Some curiosities of the world of invention

If you found your way here without coming through my site, I'm a science writer with a number of books to my credit, and I have been researching some of the world's odder inventions for a book. The images are deliberately small, partly to save bandwidth, but also to make filching harder. That said, the links will take you to the originals.

Please, if you want to share this, share the URL, don't copy this, mirror it or strip out the pics. I claim compilation copyright, though I'm not going to sue you, even if you're naughty. And it isn't naughty to go back to the original sources and grab any of the pics for your own use.

As of July 23, 2011, this project has gone from desultory twiddling to a first draft. There are 56,000 words in the bag. I have something over 200 illustrations like the ones shown here. I go through six drafts usually, but I expect to have the writing completed by about the end of 2011, though I don't plan to rush it. To keep the pressure off, I haven't offered this to any publisher—as yet. ( I have drafted the proposal, and it's available on request.)

Pictures on the right: bicycle relatives.

(left) An 1848 pedemotive carriage, a pedal-powered wooden carriage which would have been impractical, especially in those clothes! The rider used his arms to provide power. I guess all ideas had to start somewhere. Source: Scientific American, 12 August 1848, p. 369

(centre) An 1869 circular velocipede: with no central pivot point, this would have run off the track almost as soon as it started. Two of the female riders are riding side-saddle and not pedalling, but the shameless minx on the right is actually riding astride—shock, horror! Source: Scientific American, 12 June 1869, p. 369

(right) An 1898 rowing bike: designed to give the operator exercise. It was designed so that the rower travelled the way he was facing, which was probably just as well, given the wide arms, which would have tended to catch on things. US Patent 642544.

mole trap Pictures on the right: animal traps

(left) Clough and Burrell's clockwork-powered fly trap, where a rotating cone carried flies, attracted by molasses, inside the cage, where they fly up, attracted by the light, and in the end fall into water at the bottom and drown. Scientific American, June 25, 1859, p. 348.

(centre) Mole trap to be set over a known run. Why kill da rabbit? (Er, sorry, I mean mole) "It is a common belief among gardeners and farmers that the mole is destructive to seeds and the roots of growing plants, at least they claim with more show of truth, that his burrows admit water to the roots, which rots and destroys them." See? For more, turn to Scientific American, 5 August 1868, p. 84, also US Patent 78128.

(right) Woodside's patent self-setting rat trap where the rats were expected to queue up to die in a modified guillotine device that impaled them, and then fall neatly into the receptacle provided. Scientific American, 16 September 1868, p. 177, no apparent record of a patent, though Woodside had an 1873-4 patent for stove linings, No. 152587.

Pictures on the right: firearms

(left) Pratt's 1919 US Patent 1,323,609, for a helmet-mounted rifle. Note the tube in the mouth for firing the rifle and the sight hanging down in front, also the lack of neck bracing. Legend has it that a man's neck was broken in testing this. There was a similar patent in 1949.

(centre and right) Two views of Perry and Goddard's pistol with a swivelling barrel, invented in 1868 and sold as a "double-header" or "perpetual revolver". Once a cartridge had been fired, the barrel was swivelled, and a second cartridge was inserted in what had been the business end. When the second cartridge was fired, it ejected the first spent cartridge case, and so on. US Patent 102429

Pictures on the right: marine innovations

(left) This 1854 version of a marine screw in which the larger part of the hull constitutes the screw, is from Scientific American, 18 February 1854, page 180.

(centre and right) Two views of an 1869 invention, designed to extract power from the movement of a sailing ship through the water, to operate the pumps and the like. Scientific American, 18 February 1869, page 180.

Fire escapes

Fire was a fearsome enemy when water was hard to come by, houses were of timber, and heating and lighting usually involved naked flames. Like flying machines, effective fire escapes exercised many minds.

(left) The escape " . . . consists of a long canvas bag made and fastened to a frame, which if placed crossways on the inside of the window frame is held perfectly fast. If a person wishes to get out of a house from an upper story when it is on fire, all that he has to do is to throw a ball of twine out into the street, which is fastened to the escape and drawn up. The frame of the escape is then crossed on the window and the bag of canvas twisted up in the form of a screw by persons in the street. The person inside the house gets in and is let down safely to the street by gradually untwisting the canvas bag. This simple machine will be an effectual help in cases of fire. The canvas can easily be made semi-fire-proof." Scientific American, 3 July, 1847, page 324

(centre) This one speaks for itself. In the event of fire, don wings and glide to safety.US Patent 912152.

(right) This one, though, requires a bit of explanation. The umbrella-like hat is to help the escapee fall slowly, and the thick-soled shoes are to cushion the landing. US Patent 221855.

00192.TIF3-hat-hanger.gif Any plan where you lose your hat is a bad plan

(left) This is an 1859 burglar alarm that is designed to fire off three shots when it is dislodged from a hotel or other door. In an emergency, you can also make it fire by hitting it with the heel of your hand. If you do it when there isn't an emergency, you will probably soon experience one. Or it may blow your hat off. It could also be loaded with ball or shot and carried in the waistcoat pocket: struck firmly on the base, it would fire three shots at once. Said Scientific American, July 16, 1859, page 40: "no traveler should be without one".

(centre) Gentlemen who get tired of raising their hats to ladies may prefer to use this gadget which does it for them. US Patent 556248.

(right) And think what happens when you hang a tall, stove-pipe-ish hat on a peg, and some other gentleman comes along to retrieve his hat! As often as not, yours is dislodged and rolls on the floor. or worse, is trodden on. This neat device, a loop of string, serves to hold hats of all sorts, neatly against the wall. Scientific American, 12 September, 1866, page 186.

Pictures on the right:

(left) An early bicycle, as depicted in Scientific American, 27 March, 1869, page 196, supposedly a true representation of an 1823 Connecticut attempt.

(centre) "The engraving needs little explanation. The feet are placed on short stilts connected with the cranks, one on either side of the rim, while the rider sits upon a steel spring saddle over the center of the whole wheel. The inventor modestly limits the diameter of the wheel to twelve feet, and the number of revolutions at fifty per minute. Twenty-five miles per hour is the speed expected to be reached." Scientific American, 13 February, 1869, page 101

(right) A curious form of unicycle, hand-powered, rather than foot-powered. Scientific American, 6 March, 1869, page 149. The text claims that it is faster than the greyhound, shown running alongside.

Pictures on the right:

(left) This is US Patent 606887, and it is used to remove poisons from the body by electricity. One electrode, the negative one, is a vegetable, a copper plate or raw meat, depending on whether the poison is of vegetable, mineral or animal origin. Hmmmm.

(centre) When the patient gets sicker, due to a lack of cure, he will need a nursing table, with a tube to drink from, and what I took to be a funnel to vomit in, but apparently it was for spitting into.

(right) Then when nought avails, the corpse can be kept on ice in this patent corpse preserver. People were almost as keen on funerary things as they were on inventing fire escapes.

The fear of being buried alive

(left) Most inventions in this category allowed the corpse-who-wasn't to signal those on the surface. Experts said that nobody would be unaffected by the processes of preparation, but still the fear was out there, festering quietly in the minds of inventors. US Patent 522110.

(centre) Here, the watchers above ground can remain vigilant for signs of returning life, so there is no signal. There is a small electric light and a periscope. US Patent 901407.

(right) Perhaps you would like to keep a loved one on display? A sort of giant paperweight? Would you make grandma into a snowdome? US Patent 748284. venerable wombats

Pictures on the right:

(left) If cycling worried you because of the risk of a fall, one could always cycle on the water, but unlike more modern versions, this one looks inherently unstable.

(centre) Perry Davis, aside from making squillions from an opium-laced pain-killer (the same one that Tom Sawyer gave to his aunt's cat), invented this ingenious buggy-boat, where flaps on the wheels became paddles, with cranks to turn the wheels. Yes, but where did the horse ride?

(right) It was probably safer to ride in an omnibus.

Pictures on the right:

(left) Mind you, the roads were becoming more risky, as steam carriages emerged. It didn't take long for people to bring in the "Red Flag" act in Britain, demanding that all sorts of warning be given, such as a man walking in front with a red flag, or a red lantern at night.

(right) On the rails, here was a solution to the annoying need to turn a train around. Perhaps it later inspired the post-WW II Studebaker?

Pictures on the right:

(left) A steam-powered balloon. In the mid-19th century, it was a very popular theme.

(centre) A balloon with an unstated power source, but it must have been steam as well.

(right) And you can see what power this one works on. I don't think this was designed as a fire escape, but many schemes like this were offered as a means of gliding away from a burning building. US Patent 132022.

Pictures on the right:

(left) I had no idea what the dangling bit is, but I now think it may be some sort of stabiliser, going on a comment I read about this machine. Could it have been modelled on a mosquito?

(left centre) This cut shows a serious (!) proposal to carry a man aloft. Eagles and geese were considered good candidates as motive power.

(right centre) This one was a bit more practical, perhaps. It was a balloon that was to be pulled along by captive eagles. US Patent 363037

(right) Shaw's patent balloon was an oval balloon and a hand-operated fan propeller. Quoth Scientific American: Fulton was derided and Fitch was called a maniac; George Stephenson was held in no higher estimation when he first broached his plans and projects for railway machinery; but time has shown that these men were not fools, although their scoffers were. Who shall say that "The Overland Balloon Company" will not yet be established?

This file is
Created September 8, 2009 (twice). It was last updated on July 29, 2011.
It was created by Peter Macinnis -- but that e-mail bounces: if you want to make contact, put peter in front: no dots, no spaces: I won't list it in full because robots can harvest it, and I am fed up with Spam. Humans can make the change and get in touch.
Full compilation copyright is claimed on this set. Information about the creator' published books may be found here. Since I started this site, it has drawn visitors.