The Hard Stuff

For the really determined alcoholic, in 1885 Herbert Jenner patented a liquor flask hidden in a book:

The ornamental covering [has] been made so as to entirely cover and conceal the flask from observation, and at the same time admit of ready access to its contents. … That portion of the covering representing the edges of the leaves of the book is covered with marbled paper or otherwise treated, so as to give a natural appearance.

Charmingly, the book is titled Legal Decisions.

Coming Through

As railroads were claiming the American West in the 1880s, they ran into a problem — stray cattle and horses kept wandering onto the tracks. What to do?

In 1883 La Fayette Willson Page of Tennessee suggested a spray attachment that would direct a stream of water from the engine’s boiler:

In 1885 Mississippi inventor William Bell proposed a Dr.-Seuss-like set of tongs that would extend a whistle and a spray nozzle closer to the livestock:

And in 1888 Jack William James, also of Tennessee, went full-on crazy and suggested a flatcar mounted with a dummy that would “throw up both hands at each revolution of the wheel and strike [a] gong with a hammer”:

I desperately wish this had caught on. How stubborn are Tennessee cows?

Some Enchanted Evening

In 1921 Charles Purdy worried that modern foods require too little chewing, resulting in “decayed teeth, undeveloped jaws, and various other complications due solely to the lack of exercise attendant on proper mastication.”

The answer, he decided, was a bite plate that can be attached to the wall by a spring. “By movements of the head, the device will receive a series of short jerks or impulses which will be transmitted to the teeth in order to produce a strain thereon, which strain serves to give the several organs of the mouth and head a proper exercise to maintain the necessary circulation therein.”

When used in tandem, as shown, this has all the makings of a romantic candlelight interlude as the exercisers “pull in opposite directions similar to the so-called ‘tug-of-war.'” What did this sound like?

Driver’s Ed

From Popular Science Monthly, April 1933: “A mechanical horse that trots and gallops on steel-pipe legs, under the impulse of a gasoline engine, is the recent product of an Italian inventor. With this horse, he declares, children may be trained to ride. The iron Dobbin is said to canter along a road or across a rough field with equal ease. Its design recalls the attempts of inventors, before the days of the automobile, to imitate nature and produce a mechanical steed capable of drawing a wagon.”

That kid might be happier in a cart.

Advancing Years

Allain Eustis’ “device for assisting infirm persons,” patented in 1895, is essentially a plate for shoving old people up stairs.

Eustis notes that the arrangement of the harness “avoids chafing the assistant.” Evidently he’d had a lot of experience at this.

Seat of Knowledge

John VI of Portugal was hard of hearing, so he had a throne built whose leonine arms captured sound and directed it to a listening tube.

“Requiring anyone who wishes to speak with you to kneel and address you through the jaws of your carved lion might be fun for an hour or so,” notes neuroscientist Jan Schnupp, “but few psychologically well-balanced individuals would choose to hold the majority of conversations in that manner.”

Alfonso XIII of Spain was “the most tone-deaf man I ever knew,” remembered Artur Rubinstein. “From the time he was seven, he was accompanied by a man assigned to nudge him whenever the national anthem was played.”


In 1989 Sondra Rockhill patented “a method to avoid forgetting an umbrella when leaving an establishment.” A plastic panel is attached by a spring clip to the umbrella’s handle. When you enter a building with a wet umbrella, you unclip the panel, deposit the umbrella, and clip the panel to your keyring. Now if you forget to reclaim the umbrella, you’ll have a reminder when you get to the car. “After the umbrella has been retrieved, the identification device is unclipped from the key ring and reattached to the eye device on the umbrella for the next use.”

Cheaters’ Chopsticks

In 1987, Gerald L. Printz addressed a familiar problem:

The use of chopsticks requires a great deal of dexterity, making their use impossible by those without training, and often making their use undesirable by those who do not use them regularly, but who do not wish to risk the embarrassment of dropping or otherwise mishandling the food they are eating. … Accordingly, those wishing to avoid embarrassment while eating often must break with Oriental custom by opting for the less-embarrassing and less enjoyable alternative of using Western-style utensils when eating Oriental cuisine.

Printz’s invention solves this by adding detachable Western-style utensil heads (forks, spoons, etc.) to the sticks’ ends, “which does not require the skilled manipulation of chopsticks.” He notes that even skilled users of chopsticks might prefer this when eating rice or noodles, “due to the tweezerlike manner in which chopsticks grasp such foods.”

Missionary Work

When James Puckle patented a flintlock machine gun in 1718, he offered two versions. The first, to be used against Christian enemies, fired round bullets. The second, to be used against Turks, fired square bullets, which were thought to be more damaging.

This, Puckle wrote, would convince the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilization.”

Traffic Safety

In 1930, concerned about the danger posed by horseless vehicles, Heinrich Karl invented a solution — a complex mechanism that would sense when a pedestrian had been struck, stop the vehicle, and unfold a blanket to catch him. (As a bonus, “the clothes will not be soiled.”)

The thing was immensely complicated, filling a patent abstract of 10 pages, but Karl saw this as a virtue:

The fact that it will cause a certain amount of work and some loss of time to replace the several parts to their normal position after a collision has occurred is a reason for the driver of the vehicle to be cautious in driving his car or motor truck, etc., which in turn lessens the usual high number of accidents occurring from collisions with persons or vehicles, etc.

That makes a certain amount of sense.