Today, we look at English inventions 85 years ago.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I have a neat little book
here. Authors Rodney Dale and Joan Gray show us a
sample of 600 English patents out of 140,000 that
were registered between 1901 and 1905. A few of the
inventions changed history, but most of them
didn't. In many cases it's pretty clear that the
devices wouldn't even have worked.
For example, here's the English patent for a Wright
Brothers glider, and there's a wonderfully unlikely
machine that flaps inadequate wings like a kiwi
bird. We also see helicopters and dirigibles that
might well have been made to work.
Many of the inventions were meant to serve the
popular Edwardian theatre -- artificial horses,
magic tricks, and means for seeing around ladies
hats. You also find a shocking array of straps,
stays, and heavy metal meant to shape the female
body into something that might have come from
We're reminded how many false starts led to the
array of household appliances we use today. Here's
an orange peeler, an anti-bed-wetting device, a
gadget for picking up pins. There's a special
pickle spoon and a thing to help you swallow pills.
We find a wonderful profusion of impossible
perpetual-motion machines. Most of them are just
variations on a machine first suggested in India
during the 12th century. But one of them is new.
It's a cable projecting 150 miles into the sky to
snatch electricity out of the ether. The cable
would weigh 80 tons, but that's no problem. Once
we've found a way to stand it up, we're told that
the ether will hold it in place.
Yet there is a good deal of meat in this Dagwood
sandwich. We see Fleming's patent for the first
radio diode. We see primary patents for puffed
wheat, nitric acid production, gyrostabilization,
and embryonic forms of both the hovercraft and
English patents were good for three years. Then you
had to pay a fee to renew them. Only half the
inventors did so, and a scant 2½ percent of
them were still hanging on after 13 years.
These patents are a valuable record. For one thing,
they tell us what people thought about in
turn-of-the-century England. They also tell us
something that seasoned engineers know. They tell
us that you have to be ready to fail fifty times if
you want to succeed once. That's all right, because
you have fifty good ideas in your head, and then
you have fifty more. This book is not by any means
a record of failure. It's really a record of all
the mind-stretching fun that lies on the road to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds