Frozen Fire
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lightning can fuse sand into curious rootlike tubes up to 5 meters long, called fulgurites. Because their shape records the path of the strike as it passes into the ground, they’re sometimes known as petrified lightning.

Lightning had a ruinous history before the introduction of Ben Franklin’s lightning rod. The campanile of St. Mark in Venice was destroyed three times over. In 1769, a bolt struck the tower of St. Nazaire in Brescia, whose magazine contained 100 tons of gunpowder. One-sixth of the town was destroyed, and 3,000 people died.

Compounding the harm was the disastrous belief that ringing bells during thunderstorms would allay lightning. In one 33-year period, lightning struck 386 church towers and killed 103 bell ringers.

Modern strikes are less dire. In 1919, Cleveland Indians pitcher Ray Caldwell was struck by lightning during a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. “It felt like a sandbag hit me,” he said. He refused to leave the game and pitched to Joe Dugan for the final out. The Indians won, 2-1.

Finger Gym

In 1881 Benjamin Atkins patented this “new and useful device for supporting and exercising the fingers of players on key-board instruments.” Essentially it’s a series of rings suspended from springs, “so as to compel the user to put forth unwonted strength” in depressing his fingers. In time this would foster “a superior decision of touch with greater flexibility and rapidity of motion.”

The Morning Post praised a similar device, noting that it could help a student acquire proper technique quickly, “without noise and without injury to the instrument.” “The testimonials to the value of the invention are extremely numerous and from persons most distinguished in the profession.”

Space Saver

Even in 1923, parking was a problem. Iowa’s Leander Pelton proposed this solution — a lightweight car that can be stood on end and wheeled about on casters.

“When it is in this position, it may be moved through an ordinary doorway, or a very large number of them could be stored or parked in a comparatively small road or floor area.”

Unfortunately it would also be a bonanza for car thieves.

“Sewing Machine Worked by a Dog”

From Gaston Tissandier’s Popular Scientific Recreations (1882). This is even worse than the dog treadmill, where at least the animal has the option to stand still — here he’s confined to a box on the side of a wheel, where, finding himself sliding downward, he’s perpetually forced to climb.

Tissandier says that the machine’s inventor, M. Richard of Paris, employed a large number of women working on sewing machines and conceived the idea of “quadrupedal motors” when he noticed the work was injuring their health. That was generous. “There is very little trouble or expense connected with the working, so a great saving is effected, as the dogs cost little, and are cheaply fed.” Perhaps he found a suitably ironic fate in the afterlife.

(Thanks, Richard.)

Wake Tech

J. Carroll House patented this “alarm bedstead” in 1855. It’s driven by an alarm clock so that, at an arranged time, the bed drops into an inclined position, “and whatever is movable upon the same rolls out upon the floor. Thus we shall find ourselves ten minutes after the alarm is sounded deposited upon the carpet, permitted to arise and dress ourselves for the business of the day.”

“Every person will perceive that this alarm bed well deserved a patent,” opined Scientific American. “Any sinner sleeping beyond a certain hour deserves to be tumbled out of the blankets in the manner so successfully accomplished by Mr. House.”

The Great Steam Duck

In 1841 a Richard Oglesby Davidson proposed building a flying machine in the shape of an eagle. We know this only because an anonymous Kentucky satirist followed it up with plans for a duck-shaped, steam-powered aërostat of his own — and, as so often, the satire has outlived its target.

The duck was to have been 15 feet long, with wings of whalebone and silk, and contained a steam engine and a small cabin. “I have made a calculation to ascertain the power of the Steam Duck, which, I think proves conclusively that success is inevitable:”

As to the danger from sportsmen, “any one of common sense can perceive that there never was a real bird with a scape-pipe in the situation described; nor wings shaped and constructed as those of the ‘steam duck’: yet it might not be amiss to attach to the works an alarm-bell, which would prevent all possibility of mistake.” One wonders if Davidson thought of this.

Track Shoes

With these special soles, patented by the United Shoe Machinery Corp. in 1968, you can leave animal tracks in natural surroundings, “for the purpose of serious instruction or for games and amusement.”

The tracks shown here match those of a Kodiak bear cub. So now you can have an anxious mother bear follow you through the woods. Good, right?

The Virtue of Education

From an 1895 Strand feature on eccentric ideas, a mortarboard that “may be opened as shown during times of elemental disturbance.”

“It is to be unfolded and folded in a similar way possible with ungummed envelopes. By what manner of means it is to sustain its four unfolded corners, no man (even the inventor himself) knoweth.”

The Early Bird,_cropped).jpg

In 1813, American inventor Oliver Evans envisioned a strange future:

“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly, fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Passing through the air with such velocity, changing the scene in such rapid succession, will be the most exhilarating, delightful exercise. A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup at New York, the same day. To accomplish this, two sets of railways will be laid, so nearly level as not in any place to deviate more than two degrees from a horizontal line, made of wood or iron, or smooth paths of broken stone or gravel, with a rail to guide the carriages, so that they may pass each other in different directions, and travel by night as well as by day; and the passengers will sleep in these stages as comfortably as they now do in steam stage boats.”

Unable to obtain financing, he abandoned the project and turned to other work. Thirteen years later, George Stephenson built the first public steam railway.

Dog Tech

With J.R. Richards’ dog exercising device, patented in 1939, your pet can walk himself. Just strap him into the harness above the adjustable treadmill and he can “walk, run or exercise at practically any speed, according to his own desire, and without compulsion, preliminary training or instruction.” (The device is not powered, so the dog controls the pace.)

After his workout, send him through Clem Blafford’s automatic dog washer, below, which will spray him with soapy and then clear water and then blow him dry. “It is undesirable to remove the animal from the housing while it is still wet since the animal in such conditions generally shakes itself vigorously … and this results in the animal handler, the adjacent floor, walls and any others who may be in the vicinity being the recipient of the water.”