Imagine the theatre of the future. … [T]he masses will no doubt go to the theatre much as they do now. Only instead of seeing a company of actors and actresses, more or less mediocre, engaged in the degrading task of repeating time after time the same words, the same gestures, the same actions, they will see the performance of a complete ‘star’ company, as once enacted at its very best, reproduced as often as it may be wanted, the perfected kinetoscope exhibiting the spectacle of the stage, the talking machine and the phonograph (doubtless differentiated) rendering perfectly the voices of the actors and the music of the orchestra. There will be no need for the employment of inferior actors in the small parts. As the production of any play will only demand that it be worked up to the point of perfection and then performed once, there will be no difficulty in securing the most perfect rendering that it is capable of.

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

A Valuable Oversight

Patent examiners are busy people, and when this application arrived at the U.S. Patent Office in 1881 it seemed innocuous enough — the inventor, John Sutliff, had called it simply “motor.” So they issued the patent.

It is, in fact, a perpetual motion machine. When ball L rolls to the left, it depresses the bellows, which fills the submerged bulb, raising the lever and turning cogwheel F. This pivots the box, which sends the ball back to the right, drawing air into the bellows and submerging the bulb again, “and so on alternately.”

Thus the cogwheel turns forever, driving shaft H, which you can hook up to anything you like. A convenient source of endless free energy, and it’s been under our noses all this time.

Hair Raising

Patented in 1951, John J. Boax’s “hair singeing apparatus” would do away with conventional haircuts: Vacuums extend the user’s hair and the hood burns it to a chosen length.

Even the guy in the drawing seems uncertain about this, but all progress requires sacrifice.

A Capture En Passant

He does look evil, doesn’t he?

Hawley Harvey Crippen had fled for America by the time Scotland Yard discovered his wife’s torso under the brick floor of his London house.

But they sent out a warning, and the captain of the SS Montrose thought he recognized the fugitive aboard his ship. He asked his wireless telegraphist to send a message to the British authorities: “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”

Chief Inspector Walter Dew overtook the Montrose in a faster liner and boarded her in the St. Lawrence River disguised as a pilot. When introduced to Crippen, he said (resoundingly, one hopes), “Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.”

Crippen hesitated, then said, “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”

Crippen’s mistress was acquitted, but he was hanged in 1910, the first criminal in history captured by the aid of wireless.


“Apparatus for Obtaining Criminal Confessions”

This one leaves me speechless. Helene Adelaide Shelby was unhappy with the low rate of criminal confessions, so in 1927 she invented a solution. The police put their suspect into the darkened chamber on the left, and he finds himself facing a floodlit human skeleton with glowing red eyes. The skeleton asks questions (via a megaphone in the mouth), and the suspect’s reactions are recorded by a camera and a microphone in the skull.

The effect produces “a state of mind calculated to cause him, if guilty, to make confession.” I’ll bet. What if he’s innocent?

Shooting Gallery

Hunting blinds, 1897-1991. Are these the ingredients of the perfect crime? You could dress up as a cow and shoot your rich Uncle Oswald, then stand there and chew your cud as the police searched for clues.

Perhaps someone’s already done this.

A Big Splash

The New York Times carried a surprising headline on March 15, 1918: BIG CONCRETE SHIP AFLOAT IN PACIFIC. Noting the lack of shipyards and steel plants on the West Coast, California businessman W. Leslie Comyn had built a 7,900-ton steamer out of ferrocement.

“The huge hull, careening sharply as it slid sidewise down a steeply pitched incline, threw up a big wave in the narrow estuary, but then righted sharply and rode like a buoy,” the Times reported. “She looks as if she might have been carved out of rock, so massive is her build.”

Experts announced a new era of rapid shipbuilding, and Comyn made plans to build 54 more concrete vessels. But steel ships, though more expensive, proved lighter and faster, and by 1921 Faith had been sold and scrapped as a breakwater in Cuba.

Low Tech

This is inspiring: In 2005 the National Toy Hall of Fame inducted the cardboard box.

“I think every adult has had that disillusioning experience of picking what they think is a wonderful toy for a child, and then finding the kid playing with the box,” said chief curator Christopher Bensch. “It’s that empty box full of possibilities that the kids can sense and the adults don’t always see.”

In the same spirit, the museum honors alphabet blocks, rocking horses, teddy bears, and jump rope alongside Monopoly, Etch A Sketch, and other registered trademarks.

Among the 44 toys in the hall of fame, the most sophisticated is the Nintendo Game Boy. The simplest, charmingly, is “the stick.”