Cloud Nine

In 1974 Jack Jensen proposed a new way to stop hijackers from commandeering airplanes — each seat would be fitted with a solenoid-actuated lock in the seatbelt, an inflatable seat back, and a hypodermic syringe. Using remote switches, the crew could lock any passenger into his seat, force his head to his knees, and inject him through the seat cushion with “a strong sedative or poison.”

“Heretofore airlines have adopted numerous measures to curb hijacking, including observation of passengers, use of metal detecting devices, random searching of loading passengers, and the use of armed guards on the aircraft,” reads the patent abstract. “However, such measures … have been ineffective.”


I like this one: If you fill your air mattress with helium you can keep it on the ceiling.

William Calderwood’s 1989 brainstorm automatically increases the floor space in a small apartment. When you get up in the morning the bed floats to the ceiling, and you can spend the day roller-skating beneath it. Then at bedtime you pull it down again by the tether. Best of all, you never have to make the bed, because no one will ever see it!

Invention and Dispatch

While [Thomas Edison was] an operator at one station, the telegraph office was greatly infested with cockroaches. Mr. Edison tacked several zinc strips to the walls at intervals of an eighth of an inch, and applied the positive and negative poles of a battery alternately to the strips. He next smeared the walls above the strips with molasses. The long legged bugs came up, and as they stepped from strip to strip, they ‘closed the circuit,’ received the electric shock and dropped dead by scores. Water pails put at the proper places received their bodies as they fell.

— James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

Safety First

Patented by Deloris Gray Wood in 1998, the “kissing shield” makes pretty good sense:

It is customary when we kiss to come in contact with another’s lips, and in certain cultures, to follow with a kiss on the skin of each cheek; thus germs can be passed from one person to another. In keeping with one aspect of the invention, if casual contact is necessary and a kiss is appropriate, one can protect oneself from the germs present in saliva or other secretions which might be transmitted from kissing by using a kissing shield.

What sets Wood’s application apart is its comprehensiveness: The shield “can be used especially by a politician who kisses babies” — and one variant has “a pocket sized and shaped to receive the tongue of one of the two persons” to permit French kissing.

“I kissed my first girl and smoked my first cigarette on the same day,” wrote Toscanini. “I haven’t had time for tobacco since.”

“Fifty Years Hence”

In 1932, Winston Churchill wrote an article for Popular Mechanics examining the technological promise of the coming half-century:

  • “Wireless and television would enable their owner to connect up to any room similarly equipped and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head in through the window.”
  • “Vast cellars, in which artificial radiation is generated, may replace the cornfields and potato patches. Parks and gardens will cover our plowed fields.”
  • “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately.”
  • “A few years ago London was surprised by a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots. The production of such beings may well be possible within fifty years. They will not be made, but grown under glass.”
  • “There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child, in artificial surroundings. Interference with the mental development of such beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil.”
  • If the potential of nuclear power were realized, “we could make an engine of six hundred horsepower weighing twenty pounds and carrying fuel for a thousand hours in a tank the size of a fountain pen.”

“Mankind has sometimes traveled forward and sometimes backward, or has stood still for hundreds of years,” he wrote. “Now it is moving very fast.”

Road Talk

In 1930 one found it vexing to pilot one’s Bugatti through the multitude in time for the first-act curtain. Happily Eugene L. Baker invented this “automobile attachment,” through which one might address the vulgar without deserting one’s foie gras:

This invention relates to an attachment for automobiles and more especially for closed vehicles, one of the objects being to provide a simple and efficient device by means of which the driver of the vehicle can speak to persons in front thereof, thereby to facilitate traffic.

The device doesn’t appear to accommodate two-way communication. Pity, isn’t it?

Spin Cycle

Richard J.D. Stokes had a brainstorm in 1949: Why waste energy maintaining both a car and a washing machine when you can attach a washtub to one of the car’s wheels?

Pour water and soap through the opening in the watertight container and drive at a low speed to wash your clothes, then drain the water and drive a second leg to dry them.

Stokes envisioned that his invention would be useful to “campers, those who live in trailers, and other travelers” — but it might also appeal to fleeing murderers with bloodstained clothing.

Endless Summer

Rick Hilgert’s 1995 “wave generating apparatus” is essentially a giant horizontal centrifuge, a 25-foot tubular tank that’s spun until the water hugs the wall.

This creates “a continuous simulated ocean-type wave that will allow one to participate in body-surfing, boogie-boarding and/or surfboarding.”

What could go wrong?

Pest Control

This looks a bit … direct, but it dates from 1882. James Williams needed a device that would destroy a burrowing animal and give an alarm so that it could be reset. His solution was a revolver attached to a treadle. Touché.

The patent abstract adds, “This invention may also be used in connection with a door or window, so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached.” Evidently Williams had problems bigger than rodents.

The Mechanical Internetélégraphe_Chappe_2.jpg

Telecommunications got an early start in France, where inventor Claude Chappe built a series of towers between Lille and Paris in 1792. Each tower was topped with a set of movable wooden arms that could be arranged to represent symbols; if each operator viewed his neighbor through a telescope, a symbol could pass through 15 stations covering 120 miles in only 9 minutes, giving France a valuable communications advantage over the surrounding powers during the sensitive period of the revolution. It makes an appearance in The Count of Monte Cristo:

They passed to the third story; it was the telegraph room. Monte Cristo looked in turn at the two iron handles by which the machine was worked. ‘It is very interesting,’ he said, ‘but it must be very tedious for a lifetime.’

‘Yes. At first my neck was cramped with looking at it, but at the end of a year I became used to it; and then we have our hours of recreation, and our holidays.’




‘When we have a fog.’

Expanded into a network of 534 stations, the system worked well, but it was expensive, with skilled operators manning towers set every 10-30 kilometers, and the messages were far from private. Finally the electrical telegraph killed it — Sweden abandoned the last commercial semaphore line in 1880. By then, depressed by illness and the conviction that others were stealing his ideas, Chappe had long since killed himself.