Murder Ink

In 1973, Sheldon Klein of the University of Wisconsin programmed a computer to write a 2,100-word mystery story in 19 seconds:

Wonderful smart Lady Buxley was rich. Ugly oversexed Lady Buxley was single. John was Lady Buxley’s nephew. Impoverished irritable John was evil. Handsome oversexed John Buxley was single. John hated Edward. John Buxley hated Dr. Bartholomew Hume. Brilliant Hume was evil. Hume was oversexed. Handsome Dr. Bartholomew was single. Kind easygoing Edward was rich. Oversexed Lord Edward was ugly. Lord Edward was married to Lady Jane. Edward Liked Mary Jane. Edward was not jealous. Lord Edward disliked John. Pretty jealous Jane liked Lord Edward. …

The plots tend to be haphazard and the narrative unsophisticated … but in this example the butler did it. Perhaps Klein was onto something.

Round Trip

Connecticut inventor Richard Hemmings patented this “improvement in velocipede” in 1869. If I understand his description aright, the feet aren’t used at all: The operator sits in a saddle and turns a hand crank, which drives the inner wheels and imparts motion to the surrounding “traction wheel.”

“In starting the velocipede, the first movement is given by the operator’s running or walking a short distance on the ground while astrike the saddle,” Hemmings writes, worryingly. “When a start is thus obtained, the motion is readily continued by turning the pulleys E with the hands.”

“When the weight is below the centre, and the feet near the ground, and always free, very little difficulty is experienced in balancing and guiding the machine; and, as numerous experiments have proved, the ease with which it is worked and the velocity obtained render it quite equal, if not superior to any velocipede in use, while the expense of constructing them is far less.”

He says nothing about steering.


There was an old woman who lived in a shoe … and presumably she needed to take her kids for a stroll occasionally. Iowa inventory George Clark patented this “child’s carriage” in 1884. The shoe is fitted with a lace cord, h, so that “the child or doll may be placed in the carriage and then held securely in place without danger of falling out.”

“If desired, the carriage may be provided with an umbrella, o.”

Leg Room

bel geddes flying boat

Norman Bel Geddes announced big plans in 1932: Air Liner Number 4, a gigantic V-winged flying boat with a wingspan of 528 feet, more than twice that of today’s 777. Twenty 1900-horsepower engines would carry it through the air at 100 mph and an altitude of only 5,000 feet while 451 passengers ranged over nine decks containing 180 apartments, three kitchens, three private dining rooms, an orchestra platform, a gym, six shuffleboard courts, a dance floor, a library, separate solaria for men and women, a writing room, and a promenade deck. The 155-person crew included two telephone operators, 24 waiters, two masseuses, a manicurist, and a gymnast.

The plane was “not ‘big’ for the sake of being big,” Bel Geddes insisted, but he pointed out that

if it were possible to stand her upon one wing tip against the Washington Monument, she would lack only 23 feet of reaching the top. Or imagine that the Public Library was removed from its site in Bryant Park at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, New York. The plane could then settle comfortably in the park with a clearance of about 35 feet all around.

The craft had a range of 7,500 miles, and it would be supported on the water by two enormous pontoons, 60 feet high and designed “substantially as the hull of a yacht, in order to withstand tremendous pounding when the plane rests on a rough sea.” In the end it was never built, but it may have helped inspire Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose.”

A Social Invention

Thomas Edison popularized the word hello. Working in AT&T’s Manhattan archives in 1987, Brooklyn College classics professor Allen Koenigsberg unearthed a letter that Edison had written in August 1877 to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone in Pittsburgh. Edison wrote:

Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON

At the time it was thought that the line would remain open permanently, so a caller needed a way to get the other party’s attention. Apparently hello was a variation on the traditional hound call “Halloo!”

What should the answerer reply? Alexander Graham Bell pressed for Hoy! Hoy!, but Edison equipped the first exchanges, so hello gained the ascendancy there too.

That’s all it took — by 1880 the word was everywhere. “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Koenigsberg told the New York Times. “If you think about it, why didn’t Stanley say hello to Livingston? The word didn’t exist.”

“Death by Falling From the Clouds”

robert cocking and parachute

The following is an account of the post-mortem examination of the body of Mr. Robert Cocking, aged sixty-one, who fell with a suicidal machine called a parachute, from the cord of a balloon which ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, on the 24th of July, 1837. The height which the balloon had reached when the parachute commenced its descent, is stated to have been 5000 feet. The instrument of death was simply a canvas toy, constructed in ignorance, and used with the hardihood which might distinguish an unfortunate being who contemplated his own destruction by extraordinary and wonder-exciting means,– an end which, without the motive, was more effectually attained, by the crushing of the parachute in the air as it dropped:–

On the right side.–The second, third, fourth, and fifth ribs broken near their junction, with their cartilages. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth broken also near their junction with the vertebrae. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs also broken at their greatest convexity.
On the left side.–The second, third, fourth, and sixth ribs broken near their cartilages, and also near their angles.
The clavicle on the right side fractured at the junction of the external with the middle third.
The second lumbar vertebra fractured through its body; the transverse processes of several of the lumbar vertebrae broken.
Comminuted fracture and separation of the bones of the pelvis at the sacro-iliac symphyses.
The ossa nasi fractured.
The right ankle dislocated inwards; the astragalus and os calcis fractured.
The viscera of the head, chest, and abdomen free from any morbid appearances.

F.C. Finch, G. Macilwain, W. Maugham, T. Greenwood, W. Thompson, surgeons

Lancet, Aug. 5, 1837

People Power

Inventor E.M. Waring patented a novel forerunner of the vacuum cleaner in 1914. Rather than an electric motor, his “suction cleaning apparatus” was powered by bellows strapped to the operator’s feet:

An apparatus of this kind presents the advantage that the operation thereof happens wholly instinctively, so to speak, and the operator is at liberty to give the entire attention to the handling of the cleaning nozzle and to the object to be cleaned.

He also envisioned a dust bag made of cheesecloth, “permitting passage of the air but retaining the dust.” Kudos.

A Rolling Compact

In 1912, after decades of performing, Lillian Russell perfected a transportable trunk that opens into a fully equipped dresser with cosmetics, mirrors, and light fixtures:

The paramount objects of my invention are to provide a trunk with foldable devices that will permit of the trunk being used as a dresser; to afford means to quickly restoring the devices to a closed position, and to furnish means to rigidly securing the devices against accidental collapse when extended.

She intended it for use by touring actresses, but “I desire it to be understood that the same can be used by the traveling public and by campers.”

Modern Literature

In the early 1970s, AI researcher James Meehan tried to teach a computer to retell Aesop’s fables. This was not always successful:

Once upon a time there was a dishonest fox and a vain crow. One day the crow was sitting in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth. He noticed that he was holding the piece of cheese. He became hungry, and swallowed the cheese. The fox walked over to the crow. The end.

Henry Ant was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. He was unable to call for help. He drowned.

One day Henry Crow sat in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth, when up came Bill Fox. Bill saw the cheese and was hungry. He said, ‘Henry, I like your singing very much. Won’t you please sing for me?’ Henry, flattered by this compliment, began to sing. The cheese fell to the ground. Bill Fox saw the cheese on the ground and was very hungry. He became ill. Henry Crow saw the cheese on the ground, and he became hungry, but he knew that he owned the cheese. He felt pretty honest with himself, so he decided not to trick himself into giving up the cheese. He wasn’t trying to deceive himself, either, nor did he feel competitive with himself, but he remembered that he was also in a position of dominance over himself, so he refused to give himself the cheese. He couldn’t think of a good reason why he should give himself the cheese, so he offered to bring himself a worm if he’d give himself the cheese. That sounded okay, but he didn’t know where any worms were. So he said to himself, ‘Henry, do you know where any worms are?’ But of course, he didn’t, so he …

“The program eventually ran aground for other reasons,” Meehan writes. “I was surprised it got as far as it did.”