Work and Play

Here’s one solution to the energy crisis: enlist the children. Julius Restein’s “device for operating churns,” patented in 1888, will exercise your kid and produce loads of delicious butter at the same time.

It also works with washing machines.

Face Lift

Why use creams to reduce wrinkles? Instead you can stretch your face, using Adolph Brown’s “method of minimizing facial senescence,” patented in 1952:

Anchor is hooked into the skin just beyond the hairline. … The partner hook is moved in the direction away from the face until sufficient tension forces are developed to withdraw desired amounts of skin from the face, and while this tension is maintained, the partner hook is anchored by pressing to grip the scalp.

The “rubber-like connector” between the hooks keeps the whole arrangement fairly flexible — if you don’t sneeze.

An Expansive Idea

While serving in Congress in 1848, Abe Lincoln conceived a way to help boats that became stranded on sandbars. If bellows were attached to a craft below the waterline, these could be inflated when it got stuck, buoying the craft and allowing it to float over the shoal.

Lincoln whittled a 20-inch model from a cigar box and a shingle. His law partner, W.H. Herndon, didn’t think much of it, but Lincoln presented it to lawyer Z.C. Robbins, who arranged a patent in 1849. This makes Lincoln the only president to hold a patent.

Apparently it never went to market, though. “Railroads soon diverted traffic from the rivers,” Robbins recalled, “and Lincoln got deep in law and politics, and I don’t think he ever received a dollar from it.”

Small Press

The first eyewitness account of the Wright brothers’ flying machine appeared in the journal Gleanings in Bee Culture.

The editor, beekeeper Amos I. Root, had visited the Wrights in 1904 at Huffman Prairie, Ohio, where they were working to perfect the machine after its historic first flight the preceding December.

Root sent copies of his article to Scientific American — but they were dismissed.


Americans require a restful quiet in the moving picture theater, and for them talking from the lips of the figures on the screen destroys the illusion. Devices for projecting the film actor’s speech can be perfected, but the idea is not practical. The stage is the place for the spoken word. The reactions of the American public up to now indicate the movies will not supersede it.

— Thomas Edison, quoted in the New York Times, May 21, 1926

Music in the Millennium

[T]he professional [musician] himself will cease, like the actor, to rank as a sort of superior harlequin or performing animal, exhibiting his powers for the diversion of an assembled public. What he has once played can, if he choose, be constantly repeated. … Instead of the executant or singer being judged by his performance on an occasion when fatigue, illness or unfavourable circumstances may militate against his perfect success, when the nerve-shattering conditions of the platform probably in any case offend his susceptibilities and detract from the perfection of his performance, he will be able to found his reputation upon the very best performance he is capable of. He will be able to try and try again in the privacy of his study. When he has satisfied himself, and then alone, will he publish his artistic effort to the world. He can destroy as many unsatisfactory records as he pleases, just as the sculptor can break up his clay when he has not succeeded, just as the painter can paint out his picture when it has not pleased him, and be judged only by his best.

— T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence, 1906

Light Headed

With Benjamin Oppenheimer’s “improvement in fire-escapes,” patented in 1879, you can jump safely from the window of a burning building and land “without injury and without the least damage” thanks to a 5-foot parachute and shock-absorbing shoes.

Samuel Mott patented a similar idea in 1920: an aviators’ helmet that contains a folded parachute that can be “readily released in case of emergency.”

But what if you bail out of an airplane that’s over a burning building?

Blithe Spirit

Above: a combination car bumper and bottle opener, patented by Rafael Bonnelly in 1964.

Below: a combination clothes brush and flask, patented by Thomas Helm in 1893.

Maybe you do have a drinking problem.

Sea Legs

Henry Rowlands’ “apparatus for walking on the water” is exactly that, a “new and useful Contrivance for Traveling on Water” essentially by wearing boats as shoes.

Rowlands’ patent was issued in December 1858. Curiously, on Nov. 27 of that year, Chambers’s Journal reported that a Heer Ochsner of Rotterdam (“and who so likely to accomplish such a feat as a Dutchman?”) had made essentially the same invention, which he called a podoscaph.

But there’s more: As if to outdo Rowlands, Ochsner had “recently astonished his countrymen by appearing on the Maas, wearing a podoscaph fifteen feet long on each foot, and holding a pole, flattened at one end as a paddle, in his hand. Thus equipped, he walked up the Maas to the Rhine, and on to Cologne in seven days.”

I can’t find any record that the two met in the mid-Atlantic and fought it out during a lightning storm, but I think we should assume that this definitely happened.

Out, Damned Tot!

George Blonsky’s “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force,” patented in 1965, is pretty well self-explanatory. The modern woman lacks the muscle tone to deliver a baby easily, so we put her on a giant turntable and let G forces do the work. A glimpse through the patent abstract gives the general idea: “stretcher … handgrip … girdle … ballast … speed … forces … net … bell … handbrake … stretcher.”

A note for expectant mothers — William Potts Dewees’ 1858 Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children includes this advice on “the treatment of the nipples”:

[T]he patient should begin to prepare these parts previously to labor, by the application of a young, but sufficiently strong puppy to the breast; this should be immediately after the seventh month of pregnancy. By this plan the nipples become familiar to the drawing of the breasts; the skin of them becomes hardened and confirmed; the milk is more easily and regularly formed; and a destructive accumulation and inflammation is prevented.

I don’t know whether Dewees actually tried this … but it seems likely he did, doesn’t it?