Things to Come

DR. GALL: You see, so many Robots are being manufactured that people are becoming superfluous; man is really a survival. But that he should begin to die out, after a paltry thirty years of competition! That’s the awful part of it. You might think that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots. All the universities are sending in long petitions to restrict their production. Otherwise, they say, mankind will become extinct through lack of fertility. But the R.U.R. shareholders, of course, won’t hear of it. All the governments, on the other hand, are clamoring for an increase in production, to raise the standards of their armies. And all the manufacturers in the world are ordering Robots like mad.

HELENA: And has no one demanded that the manufacture should cease altogether?

DR. GALL: No one has the courage.

HELENA: Courage!

DR. GALL: People would stone him to death. You see, after all, it’s more convenient to get your work done by the Robots.

HELENA: Oh, Doctor, what’s going to become of people?

DR. GALL: God knows, Madame Helena, it looks to us scientists like the end!

— From Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot


Sumter Battey’s surprisingly modern-looking “aerial machine” was patented in 1893. Essentially it’s an aluminum shell filled with hydrogen and bearing a car full of passengers and freight. The shell is fitted with adjustable wings, and the whole thing is propelled by detonating nitroglycerine pellets in the cup-shaped holder on the right, which can be swung back and forth in order to direct the vessel. “The devices for steering, as well as for causing the explosions, are fully under the control of the operator located within the car D.” What could go wrong?

Hair Tomorrow

In 1990, as the length of manned space missions began to increase dramatically, NASA’s Richard Haines began to wonder: On an extended mission, how could crew members groom themselves without leaving bits of hair and beard floating about the cabin?

His solution was a clear plastic bubble fitted with slits for a groomer’s hands, as well as a vacuum hose. The same apparatus can be used for almost any grooming task, including haircuts, shaving, and manicures.

“The device may also be used to collect the aerosol droplets of hair spray or small powder residue and the residue of other cosmetics which otherwise would float freely throughout the cabin.”

Pedal Pusher

Inventor Warren C. Schroeder offered a novel energy saver in 1981 — a sail for bicycles:

[The] sail … can be erected, dismantled or removed in seconds and … can take advantage of the wind direction in an arc that exceeds 200 degrees. The sail can be reoriented by the operator from the bicycle seat while in operation of the cycle. This allows operator to take full advantage of the full effective wind directional range and change. The use of the sail improves visibility of the bicycle from other vehicle operators thereby improving the safety of the cyclist.

“The bicycle sail allows the cycle enthusiast an inexpensive means of free transportation energy — the wind, ‘sailing on wheels.'” Stopping may be another matter.

“The Bender”

Scientific American examined a novel idea in 1854: a jointed ship whose fore and aft sections can rise and fall independently on the waves. The ship would then flex with each swell, and a chain extended between the masts could drive a paddlewheel amidships. “The hope is cherished that this Bender, whether in the form of a small boat for harbor use, or in a vessel of larger size, will demonstrate the practicability of using the wave power in moving against a head-wind.”

I don’t know how far they pursued the idea. A shipbuilder named George Steers declared himself “ready to undertake the construction of such a vessel for any parties that may apply to him.”


In 1998 Tennessee inventor Thomas Bennington conceived a novel way to make a wind-resistant house: Mount a decommissioned airliner on a rotating pillar. “The design and configuration of the fuselage enables it to always point into the wind, thereby presenting the smallest cross-sectional area to the destructive wind forces.”

Bennington envisions the house contending successfully with thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. “Market forces have made certain types of commercial aircraft structures similar in cost per square foot to that of conventional ground-based dwellings. Such aircraft include Boeing 727s that have been removed from active service. Of course, the quality of the materials used in the fabrication of and the engineering associated with such aircraft are far superior than those seen in most wood-framed homes.”

Water Bed

Edward Brown’s ill-considered “hammock canoe,” patented in 1884, can be suspended between trees like a conventional hammock or launched on a river like a bottomless aquatic coffin:

On the sides of the main structure or frame handles or holding means are provided, by means of which the person using the device can support the same while walking or floating with their body protruding through the opening in the netting or floor of the float. In addition to the handles I can employ a strap or band adapted to pass over the shoulders of the person using the device.

It’s not clear to me how someone can walk, float, lie, stand, and carry a boat at the same time. Perhaps I should get one and try it out.

A Leg Up

Allison Andrews had a brainstorm in 1999: If our pants could be easily divided in two, then we could mix and match their halves:

This system saves money by providing a pair of pants that is selectable from the set of all combinations of the left legs against the right legs. Since most members of the combination set do not physically exist at any given time, the user has a large selection set for a fraction of the price.

This way, your wardrobe increases geometrically with each new purchase.

Extra Credit

Boeing was demonstrating its new Dash-80 airliner for the nation’s air transport executives in Seattle in August 1955 when test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston decided to impress them — instead of a simple flyover he performed a barrel roll:

In 1994, just before test pilot John Cashman undertook the maiden flight of the 777, Boeing president Phil Condit told him, “No rolls.”