With the uncertain economy, lingering wars, and the ever-present threats of everything from bird flu to Bieber Fever, it's tempting to long for the "good old days." But just how good were they?
Buckle up for a bumpy ride down memory lane (and try not to get trampled) as these 665 funny history facts and terrifying truths reveal the unfortunate reality of life during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From patents that should still be pending to hairdos that attract vermin, these horrors will leave you thankful you didn't have to struggle to live through them.
Brace yourself as the truth hits you like an ice-cold Victorian-era shower with enough pressure to knock you unconscious. Get ready to shudder with laughter (or horror) at these funny moments in history that are not to be forgotten.
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PATENTS THAT SHOULD STILL BE PENDING
Failed and foolish inventions, and the rocky road to progress
1 * For your eyes only
Shy about how you look in a swimsuit? Maybe you need a "bathing machine," invented by a Quaker in 1753. It consisted of a horse drawn half-carriage containing a "modesty tunnel" that allowed swimmers (fully clothed, mind you) to wade into the ocean in complete privacy.
2 * They knew it like the backs of their hands
Before the invention of the blackboard in 1809 (or 1801 or 1823, depending on the account), teachers had no way to present information to all students at once. The dilemma was epitomized by Olive M. Isbell, who opened the first school in California in 1846 — after the blackboard's invention, but before its arrival in the Golden State. Lacking not only a blackboard but also slates or paper, she resorted to writing the alphabet on the backs of pupils' hands.
3 * If he'd died, we might have been spared Xanadu
John Joseph Merlin, the inventor of roller skates, discovered his creation's limitations the hard way in his spectacular debut at a London masquerade party in 1760: Making a grand entrance, he rolled into the ballroom atop two pairs of iron wheels, playing a violin. But, according to a contemporary account, Merlin's skates lacked "the means of retarding his velocity or commanding its direction." So "he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces, and wounded himself most severely."
4 * It's still faster than post
The laying of the first trans-Atlantic communications cable in 1858 was hailed by President Buchanan, in a cable to Queen Victoria, as "a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle." It wasn't exactly a speedy triumph, however: The first trans-Atlantic telegram took more than seventeen hours to transmit.
5 * Short-circuit at 20,000 leagues under the sea
The "glorious" triumph of the trans-Atlantic cable would last only one month. Beneath the waves, the cable's insulation began to deteriorate. An excess of voltage, applied in hopes of speeding transmission fried the already-vulnerable wires. Transatlantic telegraphy would not be permanently restored for eight years.
6 * If only he hadn't been so meticulous
Johann Philipp Reis, a German schoolteacher, actually beat Alexander Graham Bell in inventing the telephone by fifteen years. But Reis's invention worked only when the electrical contacts were dusty — and Reis ordinarily kept his equipment spotless. He died thinking his telephone was a failure.
7 * Telegraphing the punch
A Western Union internal memo in 1876 dismissed the telephone as having "too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication."
8 * These are the bounciest bullets I've ever seen!
The multitalented Alexander Graham Bell also came up with a metal detector, part of the exhaustive, if mostly wrongheaded efforts, to save the life of President James Garfield, wounded by an assassin. Bell's detector, designed to locate the bullets still within the dying president's body, worked like a charm in the lab but mysteriously failed in Garfield's sickroom. Only when it was much too late was it discovered that Bell's invention had been detecting the metal springs in Garfield's bed instead of the assassin's bullets.
9 * Wind the alarm!
An 1870s burglar alarm design relied on a clockwork mechanism. You wound it up, then set a triggering lever and placed the wedge-shaped booby trap at the foot of a door, securing it with a spike pushed into the floor. An unwitting burglar opening the door would depress the lever and set off a loud alarm bell.
10 * For whom the bell tolls
Responding to Victorians' fixation with the fear of being buried alive, inventor George Bateson marketed the Bateson Revival Device, advertised as "a most economical, ingenious, and trustworthy mechanism, superior to any other method, and promoting peace of mind amongst the bereaved in all stations of life. A device of proven efficacy, in countless instances in this country and abroad." Popularly known as a "Bateson's Belfry," the device, patented in 1852, used an iron bell attached to a cord placed in the hand of the (maybe) deceased; the least bit of subterranean motion, it was said, would ring the bell. Though the invention made Bateson wealthy, his own obsession with premature burial led him to take the drastic step of dousing himself with linseed oil and committing suicide by setting himself on fire in 1886.
11 * It's right under your nose!
Moustaches were a constant dinner time challenge for men in the nineteenth century. Among the many inventions designed to keep facial hair out of your soup (and vice versa) was a moustache shield patented in 1876 by Virgil A. Gates. The moustache-sized band was held in place by straps around the ears.
12 * The truth comes to light
The great Thomas Edison's first major demonstration of incandescent electric lights at his Menlo Park laboratory in 1879, in which two buildings glowed with lights, was mostly a fake. His overworked glass blowers had been able to make only thirty-four light bulbs, so the balance was made up by old-fashioned gas lamps.
13 * Whoa, Nellie!
A subsequent, grander Edison demonstration, set to debut in September 1882, involved lighting an entire section of lower Manhattan. Horses behaved skittishly around the district that was being wired for electricity — a mystery that was solved when it was found that leaking electricity was zapping their metal horseshoes.
14 * Nothing to smile about
Edison's great Wall Street demonstration also ran into problems back at the lab. Several of his assistants' teeth fell out because of mercury poisoning from overexposure to the mercury pump used in making light bulbs.
15 * Don't touch that wire!
But it wasn't just the "Wizard of Menlo Park" and his crew that occasionally ran afoul of the eccentricities of electricity. In 1896, Edison's former partner, Franklin Pope, electrocuted himself while fiddling with the wiring of his own house. The news convinced many that this newfangled electricity would never prove safe.
16 * Think of it as a private fireworks display
Even after electrical sockets became common on the walls of houses — at first they were installed only overhead, as part of light fixtures — it required some courage to use them. Wall sockets commonly emitted smoke and ominous crackling sounds, and sometimes even shot sparks out into the room.
17 * Some dense ideas
Not everything Thomas Edison touched proved so, well, electric — he had 1,093 patents, after all. Among his more half-baked ideas was an obsession with making things from cement — not just buildings, but cement pianos and phonograph cabinets. Although he formed the Edison Portland Cement Company to pursue his dream of cement products, it never lived up to his hopes.
18 * Turning their weapons against them
Thomas Edison also developed plans to construct gigantic electromagnets for the battlefield, so powerful that not only could the magnets stop bullets in-flight, but would send them whizzing back to shoot the enemy that had fired them.
19 * You're getting sleepy
Edison also envisioned "electrically charged atomizers" that would be able to put enemy armies into mass comas.
20 * Write this way
The first ballpoint pen was patented in 1888 by Massachusetts tanner John Loud. His complex pen used four tiny balls, ink made from lampblack and caster oil, and had to be held straight up and down to write. Designed to mark on leather and other rough surfaces, Loud's pioneering pen, not surprisingly, never found true commercial application.
21 * Life before programmable appliances
Tea lovers had to go to pretty convoluted lengths in the early 1900s to wake up to a piping-hot cup of their favorite beverage. One elaborate solution was to attach an alarm clock to a teakettle. When the alarm went off, it struck a match against moving sandpaper, which lit a small burner underneath the kettle of water. When the water boiled, the pressure of the steam would lift a hinged flap, tilting the kettle to fill a teapot waiting underneath.
22 * Apparently chicken blindness was a real problem
Eyeglasses for chickens? The spectacles patented in 1902 by Andrew Jackson Jr. (no relation to the seventh president) were designed to protect hens' eyes from being pecked by rival birds — not (we're pretty sure) to improve their view of the barnyard.
23 * That had to suck
Early vacuum cleaners were not exactly convenient. Patented in 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth's "Puffing Billy" was so big that it required a horse-drawn cart to reach a customer's home. With the oil-fueled engine parked outside, a cleaning crew hauled hoses into the house through doors and windows. Nonetheless, wealthy society ladies threw "vacuum cleaner parties," where guests sipped tea and lifted their feet for Booth's uniformed crew.
24 * Vacuum and home gym all in one
Sometimes mechanized cleaning also involved a workout: The Kotten vacuum cleaner, produced in 1910, required the operator to stand on a platform and "rock from side to side like a teeter-totter," working twin bellows.
25 * Quite a stretch
So challenging were the musical compositions of Stravinsky, Debussy, and other composers of the age that pianists were encouraged to stretch their fingers — using a special finger-stretching device invented in 1910. Careful, though: It was said that Igor Stravinsky damaged his hands by employing the gizmo too vigorously.
26 * A leap of faith
The newfangled era of air travel soon brought its own ancillary inventions, not all of them as successful as the Wright Brothers'. Take, for example, the illfated parachute jacket invented by Franz Reichert in 1912. The idea was simple: Why bother with a separate parachute when you could incorporate one into your jacket? Reichert planned a headline-grabbing demonstration of the parachute jacket in which he would leap off the Eiffel Tower. He leaped. The parachute failed to deploy. He died.
27 * What am I, a mind-reader?
A 1919 article envisioned machines in every office that would read executives' minds, doing away with the need for dictation; stenographers, however, would still be required to transcribe the CEOs' thoughts.
28 * You won't want to hit "snooze"
In 1919, J.D. Humphrey patented a design for an "alarm clock" that woke you up with a blow to the forehead. The clock mechanism triggered a bedside baton on a pivot to drop, bonking the sleeper on the head.
29 * Tomorrow's forecast is coming up ... in six months
The first attempts to use mathematical calculations to predict the weather weren't much help with whether to take an umbrella today. An early attempt at "numerical weather prediction" by mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson took several months to calculate a six-hour forecast near Munich — which proved wildly inaccurate. Undaunted, in a 1922 book Richardson envisioned 64,000 mathematicians performing the necessary calculations simultaneously.
30 * Why do it yourself?
Henry Ford imagined a future in which everything would be done by machines, where a man would "press a button by the side of the bed and find himself automatically clad, fed, exercised, amused, and put to bed again."
31 * You are here
A 1920s version of today's GPS navigation devices, lacking modern computers and satellites, relied instead on paper maps: The wristwatch-sized gizmo used a series of tiny maps that owners could scroll through using little knobs at top and bottom.
32 * A lesson in stick-to-it-iveness
Masking tape, invented by Richard Drew in 1925, launched a whole industry for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M) — but it almost didn't happen. At the time, the company was focused on sandpaper. Drew visited an auto body shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, to test a new batch of sandpaper, and observed the tribulations of a crew painting the then-popular two-tone cars. Drew went back to his lab and experimented with backings and adhesives for masking tape, until company President William McKnight told him to quit fooling around and get back to sandpaper. Undeterred, Drew kept at it, financing the tape project by writing a series of $99 purchase orders — since he was authorized to make purchases under $100.
33 * Putting the "Scotch" in tape
The first tape made by 3M was a failure, however, because it used adhesive only along the edges, which caused it to fall off. One annoyed customer told inventor Richard Drew to "take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it"— and thus Scotch Tape was born.
34 * Call for Charlie McCarthy
Ventriloquists would love the Laryngaphone, introduced in 1929 to help in noisy situations where background noise might compete with the caller's voice: The microphone part of the telephone handset was pressed against the throat instead of held at the mouth, so speech vibrations from the larynx were transferred directly rather than through the air.
35 * Hurts so good
The "Electro Massager" of the 1930s attempted to cash in on the era's fad for body massage as a stimulant to health and good skin. The "Electro Massager" tried to go the competition one better, however, by applying small electrical shocks as it massaged.
36 * We're glad no thumbs are involved
Not just the body was thought to benefit from a hearty massage. Hence the Eye Massager, invented in the 1920s. You pressed the binoculars-like device against your face and operated small rubber bellows, which puffed air into your eyes to "massage" your eyeballs.
37 * Couldn't you just take a walk in the park?
The 1937 Baby Cage sought to revolutionize early child care by suspending an infant in a wire cage that could be hung outside a window, dangling over an alley or busy street. The idea was that city-dwelling families lacking a garden or other outdoor space could give their baby a breath of fresh air — at least until the 1930s version of Child Protective Services showed up.
38 * Does it come with a matching umbrella hat?
Smoking seems to have been the inspiration for a number of questionable inventions. In 1954, for instance, Robert L. Stern of Zeus Corporation designed the Rainy Day Cigarette Holder. In case of rain, a tiny umbrella popped up to shield the cigarette from the elements. The smoker might get wet, but not his smoke!
39 * Can't Bogart this smoke!
No need to pass a smoke back and forth with the handy "Double Ender" pipe, introduced in the late 1940s, which sported two stems attached to a single bowl. The manufacturer targeted pipe smokers down on their luck, who could thus split a pipeful of tobacco, and baseball fans who might want to share a smoke at a ball game.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Good Old Days, My Ass"
Copyright © 2012 F+W Media, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be,
1 PATENTS THAT SHOULD STILL BE PENDING Failed and foolish inventions, and the rocky road to progress,
2 ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO EAT THAT? Food, not-so-glorious food,
3 RATS AND OTHER FASHION ACCESSORIES Style and beauty back then,
4 HANG 'EM HIGH OR DRAWN AND QUARTERED? Crime and punishment through the ages,
5 FIRST, DO NO HARM — OOPS! Medicine's painful past,
6 CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO IMPOSSIBLE Sanitation and hygiene,
7 HOME IS WHERE THE HORROR IS The dirty truth about yesterday's houses,
8 NICE WORK IF YOU CAN SURVIVE IT Factories, farms and other death traps,
9 NO WONDER THEY CALL IT THE "DISMAL SCIENCE" Money and economics, the rich and (mostly) the poor,
10 LOW SOCIETY Fads, fallacies and fancies, holidays and living high on the hog,
11 WE ARE NOT AMUSED Sports, recreation and what our ancestors called "fun",
12 NO-GO Transportation flops and detours,
13 LIFE IN A STATE OF NATURE Wild things and natural (and unnatural) disasters,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Funny book to remind us that things weren't so good back in those 'good old days'.