Coming and Going

This is U.S. patent number 112, “saddle for removing the sick and for other purposes,” issued in 1837 to the magnificently named Hezekiah Thistle of New Orleans.

The patient (or body) lies on a bed mounted on springs above the wooden saddle. “There is also a strap G attached to the side of the bed near the center which passes around the thigh and is buckled to the outside of the bed in an oblique direction to prevent the wounded man from slipping down.”

Even the horse looks grim.

The Componium

Paris witnessed a startling demonstration in 1824: a machine that could simulate a musical improvisation, producing endless variations on a given theme. “Its ingenious inventor, M. Winkel, of Amsterdam, has given it the astonishing faculty of imitating extemporaneous performance, and of reducing into harmonic form all the possible combinations, which the most bold and fertile imagination could produce,” noted the Harmonicon. When Winkel operated the Componium before an audience of skeptical musicians, it “produced upon the auditory an effect difficult to be described. The astonishment of the hearers was at its height when, after having executed a march, with variations by Moscheles, the instrument was left to follow its own inspirations: the applause was loud and unanimous, and some exclaimed that it was altogether miraculous.”

Incredulous that such an effect could be produced by an automaton, the attendees asked two of their number to examine the mechanism and make a final report. These two declared that, while the effect was “marvelous,” no trickery was involved:

When this instrument has received a varied theme, which the inventor has had time to fix by a process of his own, it decomposes the variations of itself, and reproduces their different parts in all the orders of possible permutation, the same as the most capricious imagination might do; it forms successions of sound so diversified, and produced by a principle so arbitrary, that even the person the best acquainted with the mechanical construction of the instrument, is unable to foresee at any given moment the chords that are about to be produced.

A single example will suffice to show the freedom of choice that is permitted by it. None of the airs which it varies lasts above a minute; could it be supposed that but one of these airs was played without interruption, yet, through the principle of variability which it possesses, it might, without ever resuming precisely the same combination, continue to play not only during years and ages, but during so immense a series of ages that, though figures might be brought to express them, common language could not.

— J.B. Biot, de l’Academie des Sciences, and Catel, de l’Academie des Beaux-arts, Paris, Feb. 2, 1824

But a dazzling effect can be produced by a relatively simple mechanism. In 1770 an English publisher produced a pamphlet with the intriguing title A Tabular System Whereby the Art of Composing Minuets Is Made So Easy That Any Person, Without the Least Knowledge of Musick, May Compose Ten Thousand, All Different, and in the Most Pleasing and Correct Manner. A contemporary reviewer found that “a quantity of cards, each holding a sequence of notes and arranged at will, is the whole secret of so prolific a composition.”

Spring Fever

Inventors Neil and William Winton patented this “parakeet exercise perch” in 1957, in hopes of improving bird morale:

Parakeets are fast becoming common household pets and one of the first objectives of the new owner of a parakeet is to teach the parakeet to utter words that will amuse the owner thereof. …

An object of the present invention is to provide an exercising perch which will facilitate getting a parakeet in a cheerful state of mind so as he will talk or chatter more profusely.

The coil is designed so that “when a parakeet alights on any one of the coils, it will bounce up and down, sway with the weight of the bird, and oscillate back and forth.” The cage-mounted version shown here is only one option; the Wintons also envisioned a free-standing model and one that can be mounted on a wall (which is “entertaining to a parakeet possessing the ability to nose dive through a sleeve member”).

I don’t know how the parakeets responded. If they conquer the earth someday, perhaps they’ll give each of us a trampoline.

Modern Convenience

For the stylish farmer, Jefferson Darby patented this plow attachment in 1874. The canopy can be adjusted both horizontally and vertically, “thus affording a complex and ample range of adjustment by which the shade may be shifted about as the plow changes direction and the sun moves along its course.”

“The attachment may also be attached to other agricultural implements, also upon wagons and other carriages.”

The Vision Thing,_1st_Image.jpg

Diary entry by journalist Sydney Moseley, Aug. 1, 1928:

… I met a pale young man named Bartlett who is Secretary to the new Baird Television Company. Television! Anxious to see what it is all about … He invited me to go along to Long Acre where the new invention is installed. Now that’s something! Television!

Met John Logie Baird; a charming man — a shy, quietly spoken Scot. He could serve as a model for the schoolboy’s picture of a shock-haired, modest, dreamy, absent-minded inventor. Nevertheless shrewd. We sat and chatted. He told me he is having a bad time with the scoffers and skeptics — including the BBC and part of the technical press — who are trying to ridicule and kill his invention of television at its inception. I told him that if he would let me see what he has actually achieved — well, he would have to risk my damning it — or praising it! If I were convinced — I would battle for him. We got on well together and I have arranged to test his remarkable claim.

(Later) Saw television! Baird’s partner, a tall, good-looking but highly temperamental Irishman, Captain Oliver George Hutchinson, was nice but very nervous of chancing it with me. He was terribly anxious that I should be impressed. Liked the pair of them, especially Baird, and decided to give my support … I think we really have what is called television. And so, once more into the fray!

Anatomy Lesson

In 1988, Shao-Chun Chu conceived a unique way to teach people about the human body — an amusement ride that would carry passengers through an enormous model of a sleeping man and woman:

An educational amusement apparatus forms a large building structure having an external appearance simulating a man and a woman resting partially under a blanket, wherein riders are taken through a succession of cavities that simulate internal organs of the man and woman. Entrance to a head chamber simulating an oral cavity is achieved by a stairway supported by a simulated arm of the man, the oral cavity having displays of teeth in normal and abnormal conditions, and serving as a staging area for a train to carry the riders. The train passes into a simulated cranial cavity of the woman, past a sectional display of simulated ear organs, and into a body portion of the building that is representative of the abdomen of both the man and the woman, first through a simulated esophagus, stomach, and intestine of an alimentary canal, through simulated urinary and reproductive tracts, then through a simulated liver and a simulated cardiovascular canal, and finally through a simulated lung and windpipe to an exit staging area of the building.

Chu hoped the ride would encourage people to take better care of their bodies and would be “effective in transporting a large ridership.” His 10-page patent abstract contains sentences that I’m pretty sure have never been written before (“Further, the structure continues to descend until the cars become partially submerged in the lake of the stomach, preferably with considerable splashing”). Unfortunately, to my knowledge it’s never been realized.


In 1927, before the advent of long-range aircraft, engineer Edward R. Armstrong proposed a unique way to get across the ocean: floating airports. Armstrong’s “seadromes” would stand above the waves on columns of steel, tethered to the ocean floor and stabilized with ballast tanks. Atop each would be a 1200-foot runway, a hotel, a restaurant, a hangar, and a fuel depot, effectively turning it into a stationary aircraft carrier. Armstrong hoped to string eight of these across the Atlantic so that short-range planes could hop between America and Europe.

He managed to interest the U.S. government in the scheme, and in 1934 Popular Science reported that lawyers had built a case for anchoring the stations on the high seas. But the Depression and the appearance of transatlantic aircraft finally crippled the plan, and Armstrong’s dream was never realized. The principle he proposed survives in floating oil rigs.

Valise Police

Briefcase security, then and now:

In 1925, August Eimer invented the case above, which emits smoke when torn from its owner’s hand “in the form of a continually issuing cloud that will envelop the container and serve to unmistakably identify its purloiner, necessitating discard of the container by the thief if he would make his escape.”

In 1989, Isaac Soleimani offered the model below: As the thief is running off, you activate a radio signal that releases a latch, “with the result that the briefcase falls on the ground, leaving the thief only with the handle.”

It seems there’s always an element of slapstick. “The handle could also be spring-loaded so that upon remote triggering it could clamp down hard onto the thief’s hand, clamping the fingers between the handle and the top of the briefcase, thereby inflicting pain to the thief, causing him to drop the briefcase.”

Money Talks

Pay telephones appeared as early as 1889. William Gray patented this version, in which a coin dropped into a slot mechanically unlocks the hand crank. While he’s using the phone, the caller keeps the device unlocked by resting his arm on an armrest: “In case the first call is not answered from the central office the user of the telephone can, while keeping his arm upon the arm-rest and so holding the button uncovered, hang up the telephone m on the hook m’ and again call the central office by turning the crank b and pushing in the button in the usual manner.”

Vision and Taste

One way to look wise is to sit on the corner of your desk, chew on the stem of your glasses, and gaze ruminatively into the middle distance. But this can grow tedious as you wait for people to notice you. This improvement, suggested in 1990 by Adam S. Halbridge, might help:

It is believed that many adult wearers of eyeglasses … would enjoy having a desirable flavor imparted to them when they chew or suck upon the ends of the temple arms. … [M]any younger children and teen-agers … would also enjoy having a desirable flavor imparted to them if they chew on the temple arms of their sunglasses.

He proposes adding a chewable cap to each arm — flavored like cinnamon, jalapeno, licorice, or taffy for grownups, fruit or candy for children.