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Design Fail, 19th-Century Edition: 18 Patents That Didn’t Change The World

Enough about world-changing designs. Here, drawings of 18 crackpot ideas, from fake leeches to walking stick guns, that never quite made it.

A walking stick that doubles as a rifle. An artificial leech. A cravat that conceals spikes to protect its wearer from being strangled. A corset with expandable busts. An invalid’s exercising chair.

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These are just a few of the curious designs featured in Inventions That Didn’t Change the World, a new book by historian Julie Halls, which offers a visual tour through the weird world of 19th-century patenting (then called “design protection”), complete with elaborate color drawings and calligraphed plans.

In the Victorian Era, everyone who applied to copyright an invention had to provide drawings of the design to the government’s Designs Registry in London. Some of these designs would go on to change the way we live–like the telephone, steam engine, railway, and light bulb–which gave 19th-century Britain the reputation of being the greatest manufacturing nation in the world. But there were also thousands of designs that never saw the light of day–some were useless, failing to solve any real problems, others were downright absurd.


The submitted drawings of these design fails have, since the 19th century, been holed up in the National Archives, which look after more than 1,000 years of British government records. Until now, most have only been seen by a few determined researchers.


Halls, a specialist in 19th-century registered designs at The National Archives, decided to give these weird rejects their first moment in the sun by compiling the archival drawings in a book. It’s a gorgeous compendium of crackpot ideas, reminding us that design is a Darwinian struggle–only the fittest inventions survive.

Click the slide show above for some examples of design dodo birds, from the “Bonafide Ventilating Hat” to the “Portable Rotary Hair Brushing Machine” to the “Improved Combined Glove And Purse.” Perhaps designers will be inspired to give a few of them a second chance?

Inventions That Didn’t Change The World is available from Thames & Hudson here for $22.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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