Pest Control

Besieged by cotton worms in 1870, Louisiana planter Auguste Le Blanc invented the 19-century equivalent of a bug zapper. The worms transform into noctural moths in order to reproduce, so Le Blanc suspended an eight-foot ring of gasoline burners from the roof of a horse-drawn cart that he drove through his fields at night, following lanes that he had laid out for this purpose.

The roof may serve not only to protect the burners from rain, but also as a means of destroying the moths, for I sometimes coat the underside of the roof with a paint, preferably white paint, made without any ‘drying’ in it, that is to say, made with oil alone, so as to present a sticky surface. When the machine is in use, the moths, attracted and blinded by the light, will either be destroyed by the flame, or else will come in contact with and adhere to the sticky coating of paint.

I don’t know how well it worked, but he deserves credit for his ingenuity. “A machine of eight burners will protect from forty-five to fifty acres of cotton, while the cheapness of the fluid employed for burning purposes renders the expense trifling in comparison with the benefits derived.”

Cold Water

There is also another matter to be mentioned for which both present and future ages have good reason to bless the name of Jonas Hanway. He was the first person who had the courage to hold an umbrella over his head in walking along the streets of London. ‘The eighteenth century,’ writes Chambers, ‘was half elapsed before the umbrella had even begun to be used in England. General Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, remarks: “The people here use umbrellas in hot weather to defend them from the sun, and something of the same kind to save them from the snow and the rain. I wonder that a practice so useful is not introduced in England.” Just about that time, however, a gentleman did exercise the moral courage to use an umbrella in the streets of London. He was the noted Jonas Hanway, then newly returned form Persia, and in delicate health, by which, of course, his using such a convenience was justified both to himself and to the public. “A parapluie,” we are told, defended Mr. Hanway’s face and wig. For a time no other than dainty beings, then called “Macaronies,” ventured to carry an umbrella; and any one doing so was sure to be hailed by the mob as a “mincing Frenchman.” One John Macdonald, a footman, who has favored the public with his memoirs, found as late as 1770 that, on appearing with a fine silk umbrella which he had brought from Spain, he was saluted with the cry of “Frenchman, why don’t you get a coach?”‘

— “Jonas Hanway, the Philanthropist,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April 1884

Grunt Work

During World War I, one of the worst jobs in the French army was that of wirecutter, the scout deputed to cut through the wire entanglements set up by the enemy, often unprotected in exposed positions. To improve his chances, the army introduced this one-man tank. From Popular Science Monthly, May 1917:

The device is made to resemble a cannon which it is hoped will be considered by the enemy to be broken and discarded. It is provided with slits and larger openings through which the scout may see and get air. The wheels, though apparently rusty and old, are smooth-running and noiseless, and the legs of the scout, moving cautiously at the rate of perhaps one-half inch per minute during critical times, resemble the drooping muzzle of the gun — or it is hoped that they will.

“It is also considered among the possibilities that the device will be of service when it is necessary for a bold and death-defying dash to be made through showers of shrapnel into the teeth of the foe. But this is problematical since the device is not made for rapidity of movement.”

“The Gun Within a Gun”

This must set some sort of record for aggressiveness — during World War I, Andrew Graham invented a shell that fires bullets. From Popular Science Monthly, February 1918:

The projectile is pierced with a dozen or so of rifled channels, each constituting a barrel loaded with a regulation rifle cartridge. … A shell like that which Mr. Graham has conceived can be timed to discharge its bullets efficiently, far from its target, unlike shrapnel. The bullets do not lose in velocity, thanks to their elongated form and their rotation. Their velocity is the sum of the shell’s velocity and their own.

Actually aiming the bullets, though, is another matter. “The firing can be timed so that at least one volley will scatter properly.”

Sudden Stop

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.

A Mobile Fort

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?”

Alternative Energy

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.”

“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.