“Evils of 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.

Cool Shoes


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.

Wind Power

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.”

(Thanks, Katie.)

Easy Rider


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.



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 …

Over and Out


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.

Back Aid


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.”