In a Word

n. seasickness

After an unusually queasy Channel crossing in 1868, Henry Bessemer conceived a steamer whose cabin was mounted on gimbals. In heavy seas the hull could roll beneath the passengers without rippling their cognac.

Work began immediately; in 1872 constructor E.J. Reed promised, “Although she may not fulfil every random prophecy that has been printed respecting her, she will thoroughly fulfil the object which the travelling public desire — namely, that of enabling us to cross to and from the Continent with health, decency, and comfort.”

The 350-foot S.S. Bessemer undertook her first public voyage on May 8, 1875 — and inauspiciously crashed into the pier. She moved too slowly and would not answer the helm. Investors lost confidence and the ship was eventually sold for scrap, but Bessemer insisted to the last that his conception had not been fully realized: “My hydraulic controlling apparatus was never completed, was never tested at sea, and consequently never failed.”

Strong, Silent

Rayma Rich’s “collapsible riding companion,” patented in 1991, offers female travelers an inventive way to deter criminals: Set up the false head and torso in your passenger seat, dress it in a suitable shirt, and you have a devoted male escort who will accompany you anywhere and never ask for overtime.

When you get back to the airport, disconnect the head, stow it in the torso, and “the riding companion becomes a lightweight, easy-to-carry rectanglar case for traveling.”


Letter to the Times, April 27, 1910:


Motor-cars are bad enough, but they do not come into one’s house or garden. With aeroplanes total strangers may drop in, through the roof, for a little chat at any time. I fear the law cannot protect one against such intrusion. If aviation becomes popular I shall have spikes, with long strong prongs, fixed on the chimneys of my house, and the word ‘Danger’ painted in large red letters on a flat part of the roof. If any flying machines come down in my garden I shall send for the police to remove the occupants, whom I shall sue afterwards for any damage to my trees or shrubs.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

H.B. Devey

Memento Mori

David Kendrick’s “life expectancy timepiece,” patented in 1991, offers a running countdown of your remaining time on earth.

Using actuarial data, enter the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds that you expect to live, and adjust this total according to the health factors in Table II.

Then set it going. It’s not quite as bad as it looks: You can press the RUN/STOP button to pause the countdown while you’re engaged in a healthful activity (“e.g. taking a walk, breathing fresh air, etc.”). And life expectancy improves with age, so you can add a few years on certain birthdays.

But still, it’s pretty sobering. An alternate version actually includes a speaker that provides “an audible signal, as a reminder that time is passing.” “This audible signal may be adapted to operate automatically at a particular time each day or may be suppressed by the user.”

A Brilliant Finish

An ordinary cremation consumes valuable energy and consigns the body to flames, which has unpleasant connotations of hellfire and damnation. In 1983 Kenneth H. Gardner invented a greener, more uplifting alternative — the corpse is elevated through the roof and then cremated by concentrated solar energy.

A temperature of about 1,700° F. is required to provide incineration and a total of about 3,000,000 BTU’s is required to consume a corpse. Thus, at a supply rate of about 1,000,000 BTU/hour, cremation would take about three hours. A concave mirror-reflector bowl similar to the steam-producing Crosbyton hemisphere in Lubbock, Texas is considered a suitable collector. At 65 ft. diameter, a bowl of this type can produce approximately 1,000,000 BTU/Hr. under full sunshine conditions from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

Gas burners are still available “for auxiliary use during inclement weather and/or when it is desired to expedite the cremation process.”

Doom Roulette

With Jose Gonzalez’ “punishment wheel,” patented in 1989, a misbehaving child can randomly choose the punishment he’ll receive. “From the child’s point of view, it appears that an inanimate object is choosing and imposing the punishment, instead of his parents. Direct parent-child conflict is thereby eliminated.”

Available punishments, provided on decals, include NO TV, TIME OUT, GROUNDED, 2ND CHANCE, NO DESSERT, DONATE A TOY, PARENT’S CHOICE, K.P., NO ALLOWANCE, NO SPORTS, NO PHONE, NO FRIENDS, KID’S CHOICE, SWATS [a spanking], NO VISITING, NO TREAT, and HOUSE CHORES. But “the punishments need not be those shown in Fig. 4, but could be any set of punishments, expressed in any language, deemed suitable for the disciplinary style of particular parents and degree of maturity of their child.”

Speed and Style

Douglas Eaton’s “storage apparatus for storing a necktie,” patented in 1993, winds your neckwear into a tidy cylinder when you’re not using it and dispenses it again at interview time. “The wrapping of the necktie about the tie rods and the storing of the necktie in the case prevents the necktie from substantially creasing during a storage period of time.”


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.