Dairy Carry


Allen Cowan patented this portable milking stool in 1887. From the look of the abstract, he had tested it extensively in actual practice:

In operation, the wearer buckles the waist strap around his or her waist, for this stool is peculiarly adapted for use by women, the stool hanging down behind out of the way, as shown in Fig. l of the drawings, leaving both hands free to carry two pails. As soon as the wearer is ready to sit down to milk, by merely leaning slightly forward, as one sits, the stool swings directly underneath the person, and one can sit down upon it without touching it with the hand.

“If the cow should move away a few feet or commence to kick,” he adds, “the person milking can get up quickly, and catch up the buckets with both hands without paying any attention to the stool, and follow up the cow, sitting down as before.”


  • What time is it at the North Pole?
  • The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
  • After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
  • 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
  • “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial

When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.



Edward O’Brien patented this “body-attached rearview mirror” in 1905 “to facilitate the dressing of the hair and the inspection of the back of the head and head dress.” Essentially it’s a harness that bears three mirrors and an illuminating bulb, replacing a bothersome hand mirror.

“By this means, both hands of the wearer are free to properly arrange the head dress, brush the hair and the like, without disturbing the adjustment of the mirror and illuminating means.”

Just remember to take it off afterward …

Grass Hoppers


George and May Southgate patented these rather alarming “jumping shoes” in 1922. Each is a giant replica of Schistocerca americana made of spring steel and secured by a strap over a child’s shoe.

“He will spring or jump much farther than he would be able to without our improved device; and furthermore, the shock upon the system when alighting will be greatly reduced, thus enabling the user to cover considerable ground with a minimum effort.”

This will all end in litigation, but in the meantime “the flapping of the wings will greatly increase the enjoyment of the users.”

Lifeboats for All

In 1993, I attended a technology and art conference, ‘Ars Electronica,’ in Linz, Austria, where my former postdoctoral student Pattie Maes gave a talk titled ‘Why Immortality Is a Dead Idea.’ She took as many people as she could find who had publicly predicted downloading of consciousness into silicon, and plotted the dates of their predictions, along with when they themselves would turn seventy years old. Not too surprisingly, the years matched up for each of them. Three score and ten years from their individual births, technology would be ripe for them to download their consciousness into a computer. Just in the nick of time! They were each, in their own minds, going to be remarkably lucky, to be in just the right place at the right time.

— MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines, 2003

The Halkett Boat


Royal Navy officer Peter Halkett designed this lightweight “boat cloak” in 1844. When deflated, its hull could be worn as a cloak, the oar used as a walking stick, and the sail as an umbrella, but a portable bellows could inflate it in four minutes into a craft that could carry eight people.

Explorer John Richardson, who had nearly died of hypothermia trying to cross an arctic river during John Franklin’s disastrous Coppermine Expedition of 1819, wrote that “Had we been possessed of such a contrivance in our first expedition, I have little doubt of our having brought the whole party in safely.” But the navy saw no use for Halkett’s boats, and his efforts to promote them to outdoorsmen similarly failed. The two remaining specimens reside in museums.


Posture Guard


This “scholar’s shoulder brace,” patented by Isidor Keller in 1884, is advertised as “a brace for supporting the shoulders in writing”:

In using my shoulder-brace, I propose to secure the bracket A on a school-desk, as shown in Figs. 1 and 3, then I adjust the standard B to suit the scholar occupying the seat in front of said desk, and finally I pass the loops f f of the shoulder-straps over the shoulders of the scholar, and adjust said loops so as to retain the scholar in a position that will not be injurious to the health or to the eyes.

What if there’s a fire?



William Lance invented this “improved serving table” in 1866. It bears a set of food-laden shelves that revolve continuously past the diners, driven by steam. The shelves are “so loaded with viands, to move at the rate of fifteen or twenty feet per minute, or to pass before each guest at such speed as to exhibit before each guest the entire bill of fare once per minute, giving each one ample opportunity to help him or herself to such viands as may suit their tastes.”

“All persons at this table are put upon an equality and free to act for themselves, and these shelves so arranged as not only to contain the full bill of fare, and that kept hot by lamp or otherwise, but also to contain all the necessary dishes, knives, forks, spoons, glasses, &c.”

The attendant in the hidden “pantry” at the bottom replenishes the offerings and discreetly removes dirty dishes from the bottom shelf, where they’re left by departing diners. Lance estimates that such a table might serve 150 diners with only two attendants, “except those required in the pantry to put away the last dishes of each guest and brush off the crumbs and adjust the chair.”

In a Word


n. baldness

One wonders if there’s a personal story behind this “method of concealing partial baldness,” patented by Donald and Frank Smith in 1977. The hair is grown to a length of 3 or 4 inches, divided into equal portions, and brushed over the bald area, using hair spray to hold it in place. “By lightly sweeping the hair into the desired style as the hair spray dries, an appearance of a full head of hair is given.”

Rest Easy


Henry Bourne patented this combination mattress and life preserver in 1840. Essentially it’s an ordinary berth mattress split in two; each half is filled with broken cork and waterproofed, and then the two are reattached and fitted with leggings, an oar, and two shoulder straps.

If your ship is sinking, you leap out of bed, stuff the mattress with “papers, moneys, clothes, and provisions for many days,” pull the straps over your shoulders, and jump overboard. When you’re in the water the buoyant mattress keeps you afloat, the waterproofing keeps your valuables dry, and you can navigate using the oar. Thanks to the leggings, when you reach the shore you can waddle up the beach “beyond the reach of the returning wave.”