Wisconsin’s Lorenzo Macauley patented this “improvement in road-lanterns” in 1879, presumably after testing it himself.

A lantern thus attached to a horse’s head enables both horse and driver to see the condition of the track and the objects in it much more plainly and at greater distance than when a lantern is placed on the carriage.

Fair enough.

Safe and Sound


New York architect Edwin Koch had a brainstorm in 1939 — he proposed a teardrop-shaped “hurricane house” that could rotate like a weather vane. “This amazing dwelling would revolve automatically to face into the oncoming storm, meeting it like the wing of an airplane and passing it smoothly around its curving sides toward its pointed tip,” explained Popular Science.

Electricity would enter through one of the circular tracks on which the house turned, and water and sewage pipes would be connected via swivel joints at the axis of rotation.

Koch had planned the house for hurricane zones, but the swiveling feature could prove useful in any climate: “Merely by selecting the desired push button on a central control board, the entire house may be rotated to face rooms toward or away from the sun or to point bedroom windows toward a cooling breeze.”

Mop No More


Lili McGrath’s admirably low-tech “floor polisher,” patented in 1915, is little more than a pair of slippers, but the description is charming:

The wearer merely places his or her feet within the slippers and begins to dance, preferably such dances as require long glides, and it will be seen that the floor polishing operation becomes a pleasure.

The cord “is made of a length permitting a full stride of the wearer, as in dancing, but not sufficiently long to admit of the wearer’s feet spreading apart to permit his or her fall.” We could market this today.

“A New Weather Cannon”


Ever since ‘weather shooting,’ as it is called in Germany and Switzerland, met with such pronounced success in Styria, upper ltaly, Hungary, and France, meteorologists have been engaged in a very wordy battle as to the merits of the scheme. That something has been accomplished cannot be denied. Indeed, so successful have been the efforts in preventing hailstorms in upper Italy that since the experiments of 1898 some twenty thousand stations have been established. At the Agricultural Congress held in Padua last November by far the greater number of the members were in favor of the building of ‘weathershooting’ stations. The congress was very decidedly impressed by an account of one of last summer’s hailstorms in the vicinity of Vicenza. So violent was this particular storm, the story runs, that for miles the land was completely devastated. But in this ravaged section, one spot was spared, because there it is asserted a number of stations had been located which had warded off the danger.

The shooting apparatus hitherto used has been very primitive in construction. For a cannon, a mortar with a funnel-like barrel was often used. In some places the funnel is fixed vertically in masonry. This method of mounting the cannon is not only crude, but also dangerous, for often enough serious accidents have occurred. In order to avoid these dangers as well as to improve the apparatus in general a Hungarian editor named Kanitz has devised a simple form of cannon which is essentially a breech-loading mortar some thirty feet in length. The mortar is journaled in a rotatable carriage, so that it can be raised and lowered and swung from side to side. The charge is a metallic cartridge of blasting powder. After the discharge a loud, shrill whistling is heard, lasting for about fourteen or fifteen seconds. French and Italian wine-growers insist that by means of the gun clouds are torn asunder, so that rain instead of hail falls.

The grape growers of five departments of the French Alps have formed an alliance for buying cannon and powder for next summer. The Italian government has such faith in weather-shooting that it supplies wine-growers with powder at the rate of three cents a pound.

Scientific American, April 27, 1901

Coming and Going


This is U.S. patent number 112, “saddle for removing the sick and for other purposes,” issued in 1837 to the magnificently named Hezekiah Thistle of New Orleans.

The patient (or body) lies on a bed mounted on springs above the wooden saddle. “There is also a strap G attached to the side of the bed near the center which passes around the thigh and is buckled to the outside of the bed in an oblique direction to prevent the wounded man from slipping down.”

Even the horse looks grim.

The Componium

Paris witnessed a startling demonstration in 1824: a machine that could simulate a musical improvisation, producing endless variations on a given theme. “Its ingenious inventor, M. Winkel, of Amsterdam, has given it the astonishing faculty of imitating extemporaneous performance, and of reducing into harmonic form all the possible combinations, which the most bold and fertile imagination could produce,” noted the Harmonicon. When Winkel operated the Componium before an audience of skeptical musicians, it “produced upon the auditory an effect difficult to be described. The astonishment of the hearers was at its height when, after having executed a march, with variations by Moscheles, the instrument was left to follow its own inspirations: the applause was loud and unanimous, and some exclaimed that it was altogether miraculous.”

Incredulous that such an effect could be produced by an automaton, the attendees asked two of their number to examine the mechanism and make a final report. These two declared that, while the effect was “marvelous,” no trickery was involved:

When this instrument has received a varied theme, which the inventor has had time to fix by a process of his own, it decomposes the variations of itself, and reproduces their different parts in all the orders of possible permutation, the same as the most capricious imagination might do; it forms successions of sound so diversified, and produced by a principle so arbitrary, that even the person the best acquainted with the mechanical construction of the instrument, is unable to foresee at any given moment the chords that are about to be produced.

A single example will suffice to show the freedom of choice that is permitted by it. None of the airs which it varies lasts above a minute; could it be supposed that but one of these airs was played without interruption, yet, through the principle of variability which it possesses, it might, without ever resuming precisely the same combination, continue to play not only during years and ages, but during so immense a series of ages that, though figures might be brought to express them, common language could not.

— J.B. Biot, de l’Academie des Sciences, and Catel, de l’Academie des Beaux-arts, Paris, Feb. 2, 1824

But a dazzling effect can be produced by a relatively simple mechanism. In 1770 an English publisher produced a pamphlet with the intriguing title A Tabular System Whereby the Art of Composing Minuets Is Made So Easy That Any Person, Without the Least Knowledge of Musick, May Compose Ten Thousand, All Different, and in the Most Pleasing and Correct Manner. A contemporary reviewer found that “a quantity of cards, each holding a sequence of notes and arranged at will, is the whole secret of so prolific a composition.”

Spring Fever


Inventors Neil and William Winton patented this “parakeet exercise perch” in 1957, in hopes of improving bird morale:

Parakeets are fast becoming common household pets and one of the first objectives of the new owner of a parakeet is to teach the parakeet to utter words that will amuse the owner thereof. …

An object of the present invention is to provide an exercising perch which will facilitate getting a parakeet in a cheerful state of mind so as he will talk or chatter more profusely.

The coil is designed so that “when a parakeet alights on any one of the coils, it will bounce up and down, sway with the weight of the bird, and oscillate back and forth.” The cage-mounted version shown here is only one option; the Wintons also envisioned a free-standing model and one that can be mounted on a wall (which is “entertaining to a parakeet possessing the ability to nose dive through a sleeve member”).

I don’t know how the parakeets responded. If they conquer the earth someday, perhaps they’ll give each of us a trampoline.

Modern Convenience


For the stylish farmer, Jefferson Darby patented this plow attachment in 1874. The canopy can be adjusted both horizontally and vertically, “thus affording a complex and ample range of adjustment by which the shade may be shifted about as the plow changes direction and the sun moves along its course.”

“The attachment may also be attached to other agricultural implements, also upon wagons and other carriages.”

The Vision Thing


Diary entry by journalist Sydney Moseley, Aug. 1, 1928:

… I met a pale young man named Bartlett who is Secretary to the new Baird Television Company. Television! Anxious to see what it is all about … He invited me to go along to Long Acre where the new invention is installed. Now that’s something! Television!

Met John Logie Baird; a charming man — a shy, quietly spoken Scot. He could serve as a model for the schoolboy’s picture of a shock-haired, modest, dreamy, absent-minded inventor. Nevertheless shrewd. We sat and chatted. He told me he is having a bad time with the scoffers and skeptics — including the BBC and part of the technical press — who are trying to ridicule and kill his invention of television at its inception. I told him that if he would let me see what he has actually achieved — well, he would have to risk my damning it — or praising it! If I were convinced — I would battle for him. We got on well together and I have arranged to test his remarkable claim.

(Later) Saw television! Baird’s partner, a tall, good-looking but highly temperamental Irishman, Captain Oliver George Hutchinson, was nice but very nervous of chancing it with me. He was terribly anxious that I should be impressed. Liked the pair of them, especially Baird, and decided to give my support … I think we really have what is called television. And so, once more into the fray!

Anatomy Lesson


In 1988, Shao-Chun Chu conceived a unique way to teach people about the human body — an amusement ride that would carry passengers through an enormous model of a sleeping man and woman:

An educational amusement apparatus forms a large building structure having an external appearance simulating a man and a woman resting partially under a blanket, wherein riders are taken through a succession of cavities that simulate internal organs of the man and woman. Entrance to a head chamber simulating an oral cavity is achieved by a stairway supported by a simulated arm of the man, the oral cavity having displays of teeth in normal and abnormal conditions, and serving as a staging area for a train to carry the riders. The train passes into a simulated cranial cavity of the woman, past a sectional display of simulated ear organs, and into a body portion of the building that is representative of the abdomen of both the man and the woman, first through a simulated esophagus, stomach, and intestine of an alimentary canal, through simulated urinary and reproductive tracts, then through a simulated liver and a simulated cardiovascular canal, and finally through a simulated lung and windpipe to an exit staging area of the building.

Chu hoped the ride would encourage people to take better care of their bodies and would be “effective in transporting a large ridership.” His 10-page patent abstract contains sentences that I’m pretty sure have never been written before (“Further, the structure continues to descend until the cars become partially submerged in the lake of the stomach, preferably with considerable splashing”). Unfortunately, to my knowledge it’s never been realized.