Letter to the Times, Oct. 18, 1968:


This afternoon I caught the 15:05 train from the recently modernized Euston Station.

According to the new electronic departure indicator, its destination was Rugby; according to the ticket collector and a notice on the platform it was Coventry; according to the destination blind on the train it was Wolverhampton. I got off at Watford to hear the station announcer declare it was Wolverhampton and walked home to look it up in my copy of the timetable and discover it was Birmingham.

Perhaps now that their modernization scheme is complete British Rail’s executives will have enough time to decide where their trains are going to?

Yours faithfully,

Richard Harvey


Walk Therapy

Brent Gunnon’s “foot-pump-powered neck-massaging device,” patented in 2002, connects bladders in the wearer’s shoes to a massaging hand that he fits to his neck. The back of his neck, one hopes.

No Smoking

In 1874 John Thomas suggested a novel way to keep a locomotive’s smoke out of the passenger cars: a jointed pipe would carry the smoke the length of the train and release it harmlessly in its wake.

Smoke and sparks were a real danger on early railroads — in 1916 one Edson Hains filed a claim against the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad Company in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for burning down his outhouse. The case is doubly memorable because Hains filed his pleading in verse:

Now comes the plaintiff, Edson Hains, and prays this august Court
To heed the very earnest plea, enshrined in this report.
The Wheeling & Lake Erie Co., a heartless corporation,
But licensed under certain laws of this fair State and Nation,
Did, by a spark through carelessness, from a locomotive owned
By the defendant in this Court, and by it not atoned,
Destroy and render Null and Void, a building situate
Upon the rear of premises, known as E. Hains Estate,
Which in the town of Bedford lies, a placid rural spot,
Until the conflagration, which spoiled the plaintiff’s lot.
The second of November last was the most woeful date
On which the said defendant did this outrage perpetrate.
Said building being plain but good, and open to all callers,
Was worth in money of the realm, the sum of fifty dollars.
Now, the aforesaid Hains will not cite Blackstone, Coke or Livy,
The incinerated building was, in vulgar terms, a privy.
The wealthy have from two to eight, but this case is more sad,
For like the poor man’s one ewe lamb, ’twas the only one he had.
And now in frigid winter’s time, before beginning labor,
He eke perforce must use the can of an obliging neighbor.

The plaintiff does still further state that he is an inventor,
And since the last catastrophe he has no place to center
His great inventive genius which, before in chaste seclusion
Of the before in mentioned can, did blossom in profusion.
True genius cannot be appraised, but plaintiff’s was so nifty
He thinks he should receive therefor at least one hundred fifty.
He therefore prays the Court to grant two hundred Iron Men,
That he may once more take his place midst Bedford’s upper ten,
And walk abroad midst citizens, and meet them man to man,
Which now he cannot rightly do, he being shy a can.
And so he prays that he may go from hence with compensation,
Commensurate with what he’s lost, through this his degradation.
And so he windeth up his prayer, and hopes the Court will grant
One fifty for his peace of mind, and fifty for the plant.

There’s a photostat of the pleading in John Allison Duncan’s Strangest Cases on Record (1940). Hains won — Judge William H. McGannon assessed the railroad $25 and costs.

Road Music

Samuel Goss made the world a little sweeter in 1899:

My invention relates to bicycles, and has for its object to provide a combined bicycle and musical instrument whereby the rider when so disposed may treat himself and others in his immediate neighborhood to a musical accompaniment as he rides along.

Essentially it’s a giant music box mounted on the frame and driven by the pedals. Presumably a tandem bike could play in harmony — perhaps “A Bicycle Built for Two,” which had come out just five years earlier.

Dante’s Dentist

In 1886 Levi Deckard of Pennsylvania patented an electrified dental chair to provide “electricity as an anaesthetic” to people undergoing tooth extractions and other painful operations.

The dentist operates a foot-driven generator, the patient grips the electrodes, “and the desired shock is produced.” Deckard doesn’t explain why he thinks this will stop pain — but it certainly must be distracting.

Lights Out

Fanny Paul’s “device for inducing sleep,” patented in 1885, works on a simple principle: It restricts blood flow to the brain. Worry “quickens the action of the heart,” which excites the nervous system; by putting a collar around the neck and tightening it with a screw, the insomniac “slightly modifies” the circulation “and thereby reduce[s] the activity of the brain in order that sleep may ensue.”

“I have experimented with different degrees of pressure upon the arteries and veins of the neck,” Paul wrote, “and find that … very soon after this takes place the nervous system becomes soothed and quieted, and sleep follows almost immediately.”

A New Utility

Before the possibility of radio broadcast, inventors experimented with “piping” music into homes acoustically. From London’s Musical World, Jan. 6, 1855:

At the Polytechnic, a band playing in a distant apartment is unheard; but connect the different instruments, by means of thin rods of wood, each with the sounding board of a harp in the lecture theatre, and the music is audible to all as if it were present. The experiments prove, what we have often speculated on, that music might be laid on to the houses of a town from a central source, like gas or water.

“A well-known joker, at the private view, proposed the establishment of a ‘band-ditty’ company on the spot.”

Changing Times

George Elgin’s “pistol sword,” patented in 1837, combines romance and efficiency:

The nature of my invention consists in combining the pistol and Bowie knife, or the pistol and cutlass, in such manner that it can be used with as much ease and facility as either the pistol, knife, or cutlass could be if separate, and in an engagement, when the pistol is discharged, the knife (or cutlass) can be brought into immediate use without changing or drawing, as the two instruments are in the hand at the same time.

This is one of the earliest U.S. patents — number 254.

Related: A gruesome piece of battlefield medicine from the Napoleonic campaigns of 1806 — a soldier’s face was transfixed by a bayonet that projected five inches from his right temple:

The man was knocked down, but did not lose his senses. He made several ineffectual efforts to pull the bayonet out, and two comrades, one holding the head, whilst the other dragged at the weapon, also failed. The poor wounded man came to me leaning on the arms of two fellow-soldiers. I endeavored, with the assistance of a soldier to pull out the bayonet, but it seemed to me as if fixed in a wall. The soldier who helped me desired the patient to lie down on his side, and putting his foot on the man’s head, with both hands he dragged out the bayonet, which was immediately followed by considerable hemorrhage, the blood pouring forth violently and abundantly. The patient then first felt ill, and, as I thought he would die, I left him to dress other wounded. After twenty minutes he revived, and said he was much better, and I then dressed him. We were in the snow, and as he was very cold the whole of his head was well wrapped up in charpie and bandages. He set off to Warsaw with another soldier; went partly on foot, partly on horseback, or in a cart, from barn to barn, and often from wood to wood, and reached Warsaw in six days. Three months after, I saw him in the hospital, perfectly recovered. He had lost his sight on the right side; the eye and lid had, however, preserved their form and mobility, but the iris remained much dilated and immovable.

From Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857.

Splish Splash

In 1899 Otto Hensel invented an oscillating tub that could give a vigorous bath while conserving water:

The essential object of this invention is to provide a tub that will fill a long-felt want in hospitals, sanitariums, and other institutions, as well as in private residences, which will by a simple rocking motion agitate and throw the water with more or less violence against the body of the person in the tub.

In Sylvie and Bruno Lewis Carroll goes this one better with the Active Tourist’s Portable Bath, a bag in which one can bathe in half a gallon of water:

“The A.T. hangs up the P.B. on a nail — thus. He then empties the water jug into it — places the empty jug below the bag — leaps into the air — descends head-first into the bag — the water rises round him to the top of the bag — and there you are! The A.T. is as much under water as if he’d gone a mile or two down into the Atlantic!”