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

Gone With the Wind

Schoolteacher George Pocock invented a unique means of transportation in 1826 — the Charvolant, a buggy drawn by kites. By training the kites and turning the carriage’s front wheels, the “charioteer” could steer even along a road at right angles to the wind. “Thus,” he found, “whatever road the car may travel by a side-wind, the same road it may return by the same wind; and where there is space for traverse, as on plains or downs, it is possible to beat up against the wind.”

“This mode of travelling is, of all others, the most pleasant,” Pocock wrote in his 1851 Treatise on the Æropleustic Art. “Privileged with harnessing the invincible winds, our celestial tandem playfully transpierces the clouds, and our mystic-moving car swiftly glides along the surface of the scarce-indented earth; while beholders, snatching a glance at the rapid but noiseless expedition, are led to regard the novel scene rather as a vision than a reality.”

In experiments with a four-wheeled car drawn by two kites on leads of 300 yards, Pocock found that a high wind could produce speeds of more than 40 mph; in one friendly race three Charvolants carried 12 passengers 113 miles from Bristol to Marlborough in a single morning. Pocock estimated that a party of six might cross the Sahara in 10 days and 10 hours for a total cost of about £80. “Is it too fond a hope that, by the system of æropleustics, those sands may be navigated as the sea, and thus a most speedy and safe communication be opened between the east and the west of the interior?”

As a side benefit, Pocock found that the Charvolant could travel freely on English turnpikes, which assessed tolls by the number of horses that drew an equipage. “The herald-bugle is sounded — the gates fly open — you pass unquestioned,” Pocock marveled. “Those who travel by Kites travel as kings.”

Round Numbers

The Russian navy undertook an odd experiment in 1871: circular warships. With their broad, flat bottoms, the Novgorod (above) and the Vice Admiral Popov (below) were intended to bear heavy guns into shallow coastal waters where more conventional warships could not go. But without keels they were slow and difficult to maneuver, and in cross currents they tended to spin. They served briefly in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 but were relegated as storeships in 1903 and scrapped nine years later.


William Carr’s “improved burglar-trap,” patented in 1868, is a man-size version of a no-kill mousetrap. The unwitting burglar steps on the trapdoor and falls into the chamber, where his own weight on the false bottom pulls the doors shut again.

“It will be seen that the catches II II’ and I I act, in connection with the weight of the person upon the platform, in retaining the doors in their closed condition, and, even in case the prisoner should succeed in scaling the walls of the chamber, the locking-devices H H’ and I I’ will effectually prevent him forcing open the trap-doors.”

During the day the proprietor can pull a cord to engage the catches by hand, to prevent his customers from falling in themselves.