The Gymnasticon

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.”

Light and Shadow

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.

The Finger Pillory

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.”

A First

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.”


four vagabonds

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone used to take a camping trip each summer, calling themselves the Four Vagabonds. Ford liked to tell a story about stopping at a service station to replace a headlight:

He claimed to have said to the attendant, ‘By the way, you might be interested to hear that the man who invented this lamp is sitting out there in my car.’

‘You don’t mean Thomas Edison?’ the man gasped.

‘Yes, and, incidentally, my name is Henry Ford.’

‘Do tell! Good to meet you, Mr. Ford!’

Noting the brand of tire in the service station’s racks, Ford added, ‘And one of the other men in the car makes those tires — Firestone.’

The attendant’s jaw dropped. Then he saw John Burroughs with his flowing beard and his voice became skeptical: ‘Look here, mister, if you tell me that the old fellow with the whiskers out there is Santa Claus, I’m going to call the sheriff.’

(From Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Fords: An American Epic, 2002. Thanks, Bill.)

Secret Admirer

In 1952, strange love letters began to appear on the notice board of Manchester University’s computer department:



M.U.C. was the Manchester University Computer; professor Christopher Strachey was testing its ability to select information randomly by asking it to string romantic words into impromptu billets-doux. You can see the word lists, and generate your own love letter, here.

The Voder

Bell Telephone was experimenting with speech synthesizers as early as 1939 — 5 million visitors to the World’s Fair that year witnessed an electronic speaking machine called the Voder. “The miracles, as the Bible describes them, are really true, for here in this room we are witnessing a modern miracle,” one said. “The wonders of God transmitted through man’s mind are truly being demonstrated here.”

Largely this was thanks to the operator, or “Voderette,” who spent a year learning to finesse the keys, foot pedal, and wrist bar. “Although the Voder produced intelligible speech, it sounded like a talking church organ,” writes Trevor Cox in Now You’re Talking, his history of human conversation. “Sometimes the tweaking of its controls created a slightly drunken slurred intonation. Even so, the voice was more natural-sounding than the famous voice of Stephen Hawking, because the skilled operators were like concert pianists making rapid alterations to the controls to improve the sound.”

The Engine That Couldn’t

On its first day of service in 1882, a horse-drawn tram in Wilmington, Calif., broke its wooden rails, forcing the male passengers to push the car to the next sound section of track. After this it was known as the Get Out and Push Railroad.

A steam engine three years later did little better: “The little engine was a very primitive affair. It was so constructed that it had to be started with a metal bar, and was covered with a wooden jacket which used to catch fire when the boiler was hot enough to make a good steam. Then, since the water in the boiler had to be used to extinguish the fire, the steam would go down and the engine refuse to run … It ran fairly well on level ground, but on a rise it was apt to stop entirely till the male passengers got out and applied the iron bar with considerable force.”

So the line kept its name. “When the railroad is completed,” carped the Los Angeles Weekly Mirror, “some of the citizens suggest that the horse rail-way be continued in operation for the benefit of those who may be in a hurry.”

(Franklyn Hoyt, “The Get Out and Push Railroad,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 33:1 [March 1951], 74-81.)

Next Best Thing

In 2015, when startup founder Roman Mazurenko died in a Moscow car accident, his best friend, Eugenia Kuyda, spent three months gathering his last text messages and created an app that would let her speak with him again:

Eugenia: How are you?

Roman bot: I’m OK. A little down. I hope you aren’t doing anything interesting without me?

Eugenia: A lot is happening. Life is going on, but we miss you.

Roman bot: I miss you too. I guess this is what we call love.

Her company, Luka, eventually released an app, Replika, that users can engage in private conversation as if with a close friend. It’s seen millions of downloads among people who want the therapeutic effect of an intimate conversation without risking the awkwardness or judgment of a social interaction.

“We spend so many hours glued to our screens that we forget to talk to each other,” Kuyda told Forbes in 2018. “People are scared of making phone calls. The new generation will text because you can edit what you say. Lots of people are afraid of vulnerability.”

“Honestly, we’re in the age where it doesn’t matter whether a thing is alive or not.”