The Nyctograph
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Carroll was a poor sleeper and did a lot of thinking in bed. The notes he made in the dark often turned out to be illegible the next day, but he didn’t want to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp in order to scribble a few lines.

So in 1891 he invented the nyctograph, a card containing a grid of cells that could guide his writing in the dark, using a peculiar alphabet he invented for the purpose:

carroll nyctograph alphabet

“I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “each to hold one letter (quarter of an inch square I found a very convenient size), but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’ I soon found that, to make the writing easy to read, it was necessary to know where each square began. This I secured by the rule that every square-letter should contain a large black dot in the N.W. corner. … [I] succeeded in getting 23 of [the square letters] to have a distinct resemblance to the letters they were to represent.”

“All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. Think of the number of lonely hours a blind man often spends doing nothing, when he would gladly record his thoughts, and you will realise what a blessing you can confer on him by giving him a small ‘indelible’ memorandum-book, with a piece of paste-board containing rows of square holes, and teaching him the square-alphabet.”

Air Traffic

In 1963, New York inventor Einar Einarsson quietly patented a flying car.

The patent abstract is only two pages long. “The car, after traveling on land, may be easily converted for air travel by removing the stabilizers and wings and placing them in position on the outside of the vehicle. The road wheels may be raised and the propellers are now in position for operation. By suitable adjustment of the wings the car can take off, and when in the air the wings are further adjusted for cruising speed.”

I wonder if he built a prototype …

The Speed of Sound

When the Erie Canal was opened on Oct. 26, 1825, the fact was known in New York City, 425 miles away, within 81 minutes. This was before the advent of radio or telegraph. How was it done?

Cannons were placed along the length of the canal and the Hudson River, each within earshot of the last. When the crew of each cannon heard the boom of its upstream neighbor, it fired its own gun.

As a result, New Yorkers knew within an hour and half that they had a navigable route to the Great Lakes — the fastest news dispatch, to that date, in world history.

10/07/2013 Wait, that last bit ain’t right — Claude Chappe’s semaphore telegraph covered 120 miles in 9 minutes in 1792. (Thanks, Michael and Lorcan.)

Spray Ain’t

Henry Hunt’s “graffiti prevention apparatus,” patented in 1997, offers a novel way to keep city walls clean: Paint manufacturers would mix magnetic material into their products, and a sensor near each building would sense when a vandal was near.

“When a proximity sensor on, or in the vicinity of, the structure is triggered by an approaching intruder, a magnetic field created along the targeting surface acts to repel the spray of marking media directed at it.”

Alternatively, the sensor would direct a signal to the spray-paint can, turning the nozzle away from the wall or shutting off the flow of paint. But I guess the spray-paint manufacturers would all have to participate … and vandals may be their biggest market.

Power Clubs

From the Strand, January 1900: As a novel entertainment, George W. Patterson of Chicago fitted a pair of Indian clubs with electric lights powered by a custom-built 35-pound battery. “To give a display the room is darkened, and Mr. Patterson, taking his stand in front of the audience, turns on the current and swings the clubs with the most wonderful results.” The time of these exposures is 5-10 seconds:

“We notice two distinct ‘O’s,’ with a very thick outer circle or ring. This larger circle is produced by a thirty-two candle-power, fifty volt lamp which is usually run on 110 volts, fixed to the tip of each club. Some idea of the power of these two lights, which are necessary to make the figures, may be gauged from the fact that they are too dazzling for the naked eye when lighted and stationary, and are so powerful that they are capable of illuminating an entire church or public hall of average size.”

“A pretty design produced by lighted clubs in a darkened hall is seen in our third photograph. The clubs are always swung to music, so that the effect to the audience is still more pleasing. The patterns or figures which may be obtained by the swinging of the clubs are almost infinite in variety. The lights on the clubs are under the control of an operator behind the scenes, who turns on and off the lights of both clubs by means of a switchboard.”

“In order to produce such a charming picture as seen in our next photograph, the clubs, of course, have to be swung fairly rapidly. Indeed, it would be impossible to obtain so many circles with one pair of clubs unless they are swung quickly, while the grace and style of the whole effect speak volumes for Mr. Patterson’s ability as a club-swinger. His club swinging has rightly been termed ‘poetry in motion.'”

“A complication” and a “running figure.” “Although this kind of electrical display with Indian clubs is entirely new so far as the public is concerned, Mr. Patterson has given much time and thought to the subject, and his entertainments have not reached their present high degree of excellence and novelty without a great deal of patient study of that vast and marvellous subject which we call electricity.”

Duck Doom

James Savaria’s “hand-held decoy and hunter shield,” patented in 1996, is pretty straightforward: You hold up an oversized silhouette of a game fowl and peer through a screen at your quarry. It can be held with a handgrip or planted in the ground.

It seems just as promising as the alternatives.

Aloft Over London

Vincenzo Lunardi undertakes the first aerial voyage in England, Sept. 14, 1784:

When the thermometer was at fifty, the effect of the atmosphere and the combination of circumstances around, produced a calm delight, which is inexpressible, and which no situation on earth could give. The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful. My horizon seemed a perfect circle; the terminating line several hundred miles in circumference. This I conjectured from the view of London; the extreme points of which, formed an angle of only a few degrees. It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it. I could distinguish Saint Paul’s and other churches, from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous beehive, but the industry of it was suspended. All the moving mass seemed to have no object but myself, and the transition from suspicion, and perhaps contempt of the preceding hour, to the affectionate transport, admiration and glory of the present moment, was not without its effect on my mind. I recollected the puns on my name, and was glad to find myself calm. I had soared from the apprehensions and anxieties of the Artillery Ground, and felt as if I had left behind me all the cares and passions that molest mankind.

See Eavesdropping.

One Last Thrill

In 2010 Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas designed the Euthanasia Coaster, a 7,500-meter roller coaster designed to kill its riders. After a 2-minute climb to the top of the drop tower, the 24 riders plunge 500 meters into a series of seven loops designed to subject them to 10 g for 60 seconds. This forces the blood away from their brains, causing first euphoria, then loss of consciousness and finally death by cerebral hypoxia.

Here’s what that looks like if you don’t black out:

When the train returns to the station, the corpses are unloaded and a new group of passengers can board. Urbonas says, “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies, and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”

Heaven’s Domain

In April 2005, when the Vatican began to seek a successor to John Paul II, technology author Rogers Cadenhead registered the domain names,,,,, and, hoping that the new pope would take one of these names.

“Someone else already has and,” he wrote on his blog, “but otherwise I put a chip down on every name of the past three centuries.”

When Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI, “I felt like my horse had come in first at the Kentucky races,” he told CNN. As owner of the new pope’s domain, he made a few requests, including:

  1. Three days, two nights at the Vatican hotel.
  2. “One of those hats.”
  3. Complete absolution, no questions asked, for the third week of March 1987.

“Whatever decision I make will be guided by the desire not to make 1.5 billion people mad at me … including my grandmother,” he told the Washington Post. As I write this, the domain appears to be unused — perhaps they’re still negotiating.

Space Saver

This kitchen cabinet dates from 1895, but it’s as ruthlessly efficient as any modern appliance. The steel frame holds containers for flour, meal, spices, and condiments, and it’s fitted with an egg beater on the left, a coffee grinder on the right, sifting screens, and a scale. Inventor Michael Shanley even stood the whole thing in two cups of water to keep bugs from reaching the meal.

Under the counter is a tiny forlorn drawer marked Miscellaneous. What’s in there?