Dinner for Two?


William Lamb was pretty cynical about fish. This apparatus, patented in 1894, assumes that a fish that sees itself in a mirror “will be made bolder by the supposed companionship, and more eager to take the bait before his competitor seizes it.”

“He will lose his caution,” Lamb wrote, “and take the bait with a recklessness that greatly increases the chances of his being caught on the hook.”

Who knows? Maybe it even works.

Small World


Proportions of national populations who are Internet users:

  • Norway: 88 percent
  • United States: 75 percent
  • Canada: 67.8 percent
  • France: 53.7 percent
  • Spain: 43.9 percent
  • Greece: 35.5 percent
  • Peru: 25.5 percent
  • Russia: 19.5 percent
  • South Africa: 11.6 percent
  • India: 3.7 percent
  • Iraq: 0.1 percent

Gallantry Mechanized


James Boyle patented this hands-free hat-tipping device in 1896.

“The hat is detachably secured to the working parts of the device that raise the hat, completely rotate it, and deposit it correctly on the head of the wearer every time said person bows his head and then assumes an erect posture.”

There’s no record of how the ladies received it.

Voice Box


In 1769, after completing his robotic chess player, Wolfgang von Kempelen began a 20-year effort to a build a machine that could speak.

His first crude undertaking involved a bellows, bagpipe, and clarinet, and it could produce only vowels. A second was operated from a keyboard, but this permitted an unnatural overlapping of sounds.

But von Kempelen began to study the human vocal tract more intensively, and this led to a winning third design, which had a “mouth,” a “throat,” a “nasal cavity,” and “nostrils.” It wasn’t perfect, but he trusted that listeners would forgive its errors because it sounded like a small child.

The finished machine could pronounce monotone phrases in French, Italian, English, Latin, and limited German, including Constantinopolis, vous êtes mon ami, je vous aime de tout mon coeur, venez avec moi à Paris, Leopoldus secundus, and Romanorum imperator semper Augustus.

His work wasn’t wasted. Before his death in 1804, Von Kempelen published a comprehensive account of his researches, and in 1837 Sir Charles Wheatstone took up the project. His efforts in turn inspired Alexander Graham Bell — and, eventually, the telephone.

Sweet Dreams


If a conventional alarm clock doesn’t wake you, consider this Improved Device for Waking Persons from Sleep, patented in 1882 by Samuel Applegate.

It suspends a frame “directly over the head of the sleeper” from each of whose cords hangs “a small block of light wood, preferably cork.”

“When it falls it will strike a light blow, sufficient to awaken the sleeper, but not heavy enough to cause pain.”

If that’s not dangerous enough, “By a simple connection between the cord B and the key of a self-lighting gas-burner, provision may be made for turning on and lighting the gas in the room at the same time that the sleeper is awakened.”



In 1949, George Jenks patented this apparatus “for ultimate attainment of an ideal golf swing.”

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I regard golf as an expensive way of playing marbles.”

The Savage Breast

That brutal monarch, Louis XI of France, is said to have constructed, with the assistance of the Abbé de Baigne, an instrument designated a ‘pig organ,’ for the production of natural sounds. The master of the royal music, having made a very large and varied assortment of swine, embracing specimens of all breeds and ages, these were carefully voiced, and placed in order, according to their several tones and semitones, and so arranged that a key-board communicated with them, severally and individually, by means of rods ending in sharp spikes. In this way a player, by touching any note, could instantly sound a corresponding note in nature, and was enabled to produce at will either natural melody or harmony! The result is said to have been striking, but not very grateful to human ears.

— J. Crofts, “Colour-Music,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1885

See also That’ll Do It and Attaboy.