Category Archives: Inventions

1579: Light your home with dung-dissolved glow worms

Thomas Lupton was an English moralist, eccentric and author of the 16th century. A staunch Protestant and an advocate for public welfare, Lupton wrote numerous manuscripts on several topics in the last quarter of the 1500s.

One of his tomes, the ornately titled A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts, was a disjointed collection of recipes, hints and medical receipts, gathered from various sources. Like others of his era, Lupton’s tips ranged from practical common sense advice to Paracelsian nonsense and bizarre wives’ tales.

For example, to “clear and strengthen” your eyes, Lupton says to “wash them in the morning with your own water [urine]”. To stop a nosebleed, tie a thin thread tightly on your little finger. To strengthen the vital parts and “chief members” [genitals], or to avoid the plague, drink “burning gold quenched in our wine”. To kill intestinal worms, drink ox gall. If you’ve lost your voice, go to bed with a piece of raw beef tied to your forehead. For haemorrhoids, apply black wool or brown paper.

For warts, Lupton cites a common medieval treatment:

“Cut off the head of a quick eel and rub the warts all over well with the same blood, as it runs from the eel, then bury the head of the said eel deep in the ground. When the head is rotten, they will fall away.”

For chronic tooth decay and pain:

“The powder of earthworms, mice dung or a hart’s tooth, put into the holes of teeth that be worm-eaten, doth pluck them up by the roots, or make them fall out without any other instrument.”

Finally, Lupton offers a means of lighting your home, three centuries before the advent of electricity:

“Worms that shine in the night, called glow worms, being well stopped in a glass and covered with horse dung, standing there a certain time, will be dissolved into a liquor, which being mixed with a like proportion of quicksilver [mercury]… and then put up in the midst of a house will give such a bright light in the dark, as the Moon doth when she shines in a bright night.”

Source: Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts, 1590 ed. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1879: Tennessee man invents the ‘parachute hat’

Opponheimer’s invention for head-based base jumping

In 1879 a Tennessee man named Benjamin B. Oppenheimer filed one of the wackiest patent applications in history. Described as an “improvement in fire escapes”, Oppenheimer’s invention aimed to save the lives of people trapped in burning multi-storey buildings. The diagram here tells most of the story, however for the record Oppenheimer’s patent application described his invention as:

“A headpiece constructed in the nature of a parachute, made of soft or waxed cloth, awning cloth or other suitable fabric. The parachute is about four or five feet in diameter, stiffened by a suitable frame and attached by leather straps or other fastening… Overshoes with elastic bottom-pads of suitable thickness take up the concussion with the ground. [This device allows] a person to safely jump out of the window of a burning building from any height and land, without injury and without the least damage, on the ground”.

Oppenheimer’s ‘parachute hat’ was granted a patent in November 1879 but as expected, it did not take off (or jump off). More than a century later, however, the US Army picked up on Oppenheimer’s shock-absorbing boots, citing his idea in a 1996 patent application for improved footwear for paratroopers.

Source: US Patent Office, US221855/A, November 18th 1879. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1910: Mantelet invents the breast douche

Nothing is known about Frenchman Alexis Mantelet – other than the fact he was a man seemingly obsessed with breasts and the cleanliness thereof.

In 1910 and 1927, Mantelet filed two applications for devices to wash the female bosom. The first of these he dubbed the “breast douche”. Pictured below, Mantelet’s “breast douche” was a long hose and tap fitting, connected to a cupping arrangement housing “two or preferably three rings of strong jets”. It was then placed briefly on each breast, while the user adjusted the jets to her liking. According to Mantelet this process achieved:

“A complete, vigorous and abundant douche over the whole surface of the breast… so that the douche may very well be of short duration. This douche therefore gives very desirable results [without] shock or undue chill.”

Mantelet fails to explain the necessity or advantages of washing one’s breasts so thoroughly. However 17 years later he had changed some of his views about “breast douching”.

Mantelet’s second patent, lodged in April 1927, was a less complex handheld device for “sprinkling the breasts”, rather than bombarding them. Harsh jets of water on “delicate mammillae”, wrote Mantelet, deliver “an exaggerated massage of the muscular fibres of the mammary glands”, toughening the breast and possibly distorting its shape. The 1927 version of Mantelet’s breast washer was easier on the breasts and would “preserve the due proportion of their shape”.

Both patents were granted but it seems that Mantelet’s “breast douches” never reached the market.

Source: US Patent Office records, Nos. 973445 (1910) and 1746861 (1927). Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1738: Vaucanson’s mechanical crapping duck

Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) was French polymath and inventor. Born to a poor family in Isere, Vaucanson was educated by the church and demonstrated an aptitude for mechanics.

Vaucanson set up a business in Lyon where he also dabbled in his hobby: constructing clockwork gadgets and amusements. As a teenager he planned to build a functioning robotic waiter but abandoned this idea, constructing a clockwork drummer instead. He later constructed a mechanical flautist and exhibited it at Versailles and the salons of Paris.

But Vaucanson’s most famous invention was the canard digérateur, or ‘digesting duck’, finished sometime in 1738. The Vaucanson duck was life-sized, made of gilded copper and reportedly contained hundreds of moving parts. It sat atop a large plinth, though like an iceberg, much of the duck’s workings were located in the plinth rather than the duck itself.

The metal quacker performed several animatronic tricks like waddling, flapping its wings, drinking water and making duck noises. But the duck’s pièce de résistance, as explained by Vaucanson himself, was its ability to eat, digest and ‘defecate’:

“The duck stretches out its neck to take corn out of your hand. It swallows it, digests it and discharges it digested by the usual passage. You see all the actions of a duck that swallows greedily and doubles the swiftness in the motion of its neck and throat, to drive the food into its stomach, copied from nature… The matter digested in the stomach is conducted by pipes quite to the anus, where there is a sphincter that lets it out.”

Vaucanson’s claim that the duck digested its food was little more than showmanship: the duck droppings were, in fact, soggy breadcrumbs dyed olive green, stored in a separate container and expelled at the appropriate time. Nevertheless the effect was convincing, and in an age devoid of iPads and Playstations, Vaucanson’s “shitting duck” (as it was dubbed in England) remained enormously popular.

The duck somehow survived its creator’s death and the French Revolution, remaining in private collections and then a museum until it was destroyed by fire in 1879.

Source: M. Vauconson’s letter to the Abbe de Fontaine, 1738. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.