DIY

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

http://www.google.com/patents/US1144150

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.

Drive

http://www.google.com/patents/US3964560

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

http://www.google.com/patents/US1187218

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

http://www.google.com/patents/US1409326

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.”

Round Trip

http://www.google.com/patents/US5678489

Frustrated in trying to describe higher topology abstractly to students, Xian Wang invented a model train that can hug either side of a track:

It is therefore a primary object of the present invention to provide an electrically-operated ornament travelling on a rail which can be used to explain the Mobius Theorem. … In general textbooks, this advanced mathematic rule is usually explained by demonstrating a body circularly moving on a front and a reverse side of a twisted two-ends-connected belt. Most people can not understand and imagine the theorem from such explanation and demonstration.

Of course, once you’ve built one you can put it to other uses:

http://www.google.com/patents/US5678489

Wool-Gathering

Siren Elise Wilhelmsen taught a clock to knit a scarf. The mechanism’s progress is reflected on its face, which functions as a 24-hour clock; it adds one stitch per hour and one segment per day, producing a wearable two-meter scarf in a year.

“What I wanted to show was the nature of time in a different way,” the Norwegian designer says. The clock does this in three ways: The unknitted skein represents time to come, the clock itself displays the current time, and the finished scarf represents time past.

Gun Play

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doublebarreledcannonathensgeorgia-I.jpg

This would have been deadly if it had worked: In 1862, Confederate private John Gilleland of Georgia’s Mitchell Thunderbolts designed a double-barreled cannon. Gilleland intended that the barrels would fire two balls connected by a chain that would “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.”

Unfortunately he couldn’t devise a way to fire both muzzles at the same instant, so in testing the chain simply snapped and sent both balls off on unpredictable trajectories. The cannon was never used in battle, and today it’s displayed as a curiosity before the city hall in Athens, Ga.

Water Works

http://www.google.com/patents/US243834

Montana inventor William Beeson offered the swimming apparatus above in 1881 — a suit fitted with a membrane that “acts like wings or fins, which, from the movement of the legs and arms effect a propulsion through the water.”

In 1910 O.B. Lyons patented the “life preserver and swimming machine” below — just turn the handle to drive the propeller.

Presumably you could combine the two to go twice as fast.

http://www.google.com/patents/US957513