Industrial Devolution

In 1830 engineer James Nasmyth visited England’s Black Country:

The earth seems to have been turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder-heaps and mounds of scoriae. The coal, which has been drawn from below ground, is blazing on the surface. The district is crowded with iron furnaces, puddling furnaces, and coal-pit engine furnaces. By day and by night the country is glowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hovers over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered with smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving about amongst the glowing iron and the dull thud of forgehammers.

Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted. The ground underneath them had sunk by the working out of the coal, and they were falling to pieces. They had in former times been surrounded by clumps of trees; but only the skeletons of them remained, dilapidated, black, and lifeless. The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphureous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly gray — the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect. Vulcan had driven out Ceres. In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no! the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains, which were placed in small tunnels beneath the hedgeless road.

He added: “I sat down on an elevated part of the ruins, and looked down upon the extensive district, with its roaring and blazing furnaces, the smoke of which blackened the country as far as the eye could reach; and as I watched the decaying trees I thought of the price we had to pay for our vaunted supremacy in the manufacture of iron. We may fill our purses, but we pay a heavy price for it in the loss of picturesqueness and beauty.”

Things to Come

We can foresee the development of machinery that will make it possible to consult information in a library automatically. Suppose that you go into the library of the future and wish to look up ways for making biscuits. You will be able to dial into the catalogue machine ‘making biscuits.’ There will be a flutter of movie film in the machine. Soon it will stop, and, in front of you on the screen, will be projected the part of the catalogue which shows the names of three or four books containing recipes for biscuits. If you are satisfied, you will press a button; a copy of what you saw will be made for you and come out of the machine.

After further development, all the pages of all books will be available by machine. Then, when you press the right button, you will be able to get from the machine a copy of the exact recipe for biscuits that you choose.

— Edmund Callis Berkeley, Giant Brains, 1949

He adds, “We are not yet at the end of foreseeable development. There will be a third stage. You will then have in your home an auto­matic cooking machine operated by program tapes. You will stock it with various supplies, and it will put together and cook whatever dishes you desire. Then, what you will need from the library will be a program or routine on magnetic tape to control your automatic cook. And the library, instead of producing a pictorial copy of the recipe for you to read and apply, will produce a routine on magnetic tape for controlling your cooking machine so that you will actually get excellent biscuits!”

Apple Cheeks

Richard Tweddell III patented this “method and apparatus for molding fruits” in 1987. While fruit is growing on a plant, you enclose it in a transparent mold. As the fruit gets larger, it gradually fills the cavity “and in doing so conforms with remarkable fidelity to the internal details of the mold.” He sells it pretty well:

They can be caused to grow in the image of a particular person; in the shape of a different type of produce (e.g., a summer squash grown in the shape of an ear of corn); a fanciful shape such as a heart, or a bottle of pop; or other simple or even quite detailed shapes. A zucchini in the likeness of Clark Gable, for example, complete with mustache, would be no ordinary sight on the dinner table. Similarly, a Christmas tree ornament formed of a small, configured gourd is a very distinctive novelty.

Well, that’s true. Tweddell also suggests that turkey-shaped fruit might be enjoyed at Thanksgiving, or pumpkin-shaped fruit at Halloween. And “the invention also makes possible the concept of molding the logo of, say, a pickle company, directly into the side of a pickle itself.”

Special Delivery

Gerald Nordeen’s “fishing apparatus,” patented in 1972, eliminates all the tedious fighting that goes with a conventional rod and reel. When he gets a bite, the fisherman simply opens a valve in the rod handle and pressurized gas runs through the hollow fishing line to inflate a balloon attached to the float.

“Due to the lift of the balloon the entire float assembly will be lifted out of the water and into the air, urging the catch, if one is on the hook, toward the top of the water. The fisherman may then reel in his catch.”

A Portable Dip

Robert Gildea’s “water lounge,” patented in 1975, brings a pool to your patio:

Swimming pools are not only cumbersome and expensive but require open space where they are located. The ever increasing problem of accidents around such devices is also of concern. While the public has long sought a more convenient and less expensive device for cooling the body in the summer time, no such devices have been introduced. A device much smaller than the traditional swimming pool having the same general beneficial characteristics without the detrimental ones has long been sought.

The answer is to turn the lounge into a basin that can be filled from a hose. An umbrella “prevents the water from rapidly rising in temperature, which makes the water lounge more refreshing.”

Back to Nature

This one’s pretty straightforward. David Leslie’s “wearable device for feeding and observing birds,” patented in 1999, is essentially a helmet mounted with three poles, each bearing a bird feeder. “When flying animals feed from the feeders, a person wearing the hat may observe them from a short distance.”

The helmet can also be fitted with magnifying glasses and videocameras. One wonders what the birds think of this.

For the Fan

Catching a fly ball can be intimidating, so in 1993 Douglas Munoz invented a baseball cap that can be converted instantly into a glove.

“It is anticipated that the brim may assist the wearer in catching by extending the wearer’s reach.”


Patented in 1884, John Nelson’s “device for frightening rats and mice” is the lowest of low tech:

The said invention consists in printing the figure of a cat on cardboard having several coats of illuminating paint arranged so that the figure will shine in the dark; and, furthermore, in perfuming said figure with peppermint, which is obnoxious to rats and mice, and thus the device will have the effect to drive away these rodents.

For all I know it worked. If not, users could escalate to this solution, patented two years earlier.

Enfant Terrible

Anthony Peronti wasn’t messing around when he designed this baby carriage, a sheet-metal torpedo with welded fenders and a tanklike tread:

With the above described construction I have provided a baby carriage which will move easily and quietly over any type of surface and by virtue of the flexibility of the springs, curbstones, door-steps and other minor obstacles can be negotiated without tilting the body of the carriage and with a minimum of jarring or discomfort to the passenger.

He filed the patent in November 1945, so perhaps he’d been inspired by the battlefield.