to practical improvements than ingenious but futile schemes. … After my entertainments given in the country, I am usually asked to supper by certain of the leading inhabitants, in gratitude for the amusement I have afforded them; and, from drinking healths, I rise next morning with a dizziness. And then, on my return to town, are the wires of the electric telegraph most dreadful. They go up and down, down and up, for miles and miles, until at last, seeing nothing else, I begin to think that they are stationary, and it is the carriage which is undulating; and this has such an effect, that I am as indisposed upon arriving at the terminus as if I had just crossed the Channel. A little care on the part of the directors can remedy this. Why cannot the wires be turned upright, like those of a piano?”
British ironmonger John Chell patented this “hand guard for use in cutting bread” in 1904. Each finger is enclosed in a steel helix that leaves it free to flex but protects it from a knife slip.
Presumably you could also use it to fight crime.
I don’t think this was ever built — in 1904 engineer Hiram Stevens Maxim designed an amusement with a rotating parabolic floor “for producing illusionary effects”:
With such a contrivance when persons enter the hollow sphere they will not be able to tell whether it is revolving or standing still and by reason of the parabolic floor, persons near the outer edge would, to the persons standing near the centre, appear to be walking with their heads directed inward. When the sphere revolves some curious phenomena will be obtained in walking outward and inward on such a floor, and the throwing of a ball from the centre outward and vice versa will move in an unexpected direction that will be very puzzling to the people in the sphere.
Fig. 3, below, shows the perspective from the edge of the floor as it rotates. If mirrors were positioned overhead, as in Fig. 4, “people could then be made to appear to be walking all over the inside of the sphere with their heads pointing inward and their feet pointing outward.”
Pauline Klaws patented this “appliance for assisting the hearing” in 1902. “It is designed to be worn at lectures, concerts, theaters, and meetings by persons having defective hearing and by the people generally who at such entertainments or meetings, particularly large meetings, are unable or have difficulty in hearing a speaker.”
By 1993 this had evolved into the version below, patented by Mark Tilkens, who found it “particularly useful in hunting of game such as deer, to enhance a person’s ability to hear noises which otherwise may be drowned out by background noise.”
Horses are difficult to manage onstage, so in 1901 music hall performer Alexander Braatz invented this ingenious alternative. The actor’s own legs masquerade as those of his horse, and a system of levers and cords moves the hind legs as well.
False human legs are attached at each side to give the appearance that the performer is mounted; his real feet “are advantageously covered by large clumsy hoof-like coverings.” I suppose you could even race these things between rehearsals.
In 1914, Russian physicist Boris Weinberg proposed an electromagnetic vacuum train that could move an individual passenger from New York to San Francisco in half a day. Reasoning that air resistance and friction are the greatest enemies to speed, Weinberg envisioned using electromagnets to suspend a car in a tube from which the air had been partially exhausted. An individual passenger would lie prone in a 300-pound iron cylinder drawn along by a series of solenoids. New passengers could be introduced into the system through an airlock at a rate as high as 12 per minute, “the whole proceeding being not unlike that of feeding cartridges from a belt or clip to a machine gun.”
Weinberg estimated a maximum speed of 500 mph. “Think what that means!” he wrote in The Popular Science Monthly. “New York would be no more distant from Chicago than it is now from Philadelphia, so far as relative times are concerned. Florida might easily become a kind of winter Coney Island for all New York.”
He built a model of the system at the Technological Institute of Tomsk, but the project never got off the ground (so to speak). One reason may have been the cost: In order to slow the cars gradually, each station would have to be 2 miles long.
In 2004 Thomas Magdi patented a machine for changing light bulbs:
A light bulb changer method and apparatus that contains components that allows for instantly detecting a burned out light, automatically removing the burned out light, and automatically replacing the burned out light with a replacement bulb. The changer operates without human intervention, and can be assembled from a kit having a light fixture, detecting sensor, removing and replacement hardware.
The 23-page patent abstract contains 24 figures diagramming 97 components.
Why is this funny?
“This invention relates to new and useful improvements in an aeroplane of rooster shape.” Well, all right, then. Angel Mateo’s 1930 patent application is remarkably thorough — the wings even flap — but nowhere does the inventor explain why he thinks the world needs such a thing. “The propeller is depended upon to accomplish most of the flying of the device and the wings to assist in the flying and also to simulate a flying rooster.” Perhaps, like a poem, it provides its own reason.
Reva Keston patented this “chewed gum receptacle” in 1949. “It has always been a problem for those addicted to the habit of chewing gum, when tired of chewing, where to store the same until again wanted or as to how to finally dispose of it.” Keston’s solution was a cardboard blank scored for folding: Impale your gum on the barb, fold up the flaps, and you can carry the wad around unstickily until it’s wanted again. “The receptacle may be carried in a purse or pocket or it may be provided with a safety pin for attaching the same to a piece of clothing.”
This would have been handy in Singapore, which has banned chewing gum since vandals began sticking it on the door sensors of MRT trains in the 1990s. No gum can be bought or sold inside the country. “If you can’t think because you can’t chew,” said former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, “try a banana.”
In 1994, computer scientists Graeme Ritchie and Kim Binsted designed a computer program to generate original riddles:
- What do you call a ferocious nude? A grizzly bare.
- What do you get when you cross breakfast food with a murderer? A cereal killer.
- What’s the difference between leaves and a car? One you brush and rake, the other you rush and brake.
- What’s the difference between a pretty glove and a silent cat? One is a cute mitten and the other is a mute kitten.
They called it JAPE, for Joke Analysis and Production Engine. In 1997 they convened a group of 8- to 11-year-old children to act as judges and presented them with a random selection of JAPE-produced riddles, human-produced riddles, nonsense nonjokes, and sensible nonjokes. Then they asked them to decide whether each text was a joke and, if so, how funny it was and whether they had heard it before.
“The results showed that the JAPE-produced riddles were identified as jokes just as reliably as the human-produced ones, and both were easily distinguished from the non-jokes,” writes Rod Martin in The Psychology of Humor (2007). “Although the JAPE-produced jokes were rated as less funny, on average, than the human-produced jokes, a number of the JAPE riddles were rated as being just as funny as those produced by humans.”
(Binsted, K., Pain, H., & Ritchie, G., “Children’s Evaluation of Computer-Generated Punning Riddles,” Pragmatics and Cognition, 5(2) , 309-358.)
If a “dog year” is equivalent to seven human years, then time passes seven times more quickly for dogs than for humans. So in 1990 Rodney Metts invented a novelty watch that reflects this by advancing at seven times normal speed. This is a reminder as much to you as to your pet:
If a dog is kept locked in the basement of a house during an eight or nine hour day, for example, while its owner is away, the elapsed time on the dog watch will be 56 to 63 hours, or approximately two and one-half days. A one-hour ride in an automobile will register seven hours on a dog watch. Thus the value in dog time of a human activity will become quickly apparent.
That’s the actual patent figure. Part 10 is “dog.”
Inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, marine engineer Simon Lake devoted himself to making a working practical submarine. In 1898, when his company built the first sub to operate successfully in the open sea, Verne sent a congratulatory telegram:
WHILE MY BOOK ‘TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA’ IS ENTIRELY A WORK OF IMAGINATION, MY CONVICTION IS THAT ALL I SAID IN IT WILL COME TO PASS. A THOUSAND MILE VOYAGE IN THE BALTIMORE SUBMARINE BOAT IS EVIDENCE OF THIS. THIS CONSPICUOUS SUCCESS OF SUBMARINE NAVIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES WILL PUSH ON UNDER-WATER NAVIGATION ALL OVER THE WORLD. IF SUCH A SUCCESSFUL TEST HAD COME A FEW MONTHS EARLIER IT MIGHT HAVE PLAYED A GREAT PART IN THE WAR JUST CLOSED. THE NEXT GREAT WAR MAY BE LARGELY A CONTEST BETWEEN SUBMARINE BOATS.
Bonus fact: The “20,000 leagues” in Verne’s title refers to the distance of the Nautilus’ voyage, not its depth. The sea is only about 2 miles deep; 20,000 leagues is nearly 70,000 miles.
For the conservation-minded, in 1988 Joseph Beck patented a “sail attachment” for a bicycle. The mast extends upward from the rear wheel, and it’s mounted on a pivot so that it will swing out of the way if you run into something. I’m not sure how you’d store it, though.
Related: In 1826 George Pocock invented a buggy drawn by kites.
Patented in 1993, Raymond Norris’ “combined camouflage and decoy device” is pretty straightforward: You wear a cap that supports an artificial head (to attract birds) and a cape (to hide you from them).
Just hope it doesn’t attract giant geese.