Anthropologist George Bird Grinnell’s The Fighting Cheyennes (1915) describes “perhaps the only attempt to disable a railroad ever made by Indians.” A Cheyenne named Porcupine relates that in late summer 1867, after an embittering loss to U.S. soldiers in frontier Nebraska, his band witnessed “the first train of cars that any of us had seen. We looked at it from a high ridge. Far off it was very small, but it kept coming and growing larger all the time, puffing out smoke and steam, and as it came on we said to each other that it looked like a white man’s pipe when he was smoking.”
“Not long after this, as we talked of our troubles, we said among ourselves: ‘Now the white people have taken all we had and have made us poor and we ought to do something. In these big wagons that go on this metal road, there must be things that are valuable — perhaps clothing. If we could throw these wagons off the iron they run on and break them open, we should find out what was in them and could take whatever might be useful to us.”
They lay a stick across the tracks, which was enough to upset a handcar that appeared that night, and the Cheyenne killed the two men who had been working it. Encouraged, they used levers to pull out the spikes at the end of a rail and bent it a foot or two in the air. Presently they spotted two trains approaching and sent a party to assail the first one.
“When they fired, the train made a loud noise — puffing — and threw up sparks into the air, going faster and faster, until it reached the break, and the locomotive jumped into the air and the cars all came together. After the train was wrecked, a man with a lantern was seen coming running along the track, swearing in a loud tone of voice. He was the only one on the train left alive. They killed him. The other train stopped somewhere far off and whistled. Four or five men came walking along the track toward the wrecked train. The Cheyennes did not attack them. The second train then backed away.”
The Cheyenne would shortly be driven out of that country, but they relished this victory. “Next morning they plundered and burned the wrecked train and scattered the contents of the cars all over the prairie,” Porcupine relates. “They tied bolts of calico to their horses’ tails, and galloped about and had much amusement.”
It’s easy to send out a message in a bottle, but it’s hard to get anyone to notice it. In 1922 Hannah Rosenblatt sought to remedy this by adding a bell:
It will be seen that I provide a carrier that will positively float until washed upon shore or picked up by a passing boat. The peculiar shape of the support in combination with the bell assures the attraction of attention which is a very important feature of my invention.
Rosenblatt lived in the Philippines — perhaps there’s a story behind this.
Inventor Otis L. Boucher offered this steel suit to American troops during World War I. Each of the seven pieces presents an angled front to the enemy, in hopes of deflecting bullets, and the padded helmet can be thrown back when necessary.
“Since … helmets have unquestionably proved their merit, particularly as a defense against bursting shrapnel, why not go a step farther?” approved Popular Science Monthly. “Why protect only the head? Why not the whole body?”
William Henry Brown’s The History of the First Locomotives in America (1871) describes two unlikely competitors that steam had to contend with on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In the first, a horse was placed in the car and made to walk on a belt that drove the wheels. “The machine worked indifferently well; but, on one occasion, when drawing a car filled with editors and other representatives of the press, it ran into a cow, and the passengers, having been tilted out and rolled down an embankment, were naturally enough unanimous in condemning the contrivance.”
The second was a wind-driven car rather optimistically called the Meteor. This would run only when the wind was behind it, and the inventor “was afraid to trust a strong side-wind lest the vehicle might be upset; so it rarely made its appearance except a northwester was blowing, when it would be dragged out to the farther end of the Mount Clair embankment, and come back, literally with flying colors.”
“Like the horse-car, the sailing-car had its day. It was an amusing toy — nothing more — and is referred to now as an illustration of the crudity of the ideas prevailing forty years ago in reference to railroads.”
A canal stockholder’s argument against railways, from the Vincennes, Ind., Western Sun, July 24, 1830:
He saw what would be the effect of it; that it would set the whole world a-gadding. Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why, you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work: every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. Veracious people will turn into the most immeasurable liars; all their conceptions will be exaggerated by their magnificent notions of distance. ‘Only a hundred miles off! Tut, nonsense, I’ll step across, madam, and bring your fan!’ ‘Pray, sir, will you dine with me to-day at my little box at Alleghany?’ ‘Why, indeed, I don’t know — I shall be in town until twelve. Well, I shall be there; but you must let me off in time for the theatre.’ And then, sir, there will be barrels of pork, and cargoes of flour, and chaldrons of coals, and even lead and whiskey, and such like sober things, that have always been used to sober travelling, whisking away like a set of skyrockets. It will upset all the gravity of the nation. If two gentlemen have an affair of honour, they have only to steal off to the Rocky Mountains, and there no jurisdiction can touch them. And then, sir, think of flying for debt! A set of bailiffs, mounted on bomb-shells, would not overtake an absconded debtor — only give him a fair start. Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig. Give me the old, solemn, straightforward, regular Dutch canal — three miles an hour for expresses, and two for jog-and-trot journeys — with a yoke of oxen for a heavy load! I go for beasts of burthen: it is more primitive and scriptural, and suits a moral and religious people better. None of your hop-skip-and-jump whimsies for me.
In 1922, magician Harry Price published “Cold Light on Spiritualistic Phenomena” in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, showing that so-called “spirit photographs” could be created using simple double exposures. In support of the exposé, Harry Houdini had himself photographed with Abraham Lincoln.
Israel Siegel’s “gravity-powered shoe air conditioner,” patented in 1994, fits bellows into the heel of each of a pair of shoes, so that the natural act of walking pumps a refrigerant through two networks of heat exchange coils, one operating as a heat-absorbing evaporator and the other as a heat-delivering condenser.
Depending on how these networks are arranged, the shoe can serve as a foot cooler or a foot warmer.
From a 1773 letter from Ben Franklin to Barbeu Dubourg:
When I was a boy, I amused myself one day with flying a paper kite; and approaching the bank of a pond, which was near a mile broad, I tied the string to a stake and the kite ascended to a very considerable height above the pond while I was swimming. In a little time, being desirous of amusing myself with my kite, and enjoying at the same time the pleasure of swimming, I returned, and loosing from the stake the string with the little stick which was fastened to it, went again into the water, where I found that, lying on my back and holding the stick in my hands, I was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner. Having then engaged another boy to carry my clothes round the pond, to a place which I had pointed out to him on the other side, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over without the least fatigue and with the greatest pleasure imaginable. I was only obliged occasionally to halt a little in my course and resist its progress when it appeared that, by following too quick, I lowered the kite too much; by doing which occasionally I made it rise again.
“I have never since that time practiced this singular mode of swimming, though I think it not impossible to cross in this manner from Dover to Calais. The packet boat, however, is still preferable.”
Born in Texarkana in 1912, Conlon Nancarrow had no access to technology that could realize the music in his head. He studied music briefly and played trumpet in venues ranging from beer halls to cruise ships, but he found himself frustrated working with human musicians. In 1940 he withdrew to Mexico City, where, working in almost complete isolation, he began composing pieces for player piano.
This expedient was “a tremendous amount of work, punching all those holes by hand, one by one, hundreds and thousands of them,” but it enabled him finally to hear his music. “I’d never heard it played. Some composers are pianists and can at least play their music on piano, but I couldn’t do even that, because I am not a pianist.”
Freed from the constraints imposed by human performers, Nancarrow’s style developed a dizzying speed, staggeringly complexity, and a bewildering density of ideas. “Nancarrow’s complete works could be heard in seven hours,” wrote composer Kyle Gann, “but within half that time the listener would be as exhausted as though he had consumed Mahler’s ten symphonies in a gulp.”
Gyorgy Ligeti discovered some piano pieces in a Paris record store in 1980 and became an early champion, calling the composer “the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives.” Subsequent admirers included John Cage (“Conlon’s music has such an outrageous, original character that it is literally shocking”) and Frank Zappa (“The stuff is fantastic … You’ve got to hear it. It’ll kill you”).
Nancarrow became a MacArthur fellow in 1982 and returned to writing for live ensembles, finding that the standard of musicianship had improved enormously during his 40-year exile. “Of course it’s pleasing,” he told the New York Times in 1987. “I mean, all those years I had been working now have some point. There are so many artists and writers who are doing something they think is worthwhile, and it turns out to be junk. I thought that maybe mine was the same thing, but now I see it wasn’t.”
As motorcycles grew more popular in the early 20th century, Russian inventor Frank Marcovsky designed a suit of armor to protect riders:
The suit in its entirety comprises a one-piece garment, having the body, legs and arms, and a detachable helmet or head piece, each of such portions being provided with inflatable cushioning elements adapted to be filled with compressed air, for the purpose of protecting the wearer from shocks or blows incidental to accidents or the use to which the armor is put.
The inflatable ribs can be filled at an air pump, forming a protective cushion that leaves the rider the full use of his limbs. “All exposed portions of the body of the wearer are amply protected against severe shocks of impact or blows incidental to accidental contact with the ground, other riders, fences, etc.” The patent was granted in 1915; I don’t know how it fared.
WD-40 has never been patented. The ingredients are a trade secret.
Royce Husted’s “power-driven ski,” patented in 1976, adds a motor-driven belt to conventional skis to create, in effect, a standing snowmobile:
Applicant’s invention provides the skier on the one hand with some of the challenges, such as holding balance, etc., of downhill skiiing without the dependency on hilly terrain and ski lifts, and on the other hand it is much less cumbersome to use, to transport and to store than the snowmobile, and less expensive to produce and maintain.
This would make February commutes so much easier …
Philadelphia inventor Jones Wister conceived a curious weapon in 1916:
One object of the invention is to so construct a fire arm that it can be used in a trench with the aid of a periscope without exposing the soldier to the fire of the enemy. This object I attain by curving the outer end of the barrel so as to deflect the projectile in a direction at an angle to the longitudinal line of the fire arm.
Germany experimented with a similar design during World War II and found that the barrel gave out very quickly under the enormous stress; the bullets sometimes shattered. Wister had envisioned that the same principle might be used with machine guns and even cannon — let’s hope he didn’t try that out.
E.S. Williamson’s “spring lift for stoopers,” patented in 1922, was essentially a stiff spring that a laborer could mount on his back “so that when the wearer bends over or stoops this spring body member is flexed and exerts a tendency to support and balance the bent-over portion of the body, whereby the muscles ordinarily brought into play to balance and support the body in such position need not be fully exercised and can rest.”
The wearer can sit or kneel normally, and there’s even an attachment to help bear the weight of a shovel during heavy work. “Thus it will be seen that a workman equipped with my device will not tire as easily and can do more work more comfortably and easily.”
Frustrated in trying to describe higher topology abstractly to students, Xian Wang invented a model train that can hug either side of a track:
It is therefore a primary object of the present invention to provide an electrically-operated ornament travelling on a rail which can be used to explain the Mobius Theorem. … In general textbooks, this advanced mathematic rule is usually explained by demonstrating a body circularly moving on a front and a reverse side of a twisted two-ends-connected belt. Most people can not understand and imagine the theorem from such explanation and demonstration.
Of course, once you’ve built one you can put it to other uses:
Siren Elise Wilhelmsen taught a clock to knit a scarf. The mechanism’s progress is reflected on its face, which functions as a 24-hour clock; it adds one stitch per hour and one segment per day, producing a wearable two-meter scarf in a year.
“What I wanted to show was the nature of time in a different way,” the Norwegian designer says. The clock does this in three ways: The unknitted skein represents time to come, the clock itself displays the current time, and the finished scarf represents time past.
This would have been deadly if it had worked: In 1862, Confederate private John Gilleland of Georgia’s Mitchell Thunderbolts designed a double-barreled cannon. Gilleland intended that the barrels would fire two balls connected by a chain that would “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.”
Unfortunately he couldn’t devise a way to fire both muzzles at the same instant, so in testing the chain simply snapped and sent both balls off on unpredictable trajectories. The cannon was never used in battle, and today it’s displayed as a curiosity before the city hall in Athens, Ga.
Montana inventor William Beeson offered the swimming apparatus above in 1881 — a suit fitted with a membrane that “acts like wings or fins, which, from the movement of the legs and arms effect a propulsion through the water.”
In 1910 O.B. Lyons patented the “life preserver and swimming machine” below — just turn the handle to drive the propeller.
Presumably you could combine the two to go twice as fast.
James D. Williams’ “animal ear protectors,” patented in 1980, provide “a device for protecting the ears of animals, especially long-haired dogs, from becoming soiled by the animal’s food while the animal is eating.” The ears are protected by plastic tubes that are held to the animal’s head by adjustable straps.
The invention “may be itself decorated so as to enhance the appearance of the animal in the eyes of its owner and of others.” What that looks like is left to the imagination.
When one is a dashing French inventor one has little patience for clumsy mustache hygiene. This “apparatus for the cut of the mustache,” patented by Pierre Calmels in 1927, “gives the mustache the desired shape and automatically reproduces this shape without any possibility of error and without loss of time.” Adjust the guide once into the proper configuration and you can use it thereafter as a sort of stencil: Just hold the apparatus between your teeth and trim the whiskers to the designated length.
Edwin Green’s “design for a mustache-guard for cups,” below, was patented in 1898: The plate can be clamped to a teacup to keep one’s mustache dry. The idea was referenced a century later in a related invention — an “apparatus and system for covering and protecting the rim of a paint can.”
Carlisle H. Dickson’s “interpersonal-introduction signalling system,” patented in 1979, takes some of the pain out of the singles scene. Each person at a gathering carries a transceiver encoded with his or her own characteristics and preferences. So, for example, a woman can program her receiver to ignore every message except “I am a male, I want to dance with you, my music preference is hard rock.” When that signal is received, her receiver signals that the man can approach “with confidence not only of mutual interest, but of receptive mood.”
At this point the man doesn’t know exactly who or where she is, only that there’s a (minimally) compatible woman somewhere in the crowd. He begins to home in her using something like a Geiger counter, and this gives her time to spot him and change her mind — “at any time she may switch off her receiver, transmitter or both.”
“In a particularly novel construction, the apparatus may be further provided with a decoy means such that if the receiving party decides not to meet, the apparatus can be switched to create a false signal, such as the reversing of the characteristic created to assist the parties approaching each other.”
This is romantic — in 1990 Terence King patented a pair of gloves connected at the palms, “so as to allow a courting couple palm contact inside the glove whilst their fingers and thumbs remain covered.”
“It may also be so sized as to accommodate and fit the respective hands of a mother and child.”
Letters to the Times, March 1976:
From the Reverend E.H.W. Crusha:
May I enlist your support in restraining the use of ‘Dear Reverend’ and ‘Dear Reverend So-and-so’ in letters to clergymen? It appears to be increasing among people of standing and education who might be expected to be readers of The Times.
From Peter du Sautoy, chairman, Faber and Faber Ltd.:
I learnt from T.S. Eliot, the politest of men, that letters to clergymen one does not know personally should begin ‘Reverend Sir.’
From Peter Faulks:
I remember being told by a clergyman that when in India a parishioner wrote to him as ‘Reverend and Bombastic Sir.’
From Canon Allan Shaw:
There are degrees of reverence. When I was a Dean and very reverend I once received a letter addressed to ‘The Very Shaw’. I thought that took some beating. However, it was bettered by the present Bishop of Lincoln. He once told me that he had received a letter directed to ‘The Right Phipps.’
From Rabbi David J. Goldberg:
While Christian clergymen ponder their correct form of address, they might also spare a thought for the difficulty experienced by their Jewish colleagues. On several occasions (and usually from the Inland Revenue) I have received letters which address me as ‘Dear Rabbit’.
From the Rev. D.F.C. Hawkins:
A young member of my congregation in Nigeria once addressed me in a letter as ‘My dear interminable Canon’. I try to believe he intended it kindly.
To be fair, it’s hard to teach a computer to produce the correct salutation by interpreting the first line of an address. One programmer sent the contents of a test database of challenging addressees: Danie Van Der Merwe, The Master of Ballantrae, The Mistress of Girton, C.M. Gomez de Costa e Silva, Mrs. Mark Phillips, Earl Mountbatten, Count Basie, Sir Archie McIan of that Ilk, Adm. Hon Sir R.A.R. Plunkett-E-E-Drax, J. Smith Esq, Sister Mary-Paul, A. d’Ungrois, the Revd Dewing. He declared himself “confident of the continuing superiority of that product of unskilled labour, the human mind, over its most marvellous artifact.”
Dutch engineer Theo Jansen builds complex walking sculptures from PVC pipe and turns them loose on the beaches of the Netherlands, where they have been evolving (with his help) for 20 years.
“Over time,” he says, “these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water, and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”
“I’ve seen a lot of mechanical sculpture, and Jansen’s animari are the finest I’ve seen by far in the ‘low-tech clockwork’ mechanism category,” robotic designer Carl Pisaturo told Wired in 2005. “These are amazing creations, and the simplicity of the technology and the fact that they are wind-powered only makes their poetic motions more impressive.”