Money Talks

Pay telephones appeared as early as 1889. William Gray patented this version, in which a coin dropped into a slot mechanically unlocks the hand crank. While he’s using the phone, the caller keeps the device unlocked by resting his arm on an armrest: “In case the first call is not answered from the central office the user of the telephone can, while keeping his arm upon the arm-rest and so holding the button uncovered, hang up the telephone m on the hook m’ and again call the central office by turning the crank b and pushing in the button in the usual manner.”

Vision and Taste

One way to look wise is to sit on the corner of your desk, chew on the stem of your glasses, and gaze ruminatively into the middle distance. But this can grow tedious as you wait for people to notice you. This improvement, suggested in 1990 by Adam S. Halbridge, might help:

It is believed that many adult wearers of eyeglasses … would enjoy having a desirable flavor imparted to them when they chew or suck upon the ends of the temple arms. … [M]any younger children and teen-agers … would also enjoy having a desirable flavor imparted to them if they chew on the temple arms of their sunglasses.

He proposes adding a chewable cap to each arm — flavored like cinnamon, jalapeno, licorice, or taffy for grownups, fruit or candy for children.

Better Safe

Nohl Braun’s “neonatal net,” patented in 1990, prevents any untoward accidents as you’re entering the world:

The neo-natal device of the present invention comprises, essentially, a net having connecting members on each side thereof adapted for connecting the net between the delivery table and the attending obstetrician, whereby the net is suspended over the space between the delivery table and the obstetrician, to thereby provide a safety net for catching the newborn infant in the event that the baby accidentally slips from the hands of the obstetrician.

This is particularly useful if the mother is whirling on a centrifuge.

Scent of Evil

Louis J. Marcone came up with a novel way to catch bank robbers in 1989: The teller might step on a trigger and surreptitiously spray the robber with “a non-toxic, clear, odorless and harmless liquid spray material which can be readily detected by trained police dogs.”

He envisioned a second application for the device: The spray unit could be attached to a fire alarm, so that anyone who pulled the alarm would be marked with the scent. “If the alarm was determined to be a false alarm, the fire department can alert police to bring trained police dogs to the scene, whereupon the dog can track the scent from the alarm location to the person activating the false alarm.”

A New Acquaintance

Fanny Kemble meets an early steam locomotive on the Liverpool-Manchester railway, Aug. 25, 1830:

We were introduced to the little engine which was to drag us along the rails. She (for they make these curious little fire horses all mares) consisted of a boiler, a stove, a platform, a bench, and behind the bench a barrel containing enough water to prevent her being thirsty for fifteen miles, the whole machine not bigger than a common fire engine. She goes upon two wheels, which are her feet, and are moved by bright steel legs called pistons; these are propelled by steam, and in proportion as more steam is applied to the upper extremities (the hip-joints, I suppose) of these pistons, the faster they move the wheels; and when it is desirable to diminish the speed, the steam, which unless suffered to escape would burst the boiler, evaporates through a safety valve into the air. The reins, bit, and bridle of this wonderful beast, is a small steel handle, which applies or withdraws the steam from its legs or pistons, so that a child might manage it. The coals, which are its oats, were under the bench, and there was a small glass tube affixed to the boiler, with water in it, which indicates by its fullness or emptiness when the creature wants water, which is immediately conveyed to it from its reservoirs. There is a chimney to the stove, but as they burn coke there is none of the dreadful black smoke which accompanies the progress of a steam vessel. This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat, was then harnessed to our carriage, and Mr. Stephenson having taken me on the bench of the engine with him, we started at about ten miles an hour.

Blind Justice

Paul Martineau came up with a novel self-defense method in 1990 — a wax capsule containing a concentrated solution of citric acid. If an assailant approaches you, you chew the capsule and spit the contents into his eyes.

Compared to other attack prevention methods, Martineau says, this one is “readily concealed, quick to use and … while effective, is not offensive to the user.”

Italian to Go

“[B]ecause of the nature of pasta dishes, it has not been practical to eat pasta products while strolling.” Patented in 1990, Nicholas Ruggieri’s “spaghetti sipper” solves this problem with a tidy, portable container:

A person eats the pasta by placing their mouth on the spout 23 or tube 13 and sucking up the pasta. When the desired amount of pasta is obtained, the person bites off the pasta and then consumes the pasta in the usual manner. When the pasta is cut, the pasta in the tube 13 or spout 23 is held in place by the pawl mechanism 14b, 24b. When the person wishes more pasta the sequence is repeated. By use of the pasta server 10, 20 of this invention a person can eat pasta while strolling and the like.

“To the pasta can be added as desired any of a number of sauces traditionally associated with pasta. These sauces typically enhance the lubricious properties of the pasta.”


In the early 1980s, William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter programmed a computer to write English prose at random. “The specifics of the communication in this instance would prove of less importance than the fact that the computer actually appeared to be communicating,” Chamberlain wrote. “Quite simply: what the computer said would be secondary to the fact that it said it correctly.”

Written in BASIC, RACTER (short for “raconteur”) ran on 64K of RAM. Its output, which strung together individual words according to programmed structures and rules of composition, was largely gibberish, but it could produce startling flashes of apparent lucidity:

More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.

Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters. That is interesting.

A crow is a bird, an eagle is a bird, a dove is a bird. They all fly in the night and in the day. They fly when the sky is red and when the heaven is blue. They fly through the atmosphere. We cannot fly. We are not like a crow or an eagle or a dove. We are not birds. But we can dream about them. You can.

A tree or shrub can grow and bloom. I am always the same. But I am clever.

And even the gibberish could be deep. RACTER’s first published work, Soft Ions, appeared in OMNI in November 1981. Its conclusion included some apparent nonsense about eating a leotard that was replenished by hordes of commissioners. But then the program reflected: “Is that thought understandable to you? … I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single horde, all are understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.”

A New Outlook

Resolving to improve yourself is easy; remembering your resolutions is hard. Faye Tanefsky came up with a novel solution in 1991: a pair of glasses imprinted with a subliminal message. Each lens bears a simple reinforcing image that’s in view all day long:

It has been found that when the glasses are first put on, the subject will notice the message images, momentarily. The message means will appear merged as a single image, focussed more or less centrally between the two eyes. After a few seconds, for example, ten to twenty seconds in the average case, the subject is no longer conscious of the image and the image essentially disappears.

The images, which are supplied on decals, might include a resolution not to drink or smoke, an inspiring visualization in sports, or a happy face to combat an inferiority complex. “While the message is continuously in front of the eyes of the subject, the subject is not conscious of the existence or presence of the message, and can continue whatever activities he or she is engaged in without interference or distraction.”

Wheels of Chance

wells bicycle picshua

H.G. Wells demonstrates how to dismount a bicycle, June 1895:

“Observe when your left foot is descending & about 30° from the nadir. Stand on left pedal throwing up right leg. Bring this in a graceful curve over the hind mud guard & leap lightly to the ground. The treadle moves against your weight & assists the leap. Then smile. Thus.”

That’s from a letter to an old college friend. “The bicycle in those days was still very primitive,” Wells recalled of the bicycle craze of the 1890s. “The diamond frame had appeared but there was still no freewheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. … Nevertheless the bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days … and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now.”

“I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process.”