Who’s Serving Who?

This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.

On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”

“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”

08/29/2020 UPDATE: The answer to “Can robots trust humans?” is no: When hitchBOT tried to cross the United States in 2015, it was stripped and decapitated in Philadelphia. (Thanks, Vadas.)

Church Work


By 1905 parts of Winchester Cathedral were in danger of collapse — the 13th-century builders had rested their structure on a bed of peat, which had been sinking under continuous pressure of 40 tons per square foot. In order to shore up the building, diver William Walker was enlisted to work in the church’s flooded foundations, replacing the peat with sacks and bricks of concrete.

Walker worked in total darkness for more than five years, from 1906 to 1911, handling an estimated 25,800 bags of concrete and 114,900 concrete blocks while wearing a suit that weighed nearly 200 pounds. “In addition,” notes the cathedral’s booklet, “as he was working in a graveyard, there was some risk of infection. However, Walker seems to have regarded his pipe as his sovereign remedy against all possible ills and immediately on his return to the surface, he always lit his pipe.”

As he worked, the business of the cathedral went on as usual. A journalist for the Standard described the scene in 1906: “The last Amen is sung, and the choir and clergy pass slowly and silently into the vestry. Outside the foreman blows his whistle. The great helmet of the diver with its staring goggle eyes, appears above the brink of the shaft, and the diver is helped out of his slimy, dripping shell. And soon choristers and workmen mingle beneath the shadow of the Cathedral.”

When the work was completed in 1912 Walker received the thanks of the king and was appointed a member of the Royal Victorian Order. During World War I a memorial tablet was laid in his honor on the cathedral’s west wall, and a statue of the diver was unveiled in 1964. On a BBC memorial program in 1956, Walker’s assistant William West was asked to remember him. “I think his habits was like mine,” he said. “He was fond of a smoke and when he come up, spell sometime, somebody told him about germs, which didn’t worry him. And he say: ‘Where’s my pipe? Don’t lay it down there.'”

Going Places


German engineer Robert Michael patented this “curved shoe” in 1905. It’s intended to increase the length of each stride “to serve for the quick forward movement of people in walking.”

It also beats bicycles because it won’t sink into rough ground. “The user can in walking use a stick as in walking with snow shoes.”

You’ve Got Mail

A great deal of the work of the post office would then be to regulate the use of these personal television channels. Much of the information now sent by mail could be sent through the air on the personal channel, to be viewed in the home or to be printed out for a more or less permanent record. …

Very likely there will be a signal light to indicate that a message is waiting to be viewed. When the personal channel is then activated, each item stored will be displayed in turn. Each can be scanned and erased, scanned and temporarily returned to storage, or scanned and printed out, after which the next item would appear. It will be very much like going through one’s mail today, with its mixture of personal items and advertising, in which some are discarded, some put aside, and some filed.

— Isaac Asimov, “The Individualism to Come,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 1973

Leonardo’s Robot


In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci devised a mechanical knight that could sit up, open and close its arms, move its head on flexible neck, and open its visor. The plans have been lost, but we know it was made of wood, brass, and leather and operated by cables, possibly driven by a water wheel. The Duke of Milan displayed it at a pageant near the end of the 15th century, perhaps at the wedding of his niece.

Roboticist Mark Elling Rosheim built a working replica of the knight in 2002 using the sketches that remain, detailed in his book Leonardo’s Lost Robots. He thinks it may have been designed to accost an unwary visitor by remote control. “It is almost like something one would find in an old time amusement park, a piece for the scary haunted mansion or tunnel of love — or a labyrinth, which was the 16th century equivalent. The Knight would be excellent at grabbing someone with its arms in a bear hug. … Perhaps the visor would rise, revealing a hideously contorted, sculpted face.”

“Perhaps the great mystery surrounding this lost robot of Leonardo can be summed up by the master himself in the giant scrapbook known as the Codex Atlanticus. In the sheets for this project, we read an incomplete sentence with which Leonardo tried out his pen: ‘Tell me if ever, tell me if ever anything was built in Rome …’ Leonardo may be expressing his frustration and anxiety about a project near and dear to his heart that because of external pressures could not be born.”

Sky Writing


As telegraph lines began to appear along London’s railroads, they came to fascinate commuters. One wrote to the Illustrated London News to suggest that cornet lessons might now be given on the moving train.

“The medium of tuition will be the wires of the electric telegraph. On these, being five, notes will be fastened by non-conducting materials, and the pupils will play them as they travel. The andante movements will be placed close to the stations, where progress is slow, and the tunes will be so arranged as to finish at all the stoppages. These will be constantly changed, to extend the benefit to all classes: for instance, galoppes will be chosen for the express trains; sets of quadrilles for the stopping ones; and marches, or dirges, for the luggage trains. At the same time, the passengers, generally, will be diverted with agreeable harmony.”

Another commuter responded: “The great objection is, that the notes once passed could never be taken up again, and especially the high ones; for, before the pupil could get his lips to the necessary embouchure, he would be a mile beyond the bar. A non-musical friend, given to senseless ribaldry, suggests that fugues should be chosen for the music; because, as he says, those compositions never appear to have beginning, end, middle, or anything else, and may be commenced or left of anywhere with equal effect.”

He adds, “It would be better, sir, for you to confine yourself to practical improvements than ingenious but futile schemes. … After my entertainments given in the country, I am usually asked to supper by certain of the leading inhabitants, in gratitude for the amusement I have afforded them; and, from drinking healths, I rise next morning with a dizziness. And then, on my return to town, are the wires of the electric telegraph most dreadful. They go up and down, down and up, for miles and miles, until at last, seeing nothing else, I begin to think that they are stationary, and it is the carriage which is undulating; and this has such an effect, that I am as indisposed upon arriving at the terminus as if I had just crossed the Channel. A little care on the part of the directors can remedy this. Why cannot the wires be turned upright, like those of a piano?”

Bread Alone

chell hand guard

British ironmonger John Chell patented this “hand guard for use in cutting bread” in 1904. Each finger is enclosed in a steel helix that leaves it free to flex but protects it from a knife slip.

Presumably you could also use it to fight crime.

Small World


I don’t think this was ever built — in 1904 engineer Hiram Stevens Maxim designed an amusement with a rotating parabolic floor “for producing illusionary effects”:

With such a contrivance when persons enter the hollow sphere they will not be able to tell whether it is revolving or standing still and by reason of the parabolic floor, persons near the outer edge would, to the persons standing near the centre, appear to be walking with their heads directed inward. When the sphere revolves some curious phenomena will be obtained in walking outward and inward on such a floor, and the throwing of a ball from the centre outward and vice versa will move in an unexpected direction that will be very puzzling to the people in the sphere.

Fig. 3, below, shows the perspective from the edge of the floor as it rotates. If mirrors were positioned overhead, as in Fig. 4, “people could then be made to appear to be walking all over the inside of the sphere with their heads pointing inward and their feet pointing outward.”




Pauline Klaws patented this “appliance for assisting the hearing” in 1902. “It is designed to be worn at lectures, concerts, theaters, and meetings by persons having defective hearing and by the people generally who at such entertainments or meetings, particularly large meetings, are unable or have difficulty in hearing a speaker.”

By 1993 this had evolved into the version below, patented by Mark Tilkens, who found it “particularly useful in hunting of game such as deer, to enhance a person’s ability to hear noises which otherwise may be drowned out by background noise.”