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The mechanical leech, the anti-crime bowtie, and seven other preposterous Victorian inventions

Design drawing of an umbrella with peepholes
Courtesy the National Archives, London
Wasn’t this umbrella with peepholes on Kickstarter?
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A new book, Inventions That Didn’t Change the World, published next month by Thames & Hudson, looks at the forgotten side of the Victorian age of invention—not the steam engine or the lightbulb but the Improved Sausage Machine, the Epanalepsian Advertizing Vehicle, and the Moustache Protector.

The book’s author, Julie Halls, has dug out copyright applications for hundreds of failed inventions from the vaults of the National Archives in London, where she’s a records specialist. The ideas are essentially a catalog of the pet peeves, obsessions, and anxieties of Victorian England, and the attempts of often amateur inventors to fix them. There are belts to ward off cholera and mechanical jacks for taking off your shoes, spring-loaded bibles and spiked cravats, tennis rackets with handles that scoop up stray balls and punishment devices for prisons.

And everywhere, there’s the firm belief in social progress through technological innovation. It’s an idea that has passed down pretty much intact to our contemporary Kickstarter culture, where there’s no problem too petty, no solution too grandiose. If a high-velocity hairbrushing machine from 1864 seems foolish, consider that the Suitsy was released just last week.

For more Victorian ideas of progress that never happened, here are a handful of oddities from Halls’s book.

Courtesy the National Archives, London
Ventilating hat (1849).

The “Bonafide Ventilating Hat” aimed to relieve the misery of a heavy, sweltering top-hat. It was “one of several designs registered which attempted to tackle the problem of a build-up of steam, perspiration, and hair-oil that resulted,” Halls writes.

Combination knife and fork (1881).

Halls speculates that this design for a one-handed combination knife and fork (knork? fnife?) would have been intended for amputees. A barbed tine kept the food being cut from slipping.

Courtesy the National Archives, London
Exercise chair for invalids (1852).

As upper-class Victorians developed a culture of “invalidism,” inventors scrambled to alleviate “a proliferation of vague ailments that doctors were able to do little about,” Halls writes. This chair suspended its sitter with elastic bands so that, according to the inventor’s description, “an Invalide can obtain exercise, with the least possible amount of exertion.”

Courtesy the National Archive, London.
Mechanical leeches (1848).

The popularity of leeches in treating maladies from headaches to tonsillitis led to a shortage of live specimens. Enter: the artificial leech. The elastic cylinder would contract when squeezed; releasing it would suction up blood from a lanceted vein.

Courtesy the National Archives, London
Corset with expandable busts (1881).

This corset was outfitted with rubber pouches that “represent as nearly as possible when distended the shape of the human breasts.” They inflated via a connected tube.

Courtesy the National Archives, London
Anti-garotting cravat (1862).

This personal-safety accessory was invented amid the media-fueled garotting panic of 1862. Steel spikes hidden beneath the bow were meant to protect its wearer against would-be garotters, who would strangle their victims before robbing them.

Courtesy the National Archives, London
Combination walking stick and gun (1879).

Victorians were fond of objects with multiple uses. Other design chimeras: an umbrella handle and train-door-opener; a lamp and oil can; a glove and purse; a pen and miniature calendar scroll; and a cigar-holding pencil case–knife.

Courtesy the National Archives, London
Hard-labor machine (1852).

Inmates of Victorian prisons were often forced to work treadwheels or hand cranks that were used to crush grain, cut firewood, or pump water. Sometimes the labor was as pointless as it was brutal, and the prisoners were grinding only the air. This design by a engineer in Trowbridge offered a “novel configuration” of the form.

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