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.
James D. Williams’ “animal ear protectors,” patented in 1980, provide “a device for protecting the ears of animals, especially long-haired dogs, from becoming soiled by the animal’s food while the animal is eating.” The ears are protected by plastic tubes that are held to the animal’s head by adjustable straps.
The invention “may be itself decorated so as to enhance the appearance of the animal in the eyes of its owner and of others.” What that looks like is left to the imagination.
When one is a dashing French inventor one has little patience for clumsy mustache hygiene. This “apparatus for the cut of the mustache,” patented by Pierre Calmels in 1927, “gives the mustache the desired shape and automatically reproduces this shape without any possibility of error and without loss of time.” Adjust the guide once into the proper configuration and you can use it thereafter as a sort of stencil: Just hold the apparatus between your teeth and trim the whiskers to the designated length.
Edwin Green’s “design for a mustache-guard for cups,” below, was patented in 1898: The plate can be clamped to a teacup to keep one’s mustache dry. The idea was referenced a century later in a related invention — an “apparatus and system for covering and protecting the rim of a paint can.”
Carlisle H. Dickson’s “interpersonal-introduction signalling system,” patented in 1979, takes some of the pain out of the singles scene. Each person at a gathering carries a transceiver encoded with his or her own characteristics and preferences. So, for example, a woman can program her receiver to ignore every message except “I am a male, I want to dance with you, my music preference is hard rock.” When that signal is received, her receiver signals that the man can approach “with confidence not only of mutual interest, but of receptive mood.”
At this point the man doesn’t know exactly who or where she is, only that there’s a (minimally) compatible woman somewhere in the crowd. He begins to home in her using something like a Geiger counter, and this gives her time to spot him and change her mind — “at any time she may switch off her receiver, transmitter or both.”
“In a particularly novel construction, the apparatus may be further provided with a decoy means such that if the receiving party decides not to meet, the apparatus can be switched to create a false signal, such as the reversing of the characteristic created to assist the parties approaching each other.”
This is romantic — in 1990 Terence King patented a pair of gloves connected at the palms, “so as to allow a courting couple palm contact inside the glove whilst their fingers and thumbs remain covered.”
“It may also be so sized as to accommodate and fit the respective hands of a mother and child.”
Letters to the Times, March 1976:
From the Reverend E.H.W. Crusha:
May I enlist your support in restraining the use of ‘Dear Reverend’ and ‘Dear Reverend So-and-so’ in letters to clergymen? It appears to be increasing among people of standing and education who might be expected to be readers of The Times.
From Peter du Sautoy, chairman, Faber and Faber Ltd.:
I learnt from T.S. Eliot, the politest of men, that letters to clergymen one does not know personally should begin ‘Reverend Sir.’
From Peter Faulks:
I remember being told by a clergyman that when in India a parishioner wrote to him as ‘Reverend and Bombastic Sir.’
From Canon Allan Shaw:
There are degrees of reverence. When I was a Dean and very reverend I once received a letter addressed to ‘The Very Shaw’. I thought that took some beating. However, it was bettered by the present Bishop of Lincoln. He once told me that he had received a letter directed to ‘The Right Phipps.’
From Rabbi David J. Goldberg:
While Christian clergymen ponder their correct form of address, they might also spare a thought for the difficulty experienced by their Jewish colleagues. On several occasions (and usually from the Inland Revenue) I have received letters which address me as ‘Dear Rabbit’.
From the Rev. D.F.C. Hawkins:
A young member of my congregation in Nigeria once addressed me in a letter as ‘My dear interminable Canon’. I try to believe he intended it kindly.
To be fair, it’s hard to teach a computer to produce the correct salutation by interpreting the first line of an address. One programmer sent the contents of a test database of challenging addressees: Danie Van Der Merwe, The Master of Ballantrae, The Mistress of Girton, C.M. Gomez de Costa e Silva, Mrs. Mark Phillips, Earl Mountbatten, Count Basie, Sir Archie McIan of that Ilk, Adm. Hon Sir R.A.R. Plunkett-E-E-Drax, J. Smith Esq, Sister Mary-Paul, A. d’Ungrois, the Revd Dewing. He declared himself “confident of the continuing superiority of that product of unskilled labour, the human mind, over its most marvellous artifact.”
Dutch engineer Theo Jansen builds complex walking sculptures from PVC pipe and turns them loose on the beaches of the Netherlands, where they have been evolving (with his help) for 20 years.
“Over time,” he says, “these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water, and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”
“I’ve seen a lot of mechanical sculpture, and Jansen’s animari are the finest I’ve seen by far in the ‘low-tech clockwork’ mechanism category,” robotic designer Carl Pisaturo told Wired in 2005. “These are amazing creations, and the simplicity of the technology and the fact that they are wind-powered only makes their poetic motions more impressive.”
Gordon Spitzmesser’s “combustible gas-powered pogo stick,” patented in 1960, is exactly what it sounds like: a pogo stick with an internal combustion engine.
“In using this device, the cycle is started by the operator giving the initial jump upon the foot rest. As the frame reaches the bottom of its stroke, thus causing ignition of the sparkplug, the resulting compression forces the ball valve to seat and remain seated during the compression stroke of the piston and until it passes the exhaust ports in the manner described. The instant that the cylinder is cleared, new air and gas is permitted to enter into the cylinder, thus enabling the cycle to be repeated.”
All of this, we are told, is “extremely safe and harmless and of tremendous entertainment value.” You go first.
Someday archaeologists will unearth this 1933 patent abstract by Rennie Renfro and use it to judge our entire civilization:
In the sport of greyhound racing, that is enjoyed by dog fanciers and racing enthusiasts, there has been recently introduced, the use of monkey riders, who serve in the capacity of jockeys. Because of the aptitude and imitative tendencies of simians, when they are positioned on the backs of their fleet charges, they imitate the actions of regular jockeys. The employment of the monkey jockey adds considerable zest and enjoyment to the sport. However, as in horse racing, there is always present the danger of the rider being accidentally thrown, and unless some means is provided for safely securing the riders, there is ever present the hazard of the rider being dislodged, with consequent injury.
Renfro’s improvement was to snap the monkey’s collar to the harness and to strap its breeches to the saddle. “In practice the device has proven to be most efficient, humane and because of its novel construction, has added to the enthusiasm and entertainment of racing patrons.”
An advertisement from The Atlantic Monthly, 1884:
The gloves, presumably, are not included.
Wisconsin’s Lorenzo Macauley patented this “improvement in road-lanterns” in 1879, presumably after testing it himself.
A lantern thus attached to a horse’s head enables both horse and driver to see the condition of the track and the objects in it much more plainly and at greater distance than when a lantern is placed on the carriage.
New York architect Edwin Koch had a brainstorm in 1939 — he proposed a teardrop-shaped “hurricane house” that could rotate like a weather vane. “This amazing dwelling would revolve automatically to face into the oncoming storm, meeting it like the wing of an airplane and passing it smoothly around its curving sides toward its pointed tip,” explained Popular Science.
Electricity would enter through one of the circular tracks on which the house turned, and water and sewage pipes would be connected via swivel joints at the axis of rotation.
Koch had planned the house for hurricane zones, but the swiveling feature could prove useful in any climate: “Merely by selecting the desired push button on a central control board, the entire house may be rotated to face rooms toward or away from the sun or to point bedroom windows toward a cooling breeze.”
Lili McGrath’s admirably low-tech “floor polisher,” patented in 1915, is little more than a pair of slippers, but the description is charming:
The wearer merely places his or her feet within the slippers and begins to dance, preferably such dances as require long glides, and it will be seen that the floor polishing operation becomes a pleasure.
The cord “is made of a length permitting a full stride of the wearer, as in dancing, but not sufficiently long to admit of the wearer’s feet spreading apart to permit his or her fall.” We could market this today.
Ever since ‘weather shooting,’ as it is called in Germany and Switzerland, met with such pronounced success in Styria, upper ltaly, Hungary, and France, meteorologists have been engaged in a very wordy battle as to the merits of the scheme. That something has been accomplished cannot be denied. Indeed, so successful have been the efforts in preventing hailstorms in upper Italy that since the experiments of 1898 some twenty thousand stations have been established. At the Agricultural Congress held in Padua last November by far the greater number of the members were in favor of the building of ‘weathershooting’ stations. The congress was very decidedly impressed by an account of one of last summer’s hailstorms in the vicinity of Vicenza. So violent was this particular storm, the story runs, that for miles the land was completely devastated. But in this ravaged section, one spot was spared, because there it is asserted a number of stations had been located which had warded off the danger.
The shooting apparatus hitherto used has been very primitive in construction. For a cannon, a mortar with a funnel-like barrel was often used. In some places the funnel is fixed vertically in masonry. This method of mounting the cannon is not only crude, but also dangerous, for often enough serious accidents have occurred. In order to avoid these dangers as well as to improve the apparatus in general a Hungarian editor named Kanitz has devised a simple form of cannon which is essentially a breech-loading mortar some thirty feet in length. The mortar is journaled in a rotatable carriage, so that it can be raised and lowered and swung from side to side. The charge is a metallic cartridge of blasting powder. After the discharge a loud, shrill whistling is heard, lasting for about fourteen or fifteen seconds. French and Italian wine-growers insist that by means of the gun clouds are torn asunder, so that rain instead of hail falls.
The grape growers of five departments of the French Alps have formed an alliance for buying cannon and powder for next summer. The Italian government has such faith in weather-shooting that it supplies wine-growers with powder at the rate of three cents a pound.
– Scientific American, April 27, 1901
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.”
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.”
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.