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.”
Before the possibility of radio broadcast, inventors experimented with “piping” music into homes acoustically. From London’s Musical World, Jan. 6, 1855:
At the Polytechnic, a band playing in a distant apartment is unheard; but connect the different instruments, by means of thin rods of wood, each with the sounding board of a harp in the lecture theatre, and the music is audible to all as if it were present. The experiments prove, what we have often speculated on, that music might be laid on to the houses of a town from a central source, like gas or water.
“A well-known joker, at the private view, proposed the establishment of a ‘band-ditty’ company on the spot.”
George Elgin’s “pistol sword,” patented in 1837, combines romance and efficiency:
The nature of my invention consists in combining the pistol and Bowie knife, or the pistol and cutlass, in such manner that it can be used with as much ease and facility as either the pistol, knife, or cutlass could be if separate, and in an engagement, when the pistol is discharged, the knife (or cutlass) can be brought into immediate use without changing or drawing, as the two instruments are in the hand at the same time.
This is one of the earliest U.S. patents — number 254.
Related: A gruesome piece of battlefield medicine from the Napoleonic campaigns of 1806 — a soldier’s face was transfixed by a bayonet that projected five inches from his right temple:
The man was knocked down, but did not lose his senses. He made several ineffectual efforts to pull the bayonet out, and two comrades, one holding the head, whilst the other dragged at the weapon, also failed. The poor wounded man came to me leaning on the arms of two fellow-soldiers. I endeavored, with the assistance of a soldier to pull out the bayonet, but it seemed to me as if fixed in a wall. The soldier who helped me desired the patient to lie down on his side, and putting his foot on the man’s head, with both hands he dragged out the bayonet, which was immediately followed by considerable hemorrhage, the blood pouring forth violently and abundantly. The patient then first felt ill, and, as I thought he would die, I left him to dress other wounded. After twenty minutes he revived, and said he was much better, and I then dressed him. We were in the snow, and as he was very cold the whole of his head was well wrapped up in charpie and bandages. He set off to Warsaw with another soldier; went partly on foot, partly on horseback, or in a cart, from barn to barn, and often from wood to wood, and reached Warsaw in six days. Three months after, I saw him in the hospital, perfectly recovered. He had lost his sight on the right side; the eye and lid had, however, preserved their form and mobility, but the iris remained much dilated and immovable.
From Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857.
In 1899 Otto Hensel invented an oscillating tub that could give a vigorous bath while conserving water:
The essential object of this invention is to provide a tub that will fill a long-felt want in hospitals, sanitariums, and other institutions, as well as in private residences, which will by a simple rocking motion agitate and throw the water with more or less violence against the body of the person in the tub.
In Sylvie and Bruno Lewis Carroll goes this one better with the Active Tourist’s Portable Bath, a bag in which one can bathe in half a gallon of water:
“The A.T. hangs up the P.B. on a nail — thus. He then empties the water jug into it — places the empty jug below the bag — leaps into the air — descends head-first into the bag — the water rises round him to the top of the bag — and there you are! The A.T. is as much under water as if he’d gone a mile or two down into the Atlantic!”
Alfred Clark patented a labor-saving brainstorm in 1913 — a churn operated by a rocking chair.
He was actually late to the party — Julius Restein had patented an even better solution 25 years earlier.
Early automobiles tended to frighten horses, so in 1904 Henry Hayes proposed attaching a life-size fake horse to the front of each car, to give the illusion that they were ordinary carriages.
The horse’s head would be fitted with a lensed lamp, its mouth would hold a horn, and its hollow interior could store fuel, tools, and extra tires. The saddle could even bear a rider.
It’s not too late to implement this.
Daniel Ruggles patented an alarming new process in 1880 — he proposed to raise explosives into clouds “in order to precipitate rain-fall by concussion or vibration of the atmosphere.” The resulting downpour would water crops, prevent drought, forestall more violent storms, “and also purify and renovate the atmosphere during periods of pestilence and epidemics.”
In the figure and surrounding the balloon B, I have represented various dotted lines and clusters of lines, and also zigzag lines, as at L, representing lightning, the said figure being an imaginary representation of such a condition as would appear immediately after an explosion of the torpedoes, and with rain falling from the clouds C, as indicated in dotted lines at R’.
He planned to use balloons to lift the torpedoes, and “I contemplate the employment of nitroglycerine, dynamite, chlorates of nitrogen, gun cotton, gunpowder, fulminates, and other explosives.” I can’t tell whether he ever tested the invention. Presumably he did.
Charles Hess patented this combination piano, couch, and bureau in 1866, intending it for hotels and boarding schools in which some bedrooms are used as parlors during daylight hours. Closet F holds the bedclothes, and closet G holds a washbowl, pitcher, and towels.
“It has been found by actual use that this addition to a piano-forte does not in the least impair its qualities as a musical instrument, but, on the contrary, adds considerably to its reverberatory power.”
Charmingly, the stool doubles as a writing desk (P), its seat conceals a looking glass (U), and its body serves as a lady’s work box, complete with a cushion for holding pins and needles.
Evidently a lover of broccoli, Elmer Walter of Pennsylvania saw a need for special tableware in 1907:
The primary object of the invention is to provide a table implement, such as a knife, fork, or other device with a mirror suitably secured in the handle of the implement, so that the user of the implement may have ready at hand a mirror for the purpose of inspecting the teeth in the mouth or the mouth or other portions of the face generally, at any time desired by the user of the implement.
“Oftentimes a patron of a restaurant or cafe finds the need of a mirror to discover a substance which has become lodged in the teeth,” he writes. A mirrored knife “may be used by him or her for the purpose indicated above substantially without attracting any attention.”
In a letter to general Charles Lee in February 1776, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the colonists arm themselves with bows and arrows, calling them “good weapons, not wisely laid aside.” He gave six reasons:
- “Because a man may shoot as truly with a bow as with a common musket.”
- “He can discharge four arrows in the time of charging and discharging one bullet.”
- “His object is not taken from his view by the smoke of his own side.”
- “A flight of arrows, seen coming upon them, terrifies and disturbs the enemy’s attention to his business.”
- “An arrow striking in any part of a man puts him hors de combat till it is extracted.”
- “Bows and arrows are more easily provided everywhere than muskets and ammunition.”
Franklin also recommended resurrecting the pike. His ideas weren’t used, but they were debated seriously even decades later. One theorist calculated that in a battle at Tournay on May 22, 1794, 1,280,000 balls had been discharged, an average of 236 musket shots to disable each casualty. “Here then, evidently appears in favour of the bow, in point of certainty of its shot, of no less than upwards of twenty to one.”
Franklin may have been used to being disregarded in military matters. In 1755 he’d suggested using dogs as scouts, “every dog led in a slip string, to prevent them tiring themselves by running out and in, and discovering the party by barking at squirrels.”
In 1973, Sheldon Klein of the University of Wisconsin programmed a computer to write a 2,100-word mystery story in 19 seconds:
Wonderful smart Lady Buxley was rich. Ugly oversexed Lady Buxley was single. John was Lady Buxley’s nephew. Impoverished irritable John was evil. Handsome oversexed John Buxley was single. John hated Edward. John Buxley hated Dr. Bartholomew Hume. Brilliant Hume was evil. Hume was oversexed. Handsome Dr. Bartholomew was single. Kind easygoing Edward was rich. Oversexed Lord Edward was ugly. Lord Edward was married to Lady Jane. Edward Liked Mary Jane. Edward was not jealous. Lord Edward disliked John. Pretty jealous Jane liked Lord Edward. …
The plots tend to be haphazard and the narrative unsophisticated … but in this example the butler did it. Perhaps Klein was onto something.
Connecticut inventor Richard Hemmings patented this “improvement in velocipede” in 1869. If I understand his description aright, the feet aren’t used at all: The operator sits in a saddle and turns a hand crank, which drives the inner wheels and imparts motion to the surrounding “traction wheel.”
“In starting the velocipede, the first movement is given by the operator’s running or walking a short distance on the ground while astrike the saddle,” Hemmings writes, worryingly. “When a start is thus obtained, the motion is readily continued by turning the pulleys E with the hands.”
“When the weight is below the centre, and the feet near the ground, and always free, very little difficulty is experienced in balancing and guiding the machine; and, as numerous experiments have proved, the ease with which it is worked and the velocity obtained render it quite equal, if not superior to any velocipede in use, while the expense of constructing them is far less.”
He says nothing about steering.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe … and presumably she needed to take her kids for a stroll occasionally. Iowa inventory George Clark patented this “child’s carriage” in 1884. The shoe is fitted with a lace cord, h, so that “the child or doll may be placed in the carriage and then held securely in place without danger of falling out.”
“If desired, the carriage may be provided with an umbrella, o.”
Norman Bel Geddes announced big plans in 1932: Air Liner Number 4, a gigantic V-winged flying boat with a wingspan of 528 feet, more than twice that of today’s 777. Twenty 1900-horsepower engines would carry it through the air at 100 mph and an altitude of only 5,000 feet while 451 passengers ranged over nine decks containing 180 apartments, three kitchens, three private dining rooms, an orchestra platform, a gym, six shuffleboard courts, a dance floor, a library, separate solaria for men and women, a writing room, and a promenade deck. The 155-person crew included two telephone operators, 24 waiters, two masseuses, a manicurist, and a gymnast.
The plane was “not ‘big’ for the sake of being big,” Bel Geddes insisted, but he pointed out that
if it were possible to stand her upon one wing tip against the Washington Monument, she would lack only 23 feet of reaching the top. Or imagine that the Public Library was removed from its site in Bryant Park at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, New York. The plane could then settle comfortably in the park with a clearance of about 35 feet all around.
The craft had a range of 7,500 miles, and it would be supported on the water by two enormous pontoons, 60 feet high and designed “substantially as the hull of a yacht, in order to withstand tremendous pounding when the plane rests on a rough sea.” In the end it was never built, but it may have helped inspire Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose.”
Thomas Edison popularized the word hello. Working in AT&T’s Manhattan archives in 1987, Brooklyn College classics professor Allen Koenigsberg unearthed a letter that Edison had written in August 1877 to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone in Pittsburgh. Edison wrote:
Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON
At the time it was thought that the line would remain open permanently, so a caller needed a way to get the other party’s attention. Apparently hello was a variation on the traditional hound call “Halloo!”
What should the answerer reply? Alexander Graham Bell pressed for ahoy, but Edison equipped the first exchanges, so hello gained the ascendancy there too.
That’s all it took — by 1880 the word was everywhere. “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Koenigsberg told the New York Times. “If you think about it, why didn’t Stanley say hello to Livingston? The word didn’t exist.”
A Paris inventor patented this “cynophere,” or dog-powered velocipede, in 1875.
Twelve years later, a Cleveland designer offered this “motor for street-cars.” That’s progress.
The following is an account of the post-mortem examination of the body of Mr. Robert Cocking, aged sixty-one, who fell with a suicidal machine called a parachute, from the cord of a balloon which ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, on the 24th of July, 1837. The height which the balloon had reached when the parachute commenced its descent, is stated to have been 5000 feet. The instrument of death was simply a canvas toy, constructed in ignorance, and used with the hardihood which might distinguish an unfortunate being who contemplated his own destruction by extraordinary and wonder-exciting means,– an end which, without the motive, was more effectually attained, by the crushing of the parachute in the air as it dropped:–
On the right side.–The second, third, fourth, and fifth ribs broken near their junction, with their cartilages. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth broken also near their junction with the vertebrae. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs also broken at their greatest convexity.
On the left side.–The second, third, fourth, and sixth ribs broken near their cartilages, and also near their angles.
The clavicle on the right side fractured at the junction of the external with the middle third.
The second lumbar vertebra fractured through its body; the transverse processes of several of the lumbar vertebrae broken.
Comminuted fracture and separation of the bones of the pelvis at the sacro-iliac symphyses.
The ossa nasi fractured.
The right ankle dislocated inwards; the astragalus and os calcis fractured.
The viscera of the head, chest, and abdomen free from any morbid appearances.
F.C. Finch, G. Macilwain, W. Maugham, T. Greenwood, W. Thompson, surgeons
– Lancet, Aug. 5, 1837
Inventor E.M. Waring patented a novel forerunner of the vacuum cleaner in 1914. Rather than an electric motor, his “suction cleaning apparatus” was powered by bellows strapped to the operator’s feet:
An apparatus of this kind presents the advantage that the operation thereof happens wholly instinctively, so to speak, and the operator is at liberty to give the entire attention to the handling of the cleaning nozzle and to the object to be cleaned.
He also envisioned a dust bag made of cheesecloth, “permitting passage of the air but retaining the dust.” Kudos.
In 1912, after decades of performing, Lillian Russell perfected a transportable trunk that opens into a fully equipped dresser with cosmetics, mirrors, and light fixtures:
The paramount objects of my invention are to provide a trunk with foldable devices that will permit of the trunk being used as a dresser; to afford means to quickly restoring the devices to a closed position, and to furnish means to rigidly securing the devices against accidental collapse when extended.
She intended it for use by touring actresses, but “I desire it to be understood that the same can be used by the traveling public and by campers.”
In the early 1970s, AI researcher James Meehan tried to teach a computer to retell Aesop’s fables. This was not always successful:
Once upon a time there was a dishonest fox and a vain crow. One day the crow was sitting in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth. He noticed that he was holding the piece of cheese. He became hungry, and swallowed the cheese. The fox walked over to the crow. The end.
Henry Ant was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. He was unable to call for help. He drowned.
One day Henry Crow sat in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth, when up came Bill Fox. Bill saw the cheese and was hungry. He said, ‘Henry, I like your singing very much. Won’t you please sing for me?’ Henry, flattered by this compliment, began to sing. The cheese fell to the ground. Bill Fox saw the cheese on the ground and was very hungry. He became ill. Henry Crow saw the cheese on the ground, and he became hungry, but he knew that he owned the cheese. He felt pretty honest with himself, so he decided not to trick himself into giving up the cheese. He wasn’t trying to deceive himself, either, nor did he feel competitive with himself, but he remembered that he was also in a position of dominance over himself, so he refused to give himself the cheese. He couldn’t think of a good reason why he should give himself the cheese, so he offered to bring himself a worm if he’d give himself the cheese. That sounded okay, but he didn’t know where any worms were. So he said to himself, ‘Henry, do you know where any worms are?’ But of course, he didn’t, so he …
“The program eventually ran aground for other reasons,” Meehan writes. “I was surprised it got as far as it did.”
This is clever — in 1885 Andrew Morrison proposed an aerial railway consisting of a series of balloons linked by cables. As each balloon in turn is raised, the passenger car rides down the wire to the next station.
“To render the car as light as possible, a gas-compartment, S, is formed on the top thereof, which, when filled with gas, overcomes by its buoyancy a part of the gravity of the car.”
Naturalist George Merryweather offered a gruesome new instrument at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851: He imprisoned 12 leeches in a ring of bottles, which he capped with whalebone levers. (The bottles were arranged in a circle so that the leeches “might see one another and not endure the affliction of solitary confinement.”) When a storm approached, the agitated leeches would climb the bottles, trip the levers, and ring a bell. The more agitated this “jury of philosophical councilors,” the more frequently the bell sounded, and the more likely a storm.
After a year of experiments, Merryweather claimed great success — among other feats, the “leech barometer” foretold the disastrous storm of October 1850 51 hours before it took place. “I may here observe,” Merryweather wrote, “that I could cause a little leech, governed by its instinct, to ring Saint Paul’s great bell in London as a signal for an approaching storm.”
He proposed that the government install stations around the British coast, and nominated engineer William Reid to be inspector-general of leeches and meteorologist James Glaisher his second-in-command. Inexplicably, they turned him down. “After this,” opined Chambers’ Journal, “the Snail Telegraph looks not quite so outrageous an absurdity.”
John and Margaret Vivian declared bankruptcy in 1992, so they weren’t pleased when NationsBank sent them a dunning notice on a debt that had been discharged. The bank apologized, saying that a computer had generated the notice, but the Vivians received a second notice, then a third.
So Florida bankruptcy judge A. Jay Cristol held the computer in contempt of court:
ORDERED that the NationsBank computer, having been determined in civil contempt, is fined 50 megabytes of hard drive memory and 10 megabytes random access memory. The computer may purge itself of this contempt by ceasing the production and mailing of documents to Mr. and Mrs. Vivian.
The computer had no comment.
For the really determined alcoholic, in 1885 Herbert Jenner patented a liquor flask hidden in a book:
The ornamental covering [has] been made so as to entirely cover and conceal the flask from observation, and at the same time admit of ready access to its contents. … That portion of the covering representing the edges of the leaves of the book is covered with marbled paper or otherwise treated, so as to give a natural appearance.
Charmingly, the book is titled Legal Decisions.