Hal Roth - July 2007
Old News from Delmarva:
The March of Technology
“The most important scientific invention ever yet produced or brought to light since the world has been inhabited by man,” shouted a widely circulated letter to the editor in January 1850 from a man named Rufus Porter.
Porter was the founder, in 1845, of Scientific American, a newspaper describing new inventions, which evolved into a monthly magazine that interprets scientific developments to lay readers. Today it is the most highly regarded publication in its genre.
Following are the principal elements of Porter’s letter.
I am authorized to announce the discovery and practical test of the most important and scientific invention ever yet produced or brought to light since the world has been inhabited by man, an invention which must eventually, and almost immediately, produce an immense revolution in the commercial intercourse and business in general throughout the world; and, although it will break down and ruin many of the most important branches of business and avenues of wealth… yet it will build up thousands of thousands of others and contribute hundreds of millions to the benefit of mankind, especially to the American community.
The first and main feature and foundation of this invention, which at once opens a field for hundreds of other inventions, is the discovery by Henry M. Paine, Esq., of a ready and almost expenseless mode of decomposing water and reducing it to the gaseous state. By the simple operation of a very small machine, without galvanic batteries or the consumption of metals or acids, Mr. Paine produces 200 cubic feet of hydrogen gas and 100 feet of oxygen per hour. This quantity of these gases (the cost of which is less than one cent) will furnish as much heat by combustion as 2,000 feet of ordinary coal gas and sufficient to supply light equal to three hundred common lamps for ten hours, or to warm an ordinary dwelling house twelve hours, including the requisite heat for the kitchen. This invention has been tested by six months’ operation, applied to the lighting of houses, and recently the applicability of these gases to the warming of houses has also been tested with perfectly satisfactory results. A steam engine furnace and parlor stove, both adapted to the burning of these gases, have been invented and measures taken for securing patents therefore. The only actual expense of warming houses by this apparatus is that of winding up a weight (like the winding up of a clock) once a day. No smoke whatever is produced, but only a very small quantity of steam, sufficient to supply the requisite moisture to the atmosphere. In its application to the production of steam power, it will reduce the expense thereof to the mere wear of machinery, will immediately produce an immense demand for steam engines and the establishment of thousands of manufacturing mills, reduce the expense of traveling and increase the demand for agricultural products, while it ruins the coal and gas business and such manufacturing establishments as depend on monopoly and high prices. This invention, moreover, removes completely the only obstacle which has hitherto existed to aerial navigation––the difficulty of procuring hydrogen gas and carrying a supply of fuel; and it may now be considered a matter of tolerable certainty that men will be seen swiftly and safely soaring in various directions before the first of May next.
So what happened to this astounding invention that was about to revolutionize the world in 1850? Joseph Henry, the nation’s leading physicist at the time, spoke out loudly against fraudulent claims that often captured the public’s imagination, and he exposed Paine as “the most plausible of humbugs,” demonstrating that his claim violated the laws of physics and could not possibly work. It was all a hoax, folks.
We find old newspapers filled with reports of technological advances promising a better, safer, easier life. Here are a few others that captured your ancestors’ imagination, some of which were practical and useful and a few that remain viable today.
May 1833 – Dr. Zollickoffer, of Middlebury, Maryland, has made one of the most important discoveries that has been developed for many years. It is one in which every individual should feel deeply interested, because it has connected with its operation the preservation of the lives and limbs of those who attempt to ride in wheeled carriages. It is called the “Carriage Wheel Guard.” Should the lynch-pin come out, or the nut by which the wheel is kept in place come off, the wheel is preserved in its position and revolves with the same facility and with more security than when confined on the spindle by the lynch-pin or nut. Should the spindle on which the wheel revolves break off anywhere within the hub, the wheel revolves with equal security, safety and facility. Should the axletree break at its shoulder or anywhere else, the wheels are preserved also in their place, as though no accident of the kind had occurred, yet they become partially locked from the action of the instrument. In the case of either of the above-described accidents, the body suspended upon the axletree remains in its place, as though nothing had given way, and the wheels unaltered in their position. It is impossible to come to the ground unless the spokes or helices break altogether. The construction of this instrument is perfectly simple and may, we understand, be attached to any wheeled carriage at a very moderate expense. It is never brought in use unless an accident occurs, and it is therefore not exposed to injury, nor can it become impaired. It is consequently always in a condition to afford perfect security and answer in every instance the purposes for which it has been invented. Who would be without having this safeguard? Should it not be attached to the stages of the different lines throughout the United States? The doctor has obtained letters patent for this simple, ornamental and highly useful and all-important invention.
July 1872 – An ingenious Georgian has invented a “patent rail-splitter,” by which an immense pine log can be riven in a very brief time. A small iron cylinder or tube, about a half inch in diameter and six inches long, in two equal segments fitting closely together, is inserted into an orifice made with a common auger in the center of the fallen log. This is filled with powder by means of a slender tube surmounted with a funnel, the charge amounting to an ordinary musket load. A fuse is then attached and fired, and the toughest log is split like an acorn. The Georgians regard it as a grand laborsaving invention in these days when the laboring classes of the South have their time almost wholly engrossed by politics.
December 1885 – The introduction of the megaphone on shipboard––a sort of telescope for the ear or machine for magnifying sound––is said to be a boon in prospect for mariners. Its design is to enable a person to hear or carry on a conversation with people at a distance, and it is constructed of two huge cone-shaped tubes, eight feet long and three in diameter at the large end, which diminish to an apex in the form of rubber tubes small enough to place in the ear. Between these tubes are two smaller ones, constructed in the same manner, but not more than half the diameter. By placing the rubber tubes in the ear and speaking through the smaller cones, the person can hear and be heard at a long distance, and it thus aids mariners in listening for the sound of breakers or carrying on a conversation with persons on shore or another vessel at a distance.
July 1893 – Perpetual motion does not necessarily mean a machine that will run perpetually. That is the literal meaning of the term, but inventors do not bind themselves strictly to it. It is not supposed to be possible to do away with friction, therefore nothing can be perpetual. The commonly accepted meaning of perpetual motion is a mechanism that will operate itself.
Many men have gone crazy in the attempt to invent such a device. The young Spaniard who has invented a clock that he thinks will solve the problem has a strangely suggestive name for a man who is trying to accomplish what the world has failed in. He calls himself Luna.
July 1894 – “The railroad engine of the future will be a very different machine from those now in use,” said T. C. Willoughby. “In the first place, it will be so arranged that it will run in a vacuum by means of air pumps. It will be of torpedo shape in order to offer the least possible air resistance, and the air that goes into the pumps will be utilized as an additional motive power to that obtained from the steam or electricity used. Such an engine could be constructed to make at least 200 miles an hour and would wear longer than now, for the reason that the friction would be reduced to a minimum. A combination of the principles of the present locomotive and of the Pennoyer airship would result in a revolution in the mechanical world. I am not an inventor, but I know that such a machine is feasible and will some day be perfected.”
December 1894 – A new kind of mustard pot has been made that insures always having fresh mustard. It is the size of an ordinary mustard pot and consists of two parts, in the lower half of which is placed the dry mustard, while in the neck of the upper part is a small container for the water necessary for mixing, together with a little screw, which, when turned by the consumer, allows the water to escape into the mustard below, the two being amalgamated by a turn or two of the screw. In this way a fresh supply for each meal can be obtained without waste or trouble, and as the pot can be taken in two in an instant, there is no difficulty about cleaning it.
January 1902 – Mr. John K. Pfarr, of Baltimore, has recently invented a safety device for gasoline stoves, which he has patented. Before this there had been no safety contrivance in this line for the gasoline stove. With the new appliance the tank cannot be filled unless the fire is out, nor can the tank be opened before putting out the fires, no matter how many burners are connected, and the cap must be in place before the fire can be re-lighted. There are many more safety features too lengthy to explain in a short article, but the above are sufficient to be notable, as they will meet the very points that have heretofore been objected to in the gasoline stove. Mr. Pfarr is a friend of Mr. R. G. Anklam of the Anklam Manufacturing Company of this place, and our enterprising machinist is trying to locate the Pfarr factory here and make it a part of the Anklam manufacturing establishment. If Mr. Anklam is successful in drawing his friend’s attention to Denton and secures the new plant, from 25 to 30 men will be employed in the factory, and later the force will be increased. The “Pfarr” will be the gasoline stove of the future, it is confidently predicted. This safety device is not costly, and hundreds of thousands of them ought to be sold.
March 1906 – Clocks are now being made which, instead of striking, speak the hours through an ingenious application of the talking machine. The inventor has made clocks with speaking discs of various kinds to serve as alarms. You can be awakened by the vigorous crowing of a cock of the sound of a well-known voice. They are arranged to call out in various degrees of modulation, some loud enough to rouse the soundest sleeper. As alarm clocks, they should in time supercede all others, for the discs can be changed as often as the fancy dictates, so that the sleeper will not become so familiar with the call as to continue his slumber, as often happens in the use of the ordinary clocks with bells.
March 1906 – A device is reported of an air motorboat, which, while not remarkable as a speed craft, is yet very useful in navigating many bodies of water that on account of their extreme shallowness are practically closed to navigation. Other deeper rivers and lakes are likewise avoided by a screw or paddle wheel craft on account of their growths of rank vegetation.
A flat, shallow-draft launch has been constructed that overcomes both difficulties, for its screw propeller or fan works, not in the water but in the air. Driven by a motor, the fan whirling in the air sends the boat along at a good rate of speed.
March 1906 – Publications have been describing a very useful automatic watering can which the housewife might adapt to care for otherwise neglected plants.
A thick, untwisted cotton wick about five feet long is inserted in a rubber or glass tube about three feet long and of 1/4 inch bore, which is bent in U shape, one leg longer than the other, the wick being allowed to project at both ends. The short end of the tube is left in a pail of water overnight, while the wick takes up the water from the pail until it is saturated.
In the morning, the pail may be set on a stool, and the slow sweeping of water through the wick is started by suction. The wick at the end of the long leg of the improvised siphon is separated into several strands, one strand being placed in each pot to be watered. The caretaker may now go away for the day with the assurance that his flowers will receive all the water necessary. In warm weather it is best to cover the pail and wrap the tube cloth to prevent the wick from drying. The German inventor of this device says it has always worked successfully.
While the editor was having a little tongue-in-cheek fun with his readers in this September 1900 commentary, it does give us an insight into what people thought the future might hold for them a century ago.
The news item of the future will probably read something like this: “As Farmer Smith was delivering a bale of hay at the treasury building, and while waiting to have the government stamp affixed, his horses took fright at the limited express on the Washington and San Francisco airship line. They dashed down the avenue and, turning the corner at the uptown station of the Chicago Pneumatic Tube Rapid Transit Company, brought up with a dull thud against the celluloid window of the Potomac Artificial Egg Company. In the crash and general confusion, Farmer Smith’s head and two of his limbs were severed from the body, but he was promptly removed to the Edison Hospital, and after the electrical bone welding operation was performed, he was able to drive home and keep his appointment with the man who holds the mortgage on his farm.”
You can reach Hal Roth at email@example.com