"PATENTS APPLIED FOR."
SOME STORIES OF UNAPPRECIATED INVENTIONS.
By BERNARD OWEN.
The London Magazine, August 1904
THE fact that some twenty-four thousand applications for patents are made to the British Patent Office every year shows that the inventive genius of the nation is in no immediate danger of dying out. In America the same state of things prevails, for about forty thousand applications for patents are made at Washington annually, and all the great nations can produce similarly striking figures.
It is commonly said that necessity is the mother of invention, but it would certainly be difficult to find a necessity for a considerable percentage of the weird and wonderful contrivances that men and women design in the hope of winning fame and fortune by them. Many are utterly impracticable, some are of no commercial value, and others merely do work that could be done better without them. On the other hand, of course, every year sees the development of time and labour-saving contrivances of the highest commercial importance, and it is a remarkable fact that the moat successful inventions are frequently those simple little things which anybody could have made if only they had thought of it - but it is just in the thinking of it that the inventor scores.
It is no easy matter to tell whether a new contrivance, excellent in itself, will "catch on" or not, for it often happens that an excellent device never achieves popularity, while some trivial and unimportant contrivance sells by the thousand. It sometimes occurs that the invention is before its time and that this steady old world of ours is not yet ready for it. The following is an example of an invention of this sort.
A cute New Yorker thought that the world had been waiting quite long enough for an easier way of cleaning their boots, so he set about inventing an automatic apparatus to polish the understandings of the multitude. The mechanical boot cleaner was patented, made, and duly bought over here and fixed up in a railway station. One of the first customers to sit on the stool in front of it was a burly Yorkshireman, whose hands and feet were evidently designed rather for use than for ornament. He fingered his penny for some time and then placed it reluctantly into the slot, while with a great deal of trouble he forced his number twelves into the holes indicated for the purpose. The machine was intended to operate upon the average English or American boot, and the presence of feet of such well-developed proportions was too much for it, and like the historical grandfather's clock, "it stopped short, never to go again."
The Yorkshireman waited for a while, wondering when the polishing process was going to begin, and if his precious penny was really lost to him for ever: then he started shaking the machine to the accompaniment of forcible expressions of disapproval. Finding that shaking and vituperation had no effect upon the apparatus, he gave an enormous tug and contrived to release one of his feet. He was at a disadvantage in having only one foot available, but with its aid he managed to put in such vigorous action that in a few minutes the automatic boot cleaner looked as if it had been used as a target at short range by a cannon. It made a distinct mistake in attempting to play tricks on the business end of a famous footballer.
It is a curious fact that most would-be inventors try to tackle something about which they know little or nothing; they rarely confine their attention to those departments of business which they understand, and in nine cases out of ten this is the secret of their non-success. The following may serve as examples of the amusing side of a serious and important subject.
The growing baldness of the male portion of the community has for a long time exercised the thoughts of an ingenious gentleman, who has recently perfected an apparatus which he believes will come as a boon and a blessing to those who lament the loss of their hirsute adornments. It consists simply of a rubber cap which fits tightly to the scalp. This is connected by a tube to a powerful air pump, by- means of which a vacuum can he produced inside the cap. As everyone knows, "Nature abhors a vacuum," and so the ingenious inventor concluded that a luxuriant growth of hair would immediately sprout forth from the scalp in order to fill up the vacant space.
Quite a number of patents have been taken out for self-lighting cigars and cigarettes, the notion being in most cases to coat the business end of the article with a phosphorous composition similar to that on a lucifer match. All that would then be necessary would be to rub the end of the cigar on the nearest wall, and there you are. But surely the designers of this ingenious contrivance could not have been smokers, or they would have known that the flavour of the tobacco would be irreparably ruined by its contact with phosphorus, and that in addition the smoker would stand a good chance of being poisoned.
Apropos of matches, a gentleman sometime ago became alarmed at the rapid disappearance of the woods and forests that formerly clothed so large a portion of the country. He reflected upon the alterations in climate which are brought about in this way, and came to the conclusion that any invention which would tend to check the destruction of trees must he a very valuable one. By some strange perversion of mental vision, he decided that the felling of trees was due not so much to the building of houses and other structures requiring large quantities of wood, as to the manufacture of matches; and he evolved a great scheme for putting an end to this deplorable waste. His notion was nothing more or less than to make matches out of wood pulp instead of wood. When somebody enquired where the wood pulp was to come from, his delightful scheme vanished into thin air.
Another genius hit upon a device for climbing hills without fatigue. He reflected that in going uphill the toes are raised above the heel, and the ankle is thus sharply flexed; and he came to the conclusion that if the heel could somehow be raised, so as to keep the feet in a horizontal position, the difficulty would be overcome. He therefore devised a patent heel, attached to the boot by means of a screw and nut, by turning which the heel could be drawn out to any required length, while on reaching level ground it could be once more screwed in again by turning the nut in the reverse direction. Anyone who has tried to climb a hill when wearing high-heeled boots will be able to form his own opinion of the practicability of this invention.
Many attempts have been made to improve upon the harmless, but necessary, umbrella. In order to prevent rain dripping from it, an umbrella has been devised with a kind of gutter running round it, to which an indiarubber tube is attached, which trails along the ground and carries off the water. A variation upon this is to build the umbrella in an inverted shape, very much like one that has been blown inside out, so that the water naturally flows to the middle and runs off through the handle, which is made hollow for the purpose.
But the most wonderful dodge of all was that of a man who proposed to attach a sponge to the extremity of each rib, in order to absorb the water. When the sponges were filled, all that you had to do was to give them a squeeze, and so rid them of the collected water. The sight of a city man going about with his black silk umbrella studded round the margin with small sponges about the size of oranges, would certainly tend to add to the gaiety of this grey, weary world of ours!
Yet another umbrella device was specially intended for the benefit of ladies who might wish to be saved the inconvenience of holding the thing up when it rained. Two uprights of iron were to be attached to the lady's shoulders by an arrangement of straps going across the back and under the armpits, and on the top of the uprights was fixed a light frame supporting the umbrella. Thus the lady's hands were kept free for other purposes; but what would happen if a sudden gust of wind took the umbrella unawares, the inventor did not stop to consider.
A lady of inventive genius not long ago devised a parasol which, by an arrangement of hinges, could be converted into a large fan of the type used by Hindoo servants to wave over their masters' heads. The idea was practicable enough, but was only subject to the objection that the parasol was liable to transform itself into a fan, and the fail into a parasol, at awkward and unexpected moments.
A marvellous invention hailing from the United States consisted of a new bedstead which was guaranteed to wake the soundest sleeper in the twinkling of an eye. It was intended to be fitted up in hotels, so as to meet the possibility of "boots" forgetting to call you. The hotel guest dropped a shilling into the slot at the head of the bed, and turned the indicator to the hour at which he wanted to be aroused. When that hour arrived the mechanism with diabolical ingenuity, and fiendish disregard for the sleeper's feelings, commenced to reproduce a miniature earthquake, and shook the traveller up to such an extent that unless he had been in the habit of sleeping on the back of a bucking broncho, he would be quickly awakened.
This effort of misplaced genius accompanied its violent evolutions by a solo on an electric bell, at the same time lighting a lamp and heating the shaving water.
In its anxiety to perform its duty, the machine sometimes mistook the hour of its action and awakened the tenant of the bed at the wrong time. One morning, in a skittish mood, the thing went off at three o'clock, and when the sleeper was sitting up in bed rubbing his eyes and wondering if he had been kicked by a mule, or if the bottom of the house had fallen out, he made a solemn vow of vengeance and went resolutely forth into the cold, unaired morning. When the first streaks of dawn lit up the eastern sky, that wrathful traveller returned with a chopper that he had found in the yard, and speedily reduced wheels, bells, wires and battery to chaos, as a protest against mechanical unpunctuality.
The teaching of babies to walk is one of the joys of young motherhood, and callous must be the man who would propose to utilise machinery for such a purpose. But there was such a man, and his idea was a kind of cross between the old-fashioned go-cart and a miniature marine engine. The unfortunate baby was to be strapped into a small frame supported on wheels, and holding it in an erect position, so that its feet just touched the ground. The whole was then attached by an elastic rope to a hook in the ceiling. Behind the child was a small box containing mechanism which could be actuated either by electricity or by clockwork. The machine had a couple of protruding arms, the ends of which were strapped to the little victim's ankles.
All that you had to do was to set the works going, and these arms steadily worked the wretched infant's legs backwards and forwards: and the movements of its feet on the floor made the whole thing travel along.
On paper this looks feasible enough, but in actual use the movement of the legs would have been unnatural, and not only wearisome, but positively injurious. Fancy, too, what would happen if the mechanism went wrong and the speed became accelerated, so that the unoffending infant was driven at express speed round and round, cannoning against the furniture, colliding with the domestic cat, and generally reducing the room to chaos.
A respected minister of the Scottish Kirk, who spent much of his time in the trains, patented a device for promoting the comfort of railway passengers. It simply consisted of a hammock provided with a couple of iron hooks to be attached to the hat rack. The passenger then reclined at his ease, and slumbered as peacefully as if he had paid for a first-class sleeping car. But the reverend gentleman forgot that the racks are designed for light articles only, and that he was a man of solidity if not of substance. We pass over the details of his first- and last- attempt to sleep in the newly invented hammock. Suffice it to say that he appeared before his astonished congregation on the following Sabbath morning in a most equivocal condition, having in addition to a black eye several large strips of sticking plaster adorning his face and head.
Mr. H. C. Braun, C.E., the inventors' engineer, of North Street, King's Cross, for the last quarter of a century has enjoyed a unique experience in the development of patents in practically every branch of industry, some 50,000 inventions having passed through his hands, and to him we are indebted for much information on the subject generally. He tells a pathetic story of a man who wasted all his little capital, and several years of his life in the endeavour to invent a machine which was not only unnecessary, but had actually been placed on the market many years before.
It was a universal saw sharpener, and was guaranteed to set any saw, from the tiny instrument used by jewellers to the huge ones to be seen in the timber yard and the stone quarry. Mr. Braun, to whom he came for advice about patenting the invention, pointed out to him that there would be no market for it, simply because the man who wishes to set a fretsaw does not require a machine capable of sharpening a stone-mason's saw, and vice versa. Moreover he assured him that he had constructed such a machine for another inventor fifteen years before, which had been put on the market, and had proved an utter failure.
The poor old man- he was about seventy-five- would not believe it until he was taken to the house of the previous inventor, where he saw the machine, which was practically identical with his own. He assured himself of the fact, and then without another word he went away, sobbing like a child. Next day his body was found in the canal.
Many of the more ambitious schemes that are from time to time brought forward are nothing more or less than attempts to discover the secret of perpetual motion, either by utilising the heat of the sun or the surplus electricity of the earth, but always by robbing nature in some way or other. Now, nature will not be robbed, and perpetual motion is just as far off as ever. But schemes of this sort are very frequently exploited by swindlers.
Some time ago an old Italian, who posed as a professor, took a room near the Gray's Inn Road, and there set up a wonderful model engine which consisted of a combined motor and dynamo. The electricity from the dynamo worked the motor and the motor in turn worked the dynamo. Not only would the machine run for ever, but the "professor" claimed that there was sufficient surplus electricity generated to do other work also.
On the strength of this he succeeded in extracting large sums of money from a man who thought that the invention had a fortune in it. At last this man grew tired of drawing cheques, and consulted Mr. Braun, who went with him to view the machine. The model stood upon a slender Chippendale table, placed in the middle of an elegantly furnished apartment. The inventor pressed a button and the machine began to work.
Mr. Braun, who, as a practical engineer, was convinced that the entire business was a fraud, pretended that he could not see the model well, and proposed to move it nearer the window. The Italian protested, and finally threatened to stab him if he touched it. Disregarding these threats, he seized the table and moved it, upon which two small pins sticking up through the carpet came into evidence. These fitted into sockets in the legs of the table, which contained wires connected with the dynamo. Needless to say, the two pins passed through the floor, and were connected with a powerful battery below, and the pretended discovery of perpetual motion was seen to be nothing more than a device for obtaining money by false pretences.
An invention of which more may be heard some day is designed to do away with the danger caused by sparks from railway engines, and also to diminish the annoyance from smoke suffered by the passengers. It simply consists of turning the funnel of the engine downwards, so that it passes under the engine and beneath the carriages of the train, being, of course, coupled together somewhat after the fashion of the vacuum brake. By arranging a small inlet for air in front of the engine, a sufficient draught is caused to carry both smoke and steam to the rear of the train. It has been suggested that this might be utilised to warm the carriages, by being passed through the box seats. The invention sounds eccentric, but it is perfectly practicable, and offers several advantages over the existing methods, so that its ultimate adoption is quite within the region of probability.
A much more ambitious scheme in connection with the railway service formed itself in the brain of a native of India, and was intended to solve the question of crossing; the Channel without having to change from train to boat. His motion was to make a gigantic floating drum, which could be brought to the landing stage, and so arranged that the train would run right into it. The opening by which the train entered was then to be hermetically sealed, and the engine would continue to work as on land. The position of affairs would then be identical with that of a squirrel in a revolving cage. The train not being able to "loop the loop," the drum would be made to revolve, and the outside being fitted with huge paddles, the whole thing would then roll rapidly forward until it reached the opposite shore. How the thing would be guided in its passage through the waters, and by what means the passengers would be preserved from suffocation, were points which the inventor left unexplained.
We have dealt only with the lighter side of the subject, but it must be remembered that in connection with great engineering enterprises, new inventions of the highest importance and of the utmost value are being continually devised; and the work of an inventor's engineer consists very greatly in the development and testing of machines which in many cases are destined to bring their inventors many times their weight in gold.