Advancing Years

Allain Eustis’ “device for assisting infirm persons,” patented in 1895, is essentially a plate for shoving old people up stairs.

Eustis notes that the arrangement of the harness “avoids chafing the assistant.” Evidently he’d had a lot of experience at this.

Seat of Knowledge

John VI of Portugal was hard of hearing, so he had a throne built whose leonine arms captured sound and directed it to a listening tube.

“Requiring anyone who wishes to speak with you to kneel and address you through the jaws of your carved lion might be fun for an hour or so,” notes neuroscientist Jan Schnupp, “but few psychologically well-balanced individuals would choose to hold the majority of conversations in that manner.”

Alfonso XIII of Spain was “the most tone-deaf man I ever knew,” remembered Artur Rubinstein. “From the time he was seven, he was accompanied by a man assigned to nudge him whenever the national anthem was played.”


In 1989 Sondra Rockhill patented “a method to avoid forgetting an umbrella when leaving an establishment.” A plastic panel is attached by a spring clip to the umbrella’s handle. When you enter a building with a wet umbrella, you unclip the panel, deposit the umbrella, and clip the panel to your keyring. Now if you forget to reclaim the umbrella, you’ll have a reminder when you get to the car. “After the umbrella has been retrieved, the identification device is unclipped from the key ring and reattached to the eye device on the umbrella for the next use.”

Cheaters’ Chopsticks

In 1987, Gerald L. Printz addressed a familiar problem:

The use of chopsticks requires a great deal of dexterity, making their use impossible by those without training, and often making their use undesirable by those who do not use them regularly, but who do not wish to risk the embarrassment of dropping or otherwise mishandling the food they are eating. … Accordingly, those wishing to avoid embarrassment while eating often must break with Oriental custom by opting for the less-embarrassing and less enjoyable alternative of using Western-style utensils when eating Oriental cuisine.

Printz’s invention solves this by adding detachable Western-style utensil heads (forks, spoons, etc.) to the sticks’ ends, “which does not require the skilled manipulation of chopsticks.” He notes that even skilled users of chopsticks might prefer this when eating rice or noodles, “due to the tweezerlike manner in which chopsticks grasp such foods.”

Missionary Work

When James Puckle patented a flintlock machine gun in 1718, he offered two versions. The first, to be used against Christian enemies, fired round bullets. The second, to be used against Turks, fired square bullets, which were thought to be more damaging.

This, Puckle wrote, would convince the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilization.”

Traffic Safety

In 1930, concerned about the danger posed by horseless vehicles, Heinrich Karl invented a solution — a complex mechanism that would sense when a pedestrian had been struck, stop the vehicle, and unfold a blanket to catch him. (As a bonus, “the clothes will not be soiled.”)

The thing was immensely complicated, filling a patent abstract of 10 pages, but Karl saw this as a virtue:

The fact that it will cause a certain amount of work and some loss of time to replace the several parts to their normal position after a collision has occurred is a reason for the driver of the vehicle to be cautious in driving his car or motor truck, etc., which in turn lessens the usual high number of accidents occurring from collisions with persons or vehicles, etc.

That makes a certain amount of sense.

Prior Art

In 2002 Ross Long came very near to patenting a stick:

An apparatus for use as a toy by an animal, for example a dog, to either fetch carry or chew includes a main section with at least one protrusion extending therefrom that resembles a branch in appearance. The toy is formed of any of a number of materials including rubber, plastic, or wood including wood composites and is solid. It is either rigid or flexible.

Presumably the Almighty would have stepped in if He’d considered this infringement.

A Modest Proposal

Are we getting lazy, or are our business demands so urgent that great haste in our personal locomotion is absolutely necessary? I am prompted to ask this question because one enthusiast has suggested the peculiar sloping roadways illustrated in Fig. 3. The idea is that by constructing the roads in this rather tantalizing manner, pedestrians could, when they desired, leave the pavement, and after having applied roller-skates to their feet, just stand erect at the top of the slope, and allow themselves to travel down without further effort — unless it be to maintain their equilibrium or to avoid violent contact with fellow-skaters. Arrived at the bottom of a slope, steps would have to be climbed — a difficult matter, by the way, whilst one’s feet are encased in skates — before other slopes could be reached. Certainly, if a very long street were so formed, speed would be assured. But how about vehicles? Where would they be accommodated? I suppose that they would take to the pavements, crossing from one to another by means of the square levels at the street ends. As a pastime, perhaps, this means of progress might be amusing; but it is too ludicrous to commend itself as a serious invention, calculated to be popular in our busy centres of commerce, or, for the matter of that, anywhere within our realms.

— James Scott, “Eccentric Ideas,” Strand, March 1895

Both Sides Now

Bach’s “crab canon” rendered as a Möbius strip:

Bach and Handel were both blinded by the same oculist, John Taylor, “the poster child for 18th-century quackery,” according to University of Wisconsin ophthalmologist Daniel Albert. Bach probably died of a post-operative infection; Handel wrote the lyrics to Samson (“Total eclipse! No sun, no moon! / All dark amidst the blaze of noon!”) after Taylor’s botched cataract surgery.

Random Möbius anecdote: In 1957, B.F. Goodrich patented a half-twisted conveyor belt for carrying hot material such as cinders and foundry sand, “thereby permitting each face of the belt to cool during one half of the operating period.”

Hot Wheels

Robert Martin offered a novel addition to the automobile in 1919: a stove. His invention would direct hot gases from the engine to a cooking chamber in the passenger compartment, where they could warm food even while the car was in transit. The stove’s lid is fitted with compression springs to prevent your casserole dish from rattling on the way to grandmother’s house.

Martin promises that the heating coil is sealed, so there’s no danger of contaminating the food by “the poisonous and injurious constituents of the exhaust gases” or of “smutting or blackening the cooking vessels by the soot.” So don’t worry about that.