Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 202:
ENGLISH INVENTIONS, 1901-1905

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 202.

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 Planet Nine.

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 radar.

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 success.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Dale, R. and Gray, J., Edwardian Inventions: 1901-1905. London: W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd., 1979

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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