A New Acquaintance

Fanny Kemble meets an early steam locomotive on the Liverpool-Manchester railway, Aug. 25, 1830:

We were introduced to the little engine which was to drag us along the rails. She (for they make these curious little fire horses all mares) consisted of a boiler, a stove, a platform, a bench, and behind the bench a barrel containing enough water to prevent her being thirsty for fifteen miles, the whole machine not bigger than a common fire engine. She goes upon two wheels, which are her feet, and are moved by bright steel legs called pistons; these are propelled by steam, and in proportion as more steam is applied to the upper extremities (the hip-joints, I suppose) of these pistons, the faster they move the wheels; and when it is desirable to diminish the speed, the steam, which unless suffered to escape would burst the boiler, evaporates through a safety valve into the air. The reins, bit, and bridle of this wonderful beast, is a small steel handle, which applies or withdraws the steam from its legs or pistons, so that a child might manage it. The coals, which are its oats, were under the bench, and there was a small glass tube affixed to the boiler, with water in it, which indicates by its fullness or emptiness when the creature wants water, which is immediately conveyed to it from its reservoirs. There is a chimney to the stove, but as they burn coke there is none of the dreadful black smoke which accompanies the progress of a steam vessel. This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat, was then harnessed to our carriage, and Mr. Stephenson having taken me on the bench of the engine with him, we started at about ten miles an hour.

Blind Justice

Paul Martineau came up with a novel self-defense method in 1990 — a wax capsule containing a concentrated solution of citric acid. If an assailant approaches you, you chew the capsule and spit the contents into his eyes.

Compared to other attack prevention methods, Martineau says, this one is “readily concealed, quick to use and … while effective, is not offensive to the user.”

Italian to Go

“[B]ecause of the nature of pasta dishes, it has not been practical to eat pasta products while strolling.” Patented in 1990, Nicholas Ruggieri’s “spaghetti sipper” solves this problem with a tidy, portable container:

A person eats the pasta by placing their mouth on the spout 23 or tube 13 and sucking up the pasta. When the desired amount of pasta is obtained, the person bites off the pasta and then consumes the pasta in the usual manner. When the pasta is cut, the pasta in the tube 13 or spout 23 is held in place by the pawl mechanism 14b, 24b. When the person wishes more pasta the sequence is repeated. By use of the pasta server 10, 20 of this invention a person can eat pasta while strolling and the like.

“To the pasta can be added as desired any of a number of sauces traditionally associated with pasta. These sauces typically enhance the lubricious properties of the pasta.”


In the early 1980s, William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter programmed a computer to write English prose at random. “The specifics of the communication in this instance would prove of less importance than the fact that the computer actually appeared to be communicating,” Chamberlain wrote. “Quite simply: what the computer said would be secondary to the fact that it said it correctly.”

Written in BASIC, RACTER (short for “raconteur”) ran on 64K of RAM. Its output, which strung together individual words according to programmed structures and rules of composition, was largely gibberish, but it could produce startling flashes of apparent lucidity:

More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.

Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters. That is interesting.

A crow is a bird, an eagle is a bird, a dove is a bird. They all fly in the night and in the day. They fly when the sky is red and when the heaven is blue. They fly through the atmosphere. We cannot fly. We are not like a crow or an eagle or a dove. We are not birds. But we can dream about them. You can.

A tree or shrub can grow and bloom. I am always the same. But I am clever.

And even the gibberish could be deep. RACTER’s first published work, Soft Ions, appeared in OMNI in November 1981. Its conclusion included some apparent nonsense about eating a leotard that was replenished by hordes of commissioners. But then the program reflected: “Is that thought understandable to you? … I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single horde, all are understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.”

A New Outlook

Resolving to improve yourself is easy; remembering your resolutions is hard. Faye Tanefsky came up with a novel solution in 1991: a pair of glasses imprinted with a subliminal message. Each lens bears a simple reinforcing image that’s in view all day long:

It has been found that when the glasses are first put on, the subject will notice the message images, momentarily. The message means will appear merged as a single image, focussed more or less centrally between the two eyes. After a few seconds, for example, ten to twenty seconds in the average case, the subject is no longer conscious of the image and the image essentially disappears.

The images, which are supplied on decals, might include a resolution not to drink or smoke, an inspiring visualization in sports, or a happy face to combat an inferiority complex. “While the message is continuously in front of the eyes of the subject, the subject is not conscious of the existence or presence of the message, and can continue whatever activities he or she is engaged in without interference or distraction.”

Wheels of Chance

wells bicycle picshua

H.G. Wells demonstrates how to dismount a bicycle, June 1895:

“Observe when your left foot is descending & about 30° from the nadir. Stand on left pedal throwing up right leg. Bring this in a graceful curve over the hind mud guard & leap lightly to the ground. The treadle moves against your weight & assists the leap. Then smile. Thus.”

That’s from a letter to an old college friend. “The bicycle in those days was still very primitive,” Wells recalled of the bicycle craze of the 1890s. “The diamond frame had appeared but there was still no freewheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. … Nevertheless the bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days … and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now.”

“I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process.”

Clearing the Air

With the “smoker’s hat,” patented by Walter Netschert in 1989, you can finally interact with nonsmokers without giving offense. A visor will intercept your smoke and direct it to a filter, and you can add a clip to hold the cigarette and a cup to catch ashes so that there are no waste products. The exhaust can even be scented.

This seems like a lot of trouble, but for some it’s worth it. “When I don’t smoke I scarcely feel as if I’m living,” wrote Russell Hoban in Turtle Diary. “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.”

Man and Machine

William Dean Howells to Mark Twain, Nov. 5, 1875:

The type-writer came Wednesday night, and is already beginning to have its effect on me. Of course it doesn’t work: if I can persuade some of the letters to get up against the ribbon they won’t get down again without digital assistance. The treadle refuses to have any part or parcel in the performance; and I don’t know how to get the roller to turn with the paper. Nevertheless I have begun several letters to My d ar lemans, as it prefers to spell your respected name, and I don’t despair yet of sending you something in its beautiful handwriting–after I’ve had a man out from the agent’s to put it in order. It’s fascinating in the meantime, and it wastes my time like an old friend.

E.B. White on the Model T, 1936:

During my association with Model Ts, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal’s head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator) and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of that. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded — first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.

To Catch a Thief

Early inventions to catch car thieves were positively quaint: Thomas Burghart’s 1921 “thief trap” would simply clutch the intruder’s leg and sound an alarm to alert the owner. “The person is thereby held to the seat and cannot get away.”

Yair Tanami’s solution, patented 68 years later, is less forgiving: It mounts a high-voltage discharge electrode under the seat. “In the arrangement illustrated in Figs. 2-5, bursts of high voltages of up to 60,000 volts peak have been produced which were found sufficient to temporarily immobilize the threatening person without permanently injuring him.”


“Outside of the proven impossible, there probably can be found no better example of the speculative tendency carrying man to the verge of the chimerical than in his attempts to imitate the birds, or no field where so much inventive seed has been sown with so little return as in the attempts of man to fly successfully through the air. … It may be truly said that, so far as the hope of a commercial solution of the problem is concerned, man is to-day no nearer fulfillment than he was ages ago when he first dreamed of flying.” — Rear Admiral George W. Melville, engineer-in-chief, U.S. Navy, 1901