Back Aid

E.S. Williamson’s “spring lift for stoopers,” patented in 1922, was essentially a stiff spring that a laborer could mount on his back “so that when the wearer bends over or stoops this spring body member is flexed and exerts a tendency to support and balance the bent-over portion of the body, whereby the muscles ordinarily brought into play to balance and support the body in such position need not be fully exercised and can rest.”

The wearer can sit or kneel normally, and there’s even an attachment to help bear the weight of a shovel during heavy work. “Thus it will be seen that a workman equipped with my device will not tire as easily and can do more work more comfortably and easily.”

Round Trip

Frustrated in trying to describe higher topology abstractly to students, Xian Wang invented a model train that can hug either side of a track:

It is therefore a primary object of the present invention to provide an electrically-operated ornament travelling on a rail which can be used to explain the Mobius Theorem. … In general textbooks, this advanced mathematic rule is usually explained by demonstrating a body circularly moving on a front and a reverse side of a twisted two-ends-connected belt. Most people can not understand and imagine the theorem from such explanation and demonstration.

Of course, once you’ve built one you can put it to other uses:


Siren Elise Wilhelmsen taught a clock to knit a scarf. The mechanism’s progress is reflected on its face, which functions as a 24-hour clock; it adds one stitch per hour and one segment per day, producing a wearable two-meter scarf in a year.

“What I wanted to show was the nature of time in a different way,” the Norwegian designer says. The clock does this in three ways: The unknitted skein represents time to come, the clock itself displays the current time, and the finished scarf represents time past.

Gun Play

This would have been deadly if it had worked: In 1862, Confederate private John Gilleland of Georgia’s Mitchell Thunderbolts designed a double-barreled cannon. Gilleland intended that the barrels would fire two balls connected by a chain that would “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.”

Unfortunately he couldn’t devise a way to fire both muzzles at the same instant, so in testing the chain simply snapped and sent both balls off on unpredictable trajectories. The cannon was never used in battle, and today it’s displayed as a curiosity before the city hall in Athens, Ga.

Water Works

Montana inventor William Beeson offered the swimming apparatus above in 1881 — a suit fitted with a membrane that “acts like wings or fins, which, from the movement of the legs and arms effect a propulsion through the water.”

In 1910 O.B. Lyons patented the “life preserver and swimming machine” below — just turn the handle to drive the propeller.

Presumably you could combine the two to go twice as fast.


James D. Williams’ “animal ear protectors,” patented in 1980, provide “a device for protecting the ears of animals, especially long-haired dogs, from becoming soiled by the animal’s food while the animal is eating.” The ears are protected by plastic tubes that are held to the animal’s head by adjustable straps.

The invention “may be itself decorated so as to enhance the appearance of the animal in the eyes of its owner and of others.” What that looks like is left to the imagination.

Lip Service

When one is a dashing French inventor one has little patience for clumsy mustache hygiene. This “apparatus for the cut of the mustache,” patented by Pierre Calmels in 1927, “gives the mustache the desired shape and automatically reproduces this shape without any possibility of error and without loss of time.” Adjust the guide once into the proper configuration and you can use it thereafter as a sort of stencil: Just hold the apparatus between your teeth and trim the whiskers to the designated length.

Edwin Green’s “design for a mustache-guard for cups,” below, was patented in 1898: The plate can be clamped to a teacup to keep one’s mustache dry. The idea was referenced a century later in a related invention — an “apparatus and system for covering and protecting the rim of a paint can.”

Blind Man’s Buff

Carlisle H. Dickson’s “interpersonal-introduction signalling system,” patented in 1979, takes some of the pain out of the singles scene. Each person at a gathering carries a transceiver encoded with his or her own characteristics and preferences. So, for example, a woman can program her receiver to ignore every message except “I am a male, I want to dance with you, my music preference is hard rock.” When that signal is received, her receiver signals that the man can approach “with confidence not only of mutual interest, but of receptive mood.”

At this point the man doesn’t know exactly who or where she is, only that there’s a (minimally) compatible woman somewhere in the crowd. He begins to home in her using something like a Geiger counter, and this gives her time to spot him and change her mind — “at any time she may switch off her receiver, transmitter or both.”

“In a particularly novel construction, the apparatus may be further provided with a decoy means such that if the receiving party decides not to meet, the apparatus can be switched to create a false signal, such as the reversing of the characteristic created to assist the parties approaching each other.”


This is romantic — in 1990 Terence King patented a pair of gloves connected at the palms, “so as to allow a courting couple palm contact inside the glove whilst their fingers and thumbs remain covered.”

“It may also be so sized as to accommodate and fit the respective hands of a mother and child.”

Divine Guidance

Letters to the Times, March 1976:

From the Reverend E.H.W. Crusha:

May I enlist your support in restraining the use of ‘Dear Reverend’ and ‘Dear Reverend So-and-so’ in letters to clergymen? It appears to be increasing among people of standing and education who might be expected to be readers of The Times.

From Peter du Sautoy, chairman, Faber and Faber Ltd.:

I learnt from T.S. Eliot, the politest of men, that letters to clergymen one does not know personally should begin ‘Reverend Sir.’

From Peter Faulks:

I remember being told by a clergyman that when in India a parishioner wrote to him as ‘Reverend and Bombastic Sir.’

From Canon Allan Shaw:

There are degrees of reverence. When I was a Dean and very reverend I once received a letter addressed to ‘The Very Shaw’. I thought that took some beating. However, it was bettered by the present Bishop of Lincoln. He once told me that he had received a letter directed to ‘The Right Phipps.’

From Rabbi David J. Goldberg:

While Christian clergymen ponder their correct form of address, they might also spare a thought for the difficulty experienced by their Jewish colleagues. On several occasions (and usually from the Inland Revenue) I have received letters which address me as ‘Dear Rabbit’.

From the Rev. D.F.C. Hawkins:

A young member of my congregation in Nigeria once addressed me in a letter as ‘My dear interminable Canon’. I try to believe he intended it kindly.

To be fair, it’s hard to teach a computer to produce the correct salutation by interpreting the first line of an address. One programmer sent the contents of a test database of challenging addressees: Danie Van Der Merwe, The Master of Ballantrae, The Mistress of Girton, C.M. Gomez de Costa e Silva, Mrs. Mark Phillips, Earl Mountbatten, Count Basie, Sir Archie McIan of that Ilk, Adm. Hon Sir R.A.R. Plunkett-E-E-Drax, J. Smith Esq, Sister Mary-Paul, A. d’Ungrois, the Revd Dewing. He declared himself “confident of the continuing superiority of that product of unskilled labour, the human mind, over its most marvellous artifact.”