Steampunk Chauffer

Zadoc Dederick and Isaac Grass quietly patented this as an “improvement in steam-carriage” in 1868, but the details are pretty sensational: They’d invented a mechanical man with jointed legs who could pull a cart, lift its legs to clear obstacles, and even run backward.

The boiler is in the torso. “It is unnecessary to describe this part of the mechanism, as there is nothing peculiar in it.”

A Side Project

In 1959, John Dos Passos took a break from writing to invent a bubble gun, presumably for his 9-year-old daughter, Lucy:

The primary object of this invention is to provide a bubble toy in the nature of a pistol … upon squeezing the hand grip air is forced … toward the ring, causing bubbles to be formed from a film held by the ring, and the bubbles projected forwardly as bullets from a gun.

After this he went back to the typewriter — Prospects of a Golden Age was published in the same year.

Sky Chariot

Balloons are nifty, but they’re hard to steer, and conventional motor-driven propellers are too heavy. So in 1887, Frenchman Charles Wulff proposed tying eagles to the car to form living propellers.

The birds would wear shoulder straps to keep them in place. The man in the car shouts his destination into a speaking tube, and the conductor uses a hand wheel and rollers to point the birds in the appropriate direction “quite independently of their own will.” A net can be lowered to stop them from flapping.

What could go wrong?

Sky Fanfare

Introduced at the end of the 19th century, hail cannons offered farmers a novel way to protect their crops: They could disrupt the formation of hailstones by blasting sound at approaching storms.

Unfortunately, there’s no scientific evidence that they work. And anyway, if loud sounds can prevent hail, won’t thunder do the work for us?

See also Japanese War Tuba.

First Class

On April 19, 1944, Howard Hughes flew a Lockheed Constellation from California to Washington, D.C., in just under seven hours.

On the way back he picked up Orville Wright in Ohio, giving him the last airplane flight of his life.

The Constellation’s wingspan, 126 feet, was 6 feet greater than the length of Wright’s first flight in 1903.

A Kitchen Prediction

It is difficult to understand how the old-world fashion of … ‘washing up’ plates and dishes can have endured so long. Of course, in the new age, these utensils will be simply dropped one by one into an automatic receptacle; swilled clean by water delivered with force and charged with nascent oxygen; dried by electric heat; and polished by electric force; being finally oxygen-bathed as a superfluous act of sanitary cleanliness before being sent to table again. And all that has come off the plates will drop through the scullery floor into the destructor beneath to be oxygenated and made away with.

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

(Mechanical dishwashers had existed since the 1850s, but they were hand-powered. Modern dishwashers weren’t common until the 1970s.)

Low Tech

William Steiger had cold feet. But he also had a length of india-rubber tubing. So he snaked the latter down to the former, blew through the tube, and invented the “pedal calorificator,” a discreet way to breathe on one’s own feet.

Steiger’s 1877 patent application is quaintly charming — apparently he had built a working model and worn it around Maryland for some time, finding that his body warmed the tubes so that his breath arrived in his shoes at 84°F. It was necessary only to exhale through his mouth, “an easy process, which I have ascertained practically may be kept up a long time, as, for example, for miles on a railroad-car, without much personal inconvenience.”

Squirt Guard

Why didn’t this catch on? Joseph Fallek’s “grapefruit shield,” patented in 1927, would have saved generations of spouses from spattered juice.

And after breakfast, the rind could sail to the New World.

Bird Diapers

You know, bird diapers. What more is there to say?

Bertha Dlugi’s invention, patented in 1959, was intended for parakeets and other birds that are allowed to fly freely about the house. “It is … a general object of the present invention to provide a garment to be worn by birds for receiving their excremental discharge to prevent it from being deposited on household furnishings when the bird is at liberty in the home and thereby avoid the consequent unsanitary condition.”

Good idea — but it’s twice the mess if the cat catches it.