Above: From Paris, 1927: a novelty car that can “sidle” into parking spaces.
Below: Someone was actually working on this in the 1950s (thanks, Martin):
A related puzzle from The Chicken From Minsk, Yuri B. Chernyak’s 1995 collection of math and physics problems: Why is it easier to parallel-park a (conventional) car by backing into the space rather than pulling in directly?
Imagine pulling out of the space. With the front wheels turned sharply to one side, the center of rotation is close to the car’s rear end; the front of the car swings out of the space, avoiding the car in front, and then the rear follows it. Because the center of rotation is so close to the rear of the car, it would be hard to back out of a tight space. Now play the scenario in reverse: By backing into the space, the driver is putting the least maneuverable end of the car into position first and can then rotate the rest into place.
This Victorian artificial arm and hand is in the collection of the London Science Museum. “The arm is amazingly versatile,” writes Ben Russell in Robots (2017). “The elbow can be locked in several positions, and the fingers articulated using a brass button in the wrist. It is also heavily decorated in the neo-Gothic style. Rather than being covered up, this arm would be out on view, making its wearer a true man-machine.”
Note that it’s a work in progress — the movements that have been animated are indicated with colored thumbnails. Owner Matt Keveney plans eventually to animate all 507 movements in Brown’s original text.
Tokyo has the world’s busiest train stations, handling 13 billion passenger trips a year. To keep things running smoothly it relies on some subtle features to manipulate passenger behavior.
Blue lights mounted discreetly at either end of a platform, the points at which prospective suicides contemplate leaping into the path of oncoming trains, have been associated with an 84 percent decline in such attempts.
Rail operator JR East commissioned composer Hiroaki Ide to replace the grating buzzer that used to signal a train’s departure with short, pleasant jingles known as hassha melodies. These have produced a 25 percent reduction in passenger injuries due to rushing.
Stations also disperse young people by playing 17-kilohertz tones that can generally only be heard by those under 25. And rail employees are trained to use the “point and call” method, shisa kanko, in executing tasks. Physically pointing at an object and verbalizing one’s intentions has been shown to reduce human error by as much as 85 percent.
Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison typed more than 1,700 works using a single finger of each hand. In 1999 Mike Keith set out to learn which words would be easiest for him to type. “Easy” means that successive letters are typed by alternate hands and that the hands travel as little as possible. (See the article for some other technicalities.)
Here are the easiest words of 4 to 13 letters; the score in parenthesis is the total linear distance traveled by the fingers, normalized by dividing by the length of the word (lower is better):
Here’s a surprisingly modern-looking exercise machine from 1796. Essentially it’s a set of flywheels turned by hand cranks and foot treadles; Francis Lowndes said he patented it “to give and apply motion and exercise, voluntary or involuntary, to the limbs, joints, and muscles of the human body.”
He claimed he’d successfully used it to treat gout, palsy, rheumatism, debility, and contraction, but he said it would be equally useful for healthy people in sedentary occupations, according to the Monthly Magazine: “The merchant, without withdrawing his attention from his accounts, and the student, while occupied in writing or reading, may have his lower limbs kept in constant motion by the slightest exertion, or by the assistance of a child.”
A striking paragraph from A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, Caroline Davidson’s 1982 history of housework in the British Isles:
One woman actually entered the nascent electrical industry in the 1870s. Pretending to be a man (she assumed the name of Charles Torr) she rose to become managing director of a large Birmingham firm called Winfield’s which produced ornamental brass-work, chandeliers and fittings suitable for interior electric lighting. She joined a dining society of electrical engineers called the ‘Dynamicables’ where many of the problems facing the new industry were discussed. She obviously had the vision to see electricity’s brilliant future, as well as a flair for business and exceptional talent for concealing her sex. For, in the early 1880s, she approached Rookes E.B. Crompton with a proposal that their two firms should go into partnership; Compton’s was to carry out lighting installations and Winfield’s was to supply the capital and fitments. Her plans were extremely grand: she wanted to apply for a Parliamentary act to light Birmingham and to sell electrical goods world-wide. However, after the two firms had co-operated for several years, Winfield’s ran into financial difficulties and Charles Torr committed suicide: only then did her colleagues learn her true sex.
I haven’t been able to learn anything more. Davidson cites Crompton’s Reminiscences of 1928, which is unfortunately rare.
Here’s a forgotten punishment. In the 17th century, in return for a minor offense such as not attending to a sermon, a wrongdoer might be required to place his finger into an L-shaped hole over which a block was fastened to keep the knuckle bent. “[T]he finger was confined, and it will easily be seen that it could not be withdrawn until the pillory was opened,” writes William Andrews in Medieval Punishments (1898). “If the offender were held long in this posture, the punishment must have been extremely painful.”
In his 1686 history of Staffordshire, Robert Plot recalls a “finger-Stocks” “made for punishment of the disorders, that sometimes attend feasting at Christmas time.” Into this “the Lord of misrule, used formerly to put the fingers of all such persons as committed misdemeanors, or broke such rules, as by consent were agreed on for the time of keeping Christmas, among servants and others of promiscuous quality.”
On Aug. 17, 1896, 44-year-old Bridget Driscoll was crossing Dolphin Terrace on the grounds of London’s Crystal Palace when she was struck and killed by a car belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company.
The car had been traveling at 4 mph, “a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine,” according to one witness.
After a six-hour inquest, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Coroner Percy Morrison said he hoped such a thing “would never happen again.”
When electricity first became widely available, it was hailed as marvel, more valuable even than a human servant. In a 1914 manual on using electricity in the home, Maud Lancaster wrote:
[I]t is always at hand; always willing to do its allotted task and do it perfectly silently, swiftly and without mess; never wants a day off, never answers back, is never laid up, never asks for a rise; in fact it is often willing to work for less money; never gives notice and does not mind working overtime; it has no prejudices and is prepared to undertake any duties for which it is adapted; it costs nothing when it is not actually doing useful work.
First, though, people had to learn to use it. In 1884, electrical engineer Rookes Crompton wrote, “At the recent Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition, a couple from the country asked the price of an incandescent lamp at one of the stalls, and being supplied with it for 5s., expended a box of matches in trying to light it, and then declared the whole thing was a swindle.”