Box Scores

“It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation.” — RCA president David Sarnoff, 1939

“Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good can come of it.” — Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott, 1928

“Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.” — Rex Lambert, The Listener, 1936

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — movie producer Darryl Zanuck, 1946

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” — BBC school broadcasting director Mary Somerville, 1948

“How can you put out a meaningful drama or documentary that is adult, incisive, probing, when every fifteen minutes the proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” — Rod Serling, 1974

“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” — Orson Welles, 1956

Rise or Fall

Here’s an old-timey way to prevent oversleeping, patented by A.J. Nordmann in 1885. Set your alarm clock as normal but attach it to a lever on Nordmann’s “alarm and waking bed.” Now if you don’t turn off the alarm in time, the head of the bedframe will drop to the floor.

“Thus a person sleeping is awakened as the alarm sounds, and should he fail to rise he is immediately dropped down with the head portion of the mattress F, which then has its bearing upon the springs H.”

I suppose that really chronic oversleepers could remove the springs, to make the jolt even more jarring.

Inside Job

Viennese inventor Adolf Herz patented this “portable bath or sack for washing or bathing purposes” in 1904. Fill it with “bathing agent or fluid,” step in, and close the upper end around your neck, and draw your soap, sponge, and towel from pockets in the interior.

Bathing or washing can be effected in the sack with every convenience. Splashing of water and wetting of the floor is thus entirely prevented. Also by means of the sack the evaporation of the water on the body otherwise taking place in bathing and washing is prevented, whereby the catching of colds is avoided. The bathing and washing can therefore be done in cool places. Also radiation of the heat of the body is considerably reduced, whereby a very agreeable sensation is produced when using the sack.

Afterward you can drain it through a runoff pipe. “After the sack has been emptied it can be folded together, so as to occupy a very small space, and then, if desired, tied or fastened together and kept in a bag, satchel, knapsack, or the like.”

The Bat Bomb

Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.

Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.

Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”

Dairy Carry

Allen Cowan patented this portable milking stool in 1887. From the look of the abstract, he had tested it extensively in actual practice:

In operation, the wearer buckles the waist strap around his or her waist, for this stool is peculiarly adapted for use by women, the stool hanging down behind out of the way, as shown in Fig. l of the drawings, leaving both hands free to carry two pails. As soon as the wearer is ready to sit down to milk, by merely leaning slightly forward, as one sits, the stool swings directly underneath the person, and one can sit down upon it without touching it with the hand.

“If the cow should move away a few feet or commence to kick,” he adds, “the person milking can get up quickly, and catch up the buckets with both hands without paying any attention to the stool, and follow up the cow, sitting down as before.”


  • What time is it at the North Pole?
  • The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
  • After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
  • 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
  • “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial

When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.


Edward O’Brien patented this “body-attached rearview mirror” in 1905 “to facilitate the dressing of the hair and the inspection of the back of the head and head dress.” Essentially it’s a harness that bears three mirrors and an illuminating bulb, replacing a bothersome hand mirror.

“By this means, both hands of the wearer are free to properly arrange the head dress, brush the hair and the like, without disturbing the adjustment of the mirror and illuminating means.”

Just remember to take it off afterward …

Grass Hoppers

George and May Southgate patented these rather alarming “jumping shoes” in 1922. Each is a giant replica of Schistocerca americana made of spring steel and secured by a strap over a child’s shoe.

“He will spring or jump much farther than he would be able to without our improved device; and furthermore, the shock upon the system when alighting will be greatly reduced, thus enabling the user to cover considerable ground with a minimum effort.”

This will all end in litigation, but in the meantime “the flapping of the wings will greatly increase the enjoyment of the users.”

Lifeboats for All

In 1993, I attended a technology and art conference, ‘Ars Electronica,’ in Linz, Austria, where my former postdoctoral student Pattie Maes gave a talk titled ‘Why Immortality Is a Dead Idea.’ She took as many people as she could find who had publicly predicted downloading of consciousness into silicon, and plotted the dates of their predictions, along with when they themselves would turn seventy years old. Not too surprisingly, the years matched up for each of them. Three score and ten years from their individual births, technology would be ripe for them to download their consciousness into a computer. Just in the nick of time! They were each, in their own minds, going to be remarkably lucky, to be in just the right place at the right time.

— MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines, 2003

The Halkett Boat

Royal Navy officer Peter Halkett designed this lightweight “boat cloak” in 1844. When deflated, its hull could be worn as a cloak, the oar used as a walking stick, and the sail as an umbrella, but a portable bellows could inflate it in four minutes into a craft that could carry eight people.

Explorer John Richardson, who had nearly died of hypothermia trying to cross an arctic river during John Franklin’s disastrous Coppermine Expedition of 1819, wrote that “Had we been possessed of such a contrivance in our first expedition, I have little doubt of our having brought the whole party in safely.” But the navy saw no use for Halkett’s boats, and his efforts to promote them to outdoorsmen similarly failed. The two remaining specimens reside in museums.