Steps Ahead

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bruntons_Traveller.jpg

One early locomotive had legs. Scottish inventor William Brunton devised the “Mechanical Traveller” in 1813, giving it feet to grip the track on steep grades. It could creep forward at about 3 mph.

Popularly known as the “Grasshopper,” it hauled coal for about two years at the Newbottle Colliery until it ended its career with the first recorded railway disaster, a boiler explosion that killed 16 spectators. Brunton abandoned the project.

Inspiration

http://www.google.com/patents/US2948069

Here’s an odd invention from 1960, a “device for stimulating the mental processes,” patented by Darrell M. Johnson of Thomson, Ga. Johnson wanted to help people in creative but solitary occupations who feel inhibited “before a microphone, telephone, television camera or in other stimuli-lacking situation, or where the psychological environment is of a character to create tension and dissipate thought and concentration and thereby dispel the ability to create ideas.”

The answer, Johnson decided, is a lifelike human figure that seems to respond with intelligent interest when it detects a sound. The eyes glow and the eyelids move to create the impression of an active, encouraging listener. The dummy “may be inanimate but may be animated to portray a feeling of life, participation, and cooperation to thereby stimulate expression relative to the topic or subject under consideration with resultant improvement and intensity of such expression.”

Even outside a professional situation, users might find it helpful “when alone to obtain the resultant benefits as well as the release of pent up feelings, accompanying tensions, and emotions and the satisfaction obtained from such expression.” Here as elsewhere, I get the feeling that there’s a real human story behind this, but I suppose we’ll never know what it is.

Horsepower

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Impuls2.jpg

Before steam power became widespread, some locomotives were powered by horses on treadmills. This version, dubbed Impulsoria by Italian inventor Clemente Masserano, was driven by four horses that walked continuously at their best speed; a gearbox could be set to forward, reverse, or neutral.

The “horse locomotive” successfully climbed a hill at trials in London in 1850 and was displayed at the Great Exhibition the following year. It was hoped that a final version might reach 20 mph, outrunning the steam engines of the day, but mechanical engines soon surpassed it.

Hare Mail

https://books.google.com/books?id=VV1DAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA176#v=onepage&q&f=false

This drawing appeared in L’Illustration in May 1845 — it’s a “caniposte” railway that allegedly was used to carry express mail in Belgium. Two dogs are harnessed to a small wagon that runs on a narrow-gauge railway. They chase a stuffed hare, or, in “improved models,” a piece of raw meat.

Was this ever really used? “Despite evidence of the drawing, one has doubts!” writes J.R. Day in More Unusual Railways (1960). “Nevertheless the author has seen a large dog drawing a small cart in the streets of Salzburg, so perhaps it is not so unlikely after all.”

02/18/2016 UPDATE: A reader in Bruges tracked down the original story and offers some details:

Two ‘eccentric’ Brits apparently found associates for the construction of such a railway, meant for the transport of fresh fish from the seaport of Blankenberge to Bruges (some 12 km or 7.5 miles). The standard configuration would have been 4 hungry dogs, 2 barrels of fish and one piece of meat hung out in front; a different one (depicted) would consist of 2 hungry dogs, express mail and a motorized (‘dead or stuffed’) hare.

The railway was proposed but never actually built. ‘Some will consider it barbaric, other deem it impossible, and everyone will find it ridiculous; but people wil get used to it, and very soon one will wonder how we never thought of it any earlier.’

(Thanks, Karl.)

Skyward

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_Incident_on_the_Western_Front_Art.IWMART2660.jpg

An aviators’ drinking song from World War I, from James Gilbert’s 1978 anthology Skywriting:

A young aviator lay dying
At the end of a bright summer’s day.
His comrades had gathered around him
To carry his fragments away.

The aeroplane was piled on his wishbone,
His Lewis was wrapped round his head,
He wore a spark plug in each elbow,
‘Twas plain he would shortly be dead.

He spat out a valve and a gasket
As he stirred in the sump where he lay,
And then to his wondering comrades
These brave parting words did he say:

“Take the manifold out of my larynx
And the butterfly valve off my neck.
Remove from my kidneys the camrods;
There’s a lot of good parts in this wreck.

“Take the piston rings out of my stomach,
And the cylinders out of my brain.
Extract from my liver the crankshaft,
And assemble the engine again.

“Pull the longeron out of my backbone,
The turnbuckle out of my ear,
From the small of my back take the rudder —
There’s all of your aeroplane here.”

Podcast Episode 93: The Old Flying Days

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27A_Balloon_in_Mid-Air%27_by_Jules_Tavernier,_1875.jpg

In the early days of English aviation, journalist C.C. Turner seemed to be everywhere, witnessing bold new feats and going on some harrowing adventures of his own. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Turner’s record of Edwardian aviation, including his own clumsy first attempt to fly an airplane and a record-setting balloon voyage to Sweden.

We’ll also ponder the nuances of attempted murder and puzzle over a motel guest’s noisemaking.

See full show notes …

Storm Warning

https://www.google.com/patents/US1046533

How do you design a burglar alarm for people who can’t hear? Arnold Zukor came up with this solution in 1912 — when the burglar opens a door or window, a system of racks and gears opens a faucet and sprays the occupant through a nozzle mounted over the bed. “Alarm is thus given.”

If you leave your house during the day, you can disable the door alarm and direct the nozzle outside. Then if the window is opened, the flow of water will be visible from a distance, “indicating thereby the entrance of unauthorized persons into the building.”

Enlightenment

https://pixabay.com/en/fire-easter-easter-fire-flame-717504/

Biologist F.W. Went points out that the physical size of human beings was a critical factor in their mastery of fire. Any flame must maintain a certain size in order to sustain the ignition temperature of its fuel, and a wood or coal fire in particular radiates so much heat that it must maintain a fairly large critical mass in order to keep burning; a small fire will go out.

“Interestingly enough,” Went writes, “a wood or coal fire above the critical size produces just the right amount of heat to warm man in a cave, or a room, or a camping site. But ants or small rodents would have to keep too far away to make a fire economical, or rather, they would be unable to bring up enough wood to keep the fire going. Therefore in an ant society fire is not an economical possibility, and they have developed without its benefits, by operating only while outside temperatures are within the physiological range. Man on the other hand has been able to move into very cold areas by using fire.”

“Man, with his remarkable brain, developed the use of fire, but … only a creature of man’s size could effectively control that fire,” writes Peter S. Stevens in Patterns in Nature (1974). “It happens that a small campfire is the smallest fire that is reliable and controllable. A still smaller flame is too easily snuffed out and a larger one too easily gets out of control. Prometheus was just large enough to feed the flames and to keep from getting burnt.”

(F.W. Went, “The Size of Man,” American Scientist, 56:4 [Winter 1968], 400-413.)

The Qattara Depression Project

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:All_proposed_routes.PNG

In 1957 the CIA proposed a novel way to bring peace to the Middle East: Flood Egypt’s Qattara Depression with seawater from the Mediterranean. The depression is below sea level and currently an arid waste; connecting it to the sea with giant tunnels or canals would transform it into a lagoon that would be renewed perpetually as the water evaporated, creating a continuous flow would produce endless hydroelectricity for the region.

The idea had begun with John Ball, English director of the Survey of Egypt, in 1927. In presenting it to Dwight Eisenhower, the CIA observed that the lagoon would be “spectacular and peaceful,” that it would “materially alter the climate in adjacent areas,” and that it would “provide work during construction and living areas after completion for the Palestinian Arabs.”

Eisenhower turned it down, but the project has never fallen entirely off the drawing board. In the early 1970s German hydraulic engineer Friedrich Bassler proposed detonating more than 200 nuclear bombs to excavate the canal, which would have meant displacing 25,000 evacuees. That proposal was turned down for ecological reasons, but another solution might yet be found.

See Atlantropa and Dam Ambitious.

Down in Front

https://www.google.com/patents/US1517774

In 1924, as today, it was troublesome and embarrassing to have to excuse your way down a row of theater patrons to get to your seat. Massachusetts inventor Louis Duprey offered this improvement: The whole auditorium is built atop a “loading compartment” where each patron can take his seat, which is then raised on a giant plunger into the theater.

During a performance, any seat occupant may depart by merely turning the handpiece, causing the seat to be lowered into the lobby or loading compartment, and in like manner he may again re-enter the auditorium without in any wise disturbing, or interfering with the view of, other patrons.

A side benefit is that “in case of fire or other panic” all the seats can be lowered into the loading chamber, which is fireproof and designed to accommodate an orderly mass exit. You can even retrieve your hat from the underside of the trapdoor as you take your leave.