Changing Times

George Elgin’s “pistol sword,” patented in 1837, combines romance and efficiency:

The nature of my invention consists in combining the pistol and Bowie knife, or the pistol and cutlass, in such manner that it can be used with as much ease and facility as either the pistol, knife, or cutlass could be if separate, and in an engagement, when the pistol is discharged, the knife (or cutlass) can be brought into immediate use without changing or drawing, as the two instruments are in the hand at the same time.

This is one of the earliest U.S. patents — number 254.

Related: A gruesome piece of battlefield medicine from the Napoleonic campaigns of 1806 — a soldier’s face was transfixed by a bayonet that projected five inches from his right temple:

The man was knocked down, but did not lose his senses. He made several ineffectual efforts to pull the bayonet out, and two comrades, one holding the head, whilst the other dragged at the weapon, also failed. The poor wounded man came to me leaning on the arms of two fellow-soldiers. I endeavored, with the assistance of a soldier to pull out the bayonet, but it seemed to me as if fixed in a wall. The soldier who helped me desired the patient to lie down on his side, and putting his foot on the man’s head, with both hands he dragged out the bayonet, which was immediately followed by considerable hemorrhage, the blood pouring forth violently and abundantly. The patient then first felt ill, and, as I thought he would die, I left him to dress other wounded. After twenty minutes he revived, and said he was much better, and I then dressed him. We were in the snow, and as he was very cold the whole of his head was well wrapped up in charpie and bandages. He set off to Warsaw with another soldier; went partly on foot, partly on horseback, or in a cart, from barn to barn, and often from wood to wood, and reached Warsaw in six days. Three months after, I saw him in the hospital, perfectly recovered. He had lost his sight on the right side; the eye and lid had, however, preserved their form and mobility, but the iris remained much dilated and immovable.

From Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857.

Splish Splash

In 1899 Otto Hensel invented an oscillating tub that could give a vigorous bath while conserving water:

The essential object of this invention is to provide a tub that will fill a long-felt want in hospitals, sanitariums, and other institutions, as well as in private residences, which will by a simple rocking motion agitate and throw the water with more or less violence against the body of the person in the tub.

In Sylvie and Bruno Lewis Carroll goes this one better with the Active Tourist’s Portable Bath, a bag in which one can bathe in half a gallon of water:

“The A.T. hangs up the P.B. on a nail — thus. He then empties the water jug into it — places the empty jug below the bag — leaps into the air — descends head-first into the bag — the water rises round him to the top of the bag — and there you are! The A.T. is as much under water as if he’d gone a mile or two down into the Atlantic!”


Daniel Ruggles patented an alarming new process in 1880 — he proposed to raise explosives into clouds “in order to precipitate rain-fall by concussion or vibration of the atmosphere.” The resulting downpour would water crops, prevent drought, forestall more violent storms, “and also purify and renovate the atmosphere during periods of pestilence and epidemics.”

In the figure and surrounding the balloon B, I have represented various dotted lines and clusters of lines, and also zigzag lines, as at L, representing lightning, the said figure being an imaginary representation of such a condition as would appear immediately after an explosion of the torpedoes, and with rain falling from the clouds C, as indicated in dotted lines at R’.

He planned to use balloons to lift the torpedoes, and “I contemplate the employment of nitroglycerine, dynamite, chlorates of nitrogen, gun cotton, gunpowder, fulminates, and other explosives.” I can’t tell whether he ever tested the invention. Presumably he did.

Swiss Army Piano

Charles Hess patented this combination piano, couch, and bureau in 1866, intending it for hotels and boarding schools in which some bedrooms are used as parlors during daylight hours. Closet F holds the bedclothes, and closet G holds a washbowl, pitcher, and towels.

“It has been found by actual use that this addition to a piano-forte does not in the least impair its qualities as a musical instrument, but, on the contrary, adds considerably to its reverberatory power.”

Charmingly, the stool doubles as a writing desk (P), its seat conceals a looking glass (U), and its body serves as a lady’s work box, complete with a cushion for holding pins and needles.


Evidently a lover of broccoli, Elmer Walter of Pennsylvania saw a need for special tableware in 1907:

The primary object of the invention is to provide a table implement, such as a knife, fork, or other device with a mirror suitably secured in the handle of the implement, so that the user of the implement may have ready at hand a mirror for the purpose of inspecting the teeth in the mouth or the mouth or other portions of the face generally, at any time desired by the user of the implement.

“Oftentimes a patron of a restaurant or cafe finds the need of a mirror to discover a substance which has become lodged in the teeth,” he writes. A mirrored knife “may be used by him or her for the purpose indicated above substantially without attracting any attention.”

Battle Tech

In a letter to general Charles Lee in February 1776, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the colonists arm themselves with bows and arrows, calling them “good weapons, not wisely laid aside.” He gave six reasons:

  1. “Because a man may shoot as truly with a bow as with a common musket.”
  2. “He can discharge four arrows in the time of charging and discharging one bullet.”
  3. “His object is not taken from his view by the smoke of his own side.”
  4. “A flight of arrows, seen coming upon them, terrifies and disturbs the enemy’s attention to his business.”
  5. “An arrow striking in any part of a man puts him hors de combat till it is extracted.”
  6. “Bows and arrows are more easily provided everywhere than muskets and ammunition.”

Franklin also recommended resurrecting the pike. His ideas weren’t used, but they were debated seriously even decades later. One theorist calculated that in a battle at Tournay on May 22, 1794, 1,280,000 balls had been discharged, an average of 236 musket shots to disable each casualty. “Here then, evidently appears in favour of the bow, in point of certainty of its shot, of no less than upwards of twenty to one.”

Franklin may have been used to being disregarded in military matters. In 1755 he’d suggested using dogs as scouts, “every dog led in a slip string, to prevent them tiring themselves by running out and in, and discovering the party by barking at squirrels.”

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.