You’ve Got Mail

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

Leonardo’s Robot

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.”

Sky Writing

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?”

Bread Alone

chell hand guard

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.

Small World

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.

A New Commute

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.

A Gum Holster

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.”

The Pun Also Rises

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) [1997], 309-358.)

Writing fables is harder.

Fast Forward

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.”

Science, Fiction

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:


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.

Easy Rider

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.


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.

The Steam Bicycle

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.

Double Duty

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.

Wash and Carry

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.”

More Attachable Mirrors

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 …

See Self-Regard.

Shock Tactics

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.

Sub Zapper

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.

Planting One’s Feet

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.