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.”
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.
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
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 accorded 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.”
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.
Indoor ski slopes tend to be short because they’re expensive to build. In 1986 Nobuyuki Matsui proposed a space-saving solution: Arrange the slope in a helix or a figure eight around a support tower that contains an elevator. Skiers can ride to the top and enjoy a long continuous run back to the bottom. To reduce cooling costs, the whole thing can be built underground (with a ski lodge at the top) and all the snow-making accomplished within a special enclosure that works its way down the slope.
“In order to simulate actual outdoor skiing conditions, provisions are made to vary the steepness of the slope from place to place. In addition, facilities are provided to produce random simulated moguls or an entire mogul field. Thus, during one run of the slope, most, if not all, of the conditions encountered on natural outdoor slopes may be simulated and incorporated into the run.”
“Even if the propeller had the power of propelling a vessel, it would be found altogether useless in practice, because the power being applied in the stern it would be absolutely impossible to make the vessel steer.” — Sir William Symonds, Surveyor of the Royal Navy, 1837
In 1988 Martine Tischer proposed a novel way to add interest to a gift: wrap it in sheets of uncut U.S. currency:
First of all, currency, particularly U.S. paper currency having the color green, is very attractive and suggests power and wealth … If desired, the package can be framed. Also if desired, the recipient of the package can deposit the whole sheet in a bank or exchange it at a bank for cut bills. The wrapping itself can be used as a medium of exchange, since it is money.
After an unusually queasy Channel crossing in 1868, Henry Bessemer conceived a steamer whose cabin was mounted on gimbals. In heavy seas the hull could roll beneath the passengers without rippling their cognac.
Work began immediately; in 1872 constructor E.J. Reed promised, “Although she may not fulfil every random prophecy that has been printed respecting her, she will thoroughly fulfil the object which the travelling public desire — namely, that of enabling us to cross to and from the Continent with health, decency, and comfort.”
The 350-foot S.S. Bessemer undertook her first public voyage on May 8, 1875 — and inauspiciously crashed into the pier. She moved too slowly and would not answer the helm. Investors lost confidence and the ship was eventually sold for scrap, but Bessemer insisted to the last that his conception had not been fully realized: “My hydraulic controlling apparatus was never completed, was never tested at sea, and consequently never failed.”
Rayma Rich’s “collapsible riding companion,” patented in 1991, offers female travelers an inventive way to deter criminals: Set up the false head and torso in your passenger seat, dress it in a suitable shirt, and you have a devoted male escort who will accompany you anywhere and never ask for overtime.
When you get back to the airport, disconnect the head, stow it in the torso, and “the riding companion becomes a lightweight, easy-to-carry rectanglar case for traveling.”
Patented in 1992 by Celess Antoine. Some things don’t need a lot of explaining.
If you live in an arid climate there’s an alternate solution.
Letter to the Times, April 27, 1910:
Motor-cars are bad enough, but they do not come into one’s house or garden. With aeroplanes total strangers may drop in, through the roof, for a little chat at any time. I fear the law cannot protect one against such intrusion. If aviation becomes popular I shall have spikes, with long strong prongs, fixed on the chimneys of my house, and the word ‘Danger’ painted in large red letters on a flat part of the roof. If any flying machines come down in my garden I shall send for the police to remove the occupants, whom I shall sue afterwards for any damage to my trees or shrubs.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
David Kendrick’s “life expectancy timepiece,” patented in 1991, offers a running countdown of your remaining time on earth.
Using actuarial data, enter the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds that you expect to live, and adjust this total according to the health factors in Table II.
Then set it going. It’s not quite as bad as it looks: You can press the RUN/STOP button to pause the countdown while you’re engaged in a healthful activity (“e.g. taking a walk, breathing fresh air, etc.”). And life expectancy improves with age, so you can add a few years on certain birthdays.
But still, it’s pretty sobering. An alternate version actually includes a speaker that provides “an audible signal, as a reminder that time is passing.” “This audible signal may be adapted to operate automatically at a particular time each day or may be suppressed by the user.”
An ordinary cremation consumes valuable energy and consigns the body to flames, which has unpleasant connotations of hellfire and damnation. In 1983 Kenneth H. Gardner invented a greener, more uplifting alternative — the corpse is elevated through the roof and then cremated by concentrated solar energy.
A temperature of about 1,700° F. is required to provide incineration and a total of about 3,000,000 BTU’s is required to consume a corpse. Thus, at a supply rate of about 1,000,000 BTU/hour, cremation would take about three hours. A concave mirror-reflector bowl similar to the steam-producing Crosbyton hemisphere in Lubbock, Texas is considered a suitable collector. At 65 ft. diameter, a bowl of this type can produce approximately 1,000,000 BTU/Hr. under full sunshine conditions from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Gas burners are still available “for auxiliary use during inclement weather and/or when it is desired to expedite the cremation process.”
With Jose Gonzalez’ “punishment wheel,” patented in 1989, a misbehaving child can randomly choose the punishment he’ll receive. “From the child’s point of view, it appears that an inanimate object is choosing and imposing the punishment, instead of his parents. Direct parent-child conflict is thereby eliminated.”
Available punishments, provided on decals, include NO TV, TIME OUT, GROUNDED, 2ND CHANCE, NO DESSERT, DONATE A TOY, PARENT’S CHOICE, K.P., NO ALLOWANCE, NO SPORTS, NO PHONE, NO FRIENDS, KID’S CHOICE, SWATS [a spanking], NO VISITING, NO TREAT, and HOUSE CHORES. But “the punishments need not be those shown in Fig. 4, but could be any set of punishments, expressed in any language, deemed suitable for the disciplinary style of particular parents and degree of maturity of their child.”
Douglas Eaton’s “storage apparatus for storing a necktie,” patented in 1993, winds your neckwear into a tidy cylinder when you’re not using it and dispenses it again at interview time. “The wrapping of the necktie about the tie rods and the storing of the necktie in the case prevents the necktie from substantially creasing during a storage period of time.”
Letter to the Times, Oct. 18, 1968:
This afternoon I caught the 15:05 train from the recently modernized Euston Station.
According to the new electronic departure indicator, its destination was Rugby; according to the ticket collector and a notice on the platform it was Coventry; according to the destination blind on the train it was Wolverhampton. I got off at Watford to hear the station announcer declare it was Wolverhampton and walked home to look it up in my copy of the timetable and discover it was Birmingham.
Perhaps now that their modernization scheme is complete British Rail’s executives will have enough time to decide where their trains are going to?
Related: NATIONAL RAIL TIMETABLES is an anagram of ALL TRAINS AIM TO BE LATE IN.
Brent Gunnon’s “foot-pump-powered neck-massaging device,” patented in 2002, connects bladders in the wearer’s shoes to a massaging hand that he fits to his neck. The back of his neck, one hopes.
In 1874 John Thomas suggested a novel way to keep a locomotive’s smoke out of the passenger cars: a jointed pipe would carry the smoke the length of the train and release it harmlessly in its wake.
Smoke and sparks were a real danger on early railroads — in 1916 one Edson Hains filed a claim against the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad Company in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for burning down his outhouse. The case is doubly memorable because Hains filed his pleading in verse:
Now comes the plaintiff, Edson Hains, and prays this august Court
To heed the very earnest plea, enshrined in this report.
The Wheeling & Lake Erie Co., a heartless corporation,
But licensed under certain laws of this fair State and Nation,
Did, by a spark through carelessness, from a locomotive owned
By the defendant in this Court, and by it not atoned,
Destroy and render Null and Void, a building situate
Upon the rear of premises, known as E. Hains Estate,
Which in the town of Bedford lies, a placid rural spot,
Until the conflagration, which spoiled the plaintiff’s lot.
The second of November last was the most woeful date
On which the said defendant did this outrage perpetrate.
Said building being plain but good, and open to all callers,
Was worth in money of the realm, the sum of fifty dollars.
Now, the aforesaid Hains will not cite Blackstone, Coke or Livy,
The incinerated building was, in vulgar terms, a privy.
The wealthy have from two to eight, but this case is more sad,
For like the poor man’s one ewe lamb, ’twas the only one he had.
And now in frigid winter’s time, before beginning labor,
He eke perforce must use the can of an obliging neighbor.
The plaintiff does still further state that he is an inventor,
And since the last catastrophe he has no place to center
His great inventive genius which, before in chaste seclusion
Of the before in mentioned can, did blossom in profusion.
True genius cannot be appraised, but plaintiff’s was so nifty
He thinks he should receive therefor at least one hundred fifty.
He therefore prays the Court to grant two hundred Iron Men,
That he may once more take his place midst Bedford’s upper ten,
And walk abroad midst citizens, and meet them man to man,
Which now he cannot rightly do, he being shy a can.
And so he prays that he may go from hence with compensation,
Commensurate with what he’s lost, through this his degradation.
And so he windeth up his prayer, and hopes the Court will grant
One fifty for his peace of mind, and fifty for the plant.
There’s a photostat of the pleading in John Allison Duncan’s Strangest Cases on Record (1940). Hains won — Judge William H. McGannon assessed the railroad $25 and costs.
Samuel Goss made the world a little sweeter in 1899:
My invention relates to bicycles, and has for its object to provide a combined bicycle and musical instrument whereby the rider when so disposed may treat himself and others in his immediate neighborhood to a musical accompaniment as he rides along.
Essentially it’s a giant music box mounted on the frame and driven by the pedals. Presumably a tandem bike could play in harmony — perhaps “A Bicycle Built for Two,” which had come out just five years earlier.
In 1886 Levi Deckard of Pennsylvania patented an electrified dental chair to provide “electricity as an anaesthetic” to people undergoing tooth extractions and other painful operations.
The dentist operates a foot-driven generator, the patient grips the electrodes, “and the desired shock is produced.” Deckard doesn’t explain why he thinks this will stop pain — but it certainly must be distracting.
Fanny Paul’s “device for inducing sleep,” patented in 1885, works on a simple principle: It restricts blood flow to the brain. Worry “quickens the action of the heart,” which excites the nervous system; by putting a collar around the neck and tightening it with a screw, the insomniac “slightly modifies” the circulation “and thereby reduce[s] the activity of the brain in order that sleep may ensue.”
“I have experimented with different degrees of pressure upon the arteries and veins of the neck,” Paul wrote, “and find that … very soon after this takes place the nervous system becomes soothed and quieted, and sleep follows almost immediately.”