In the 21st century, we’re obsessed with technological advances that promise to make our lives easier, healthier and generally better. Just look at the thousands of smart phone apps: Sonic mosquito repeller? Zombies, Run? (You get fit by fleeing imaginary Zombies.) The “Yo Mama Jokes” generator? But how many of these will exist in a century’s time? Not many, if the last great invention age is any indication.
A new book, Inventions That Didn’t Change the World, by British archivist Julie Halls, shows us that we were always obsessed with technological innovations that promised to make our lives better. The book features 200 color illustrations of gizmos and gadgets from the Victorian era (roughly 1832-1901) that seemed innovative at the time but never really took off.
It wasn’t until Halls, a record specialist at England’s National Archives, discovered a series of heavy, leather-bound volumes at work, that she uncovered the wealth of useless, if charming, designs from the period. “They shed light on the interests and preoccupations of the period,” says Halls. “The small, every day annoyances people had to deal with, problems they wanted to solve, or ways of doing things better, even if the solutions sometimes seem a bit misguided.”
For example, for 100 years, middle class men wore heavy, cumbersome top hats. “Because most men also wore hair oil at that time, quite an unpleasant atmosphere could build up inside the hat,” says Halls. Halls discovered a number of solutions to this problem, including the Bona-Fide Ventilating Hat. “It has a kind of grille system to ‘carry off perspiration from the interior’, as the description tells us,” she says.
Also in the category of sartorial invention was the ‘Anti-garroting Cravat,’ registered in 1862. Back then, England was in the throes of a garroting panic; mugging-by-strangulation was the criminal trend of the day, and even a member of parliament fell victim. So someone invented a collar “with
fearsome-looking spikes at the front, cunningly concealed by a cloth cravat,” says Halls. “Sadly,” she adds, “there is no record of whether the cravat ever actually succeeded in foiling a robbery.”
Even less useful was a diving suit called the Improved Diving Suit. It had a rubber tube inserted into the crotch, held in place with a rubber ring. The purpose was to let a diver urinate in medias dive without having to entirely disrobe. “It’s not very easy to see how this invention would work without water rushing into the diving suit,” says Halls, “but it’s an attempt to address a perennial problem for divers.”
A number of factors led to the proliferation of inventions during the Victorian era. “There was a widespread fascination with the way things worked, a culture of wanting to learn, and a strong belief in self-reliance and making your own way in the world,” says Halls. Mechanical engineers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson were celebrated as national heroes for their railway innovations. Publications like Mechanics Magazine, Popular Science Monthly and The Engineer became popular among amateur inventors. And in 1843, The Utility Designs Act allowed would-be inventors to secure a three-year copyright for only £10. (Until this point, a 14-year patent cost £400, which most people could not afford.)
People were “motivated by a spirit of entrepreneurship,” Halls says. “It seems to have been a time of great optimism, and there was also then, as now, a love of ingenious gadgets. Why some of the designs seemed like a good idea–the ‘Sunette parasol or umbrella’, which has glass peepholes inserted into it, springs to mind–is a mystery, but these were the days before consumer testing.”