When Inventors Pull Boners… (Aug, 1953)

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When Inventors Pull Boners…

Many gadgets didn’t succeed at first. Some initial attempts were amusing and others nearly ended in disaster.

By Douglas Greene

IF the invention you have struggled with for so long has kicked you, literally or figuratively, in the face, take heart. You are not alone. Be thankful, at least, that it wasnt your 280-pound tank that ran amok in the living room, nor was it your burglar alarm that worked so faithfully it trapped its own inventor.

Right now, you see, gimmick-makers in workshops throughout the country and all over the world are finding out that things can go awfully and embarrassingly wrong on the first try. And file away this fact: some of mankind’s greatest developments as well as the many little gadgets that netted tidy incomes for their creators were nasty, uncooperative flops at the start.

About that tank with a mind of its own—Alan Tamplin built it some time ago in London. It was a squat, four-foot, radio-controlled monster of bronze and aluminum alloy that could lay a smoke-screen and fire three rounds of ammunition from its turret gun. When it was finished, Tamplin turned it loose on his living-room floor, confident he could control its movements.

But something happened. With a low snort and heavy rumble, the tank began roaming around the room then gathered speed and started smashing merrily against the furniture. Mrs. Tamplin wandered in, saw the careening juggernaut and hightailed it out, screaming wildly. Tamplin himself climbed on a table and sat out the carnage until the tank finally decided to stop amid the wreckage.

The undiscouraged inventor worked on it some more, then brought it down for a demonstration at a model engineer’s exhibition in London. It worked fine.

The burglar alarm was dreamed up by a French inventor in a Paris suburb. His job kept him out until dawn, so to protect his wife and kids he rigged up a contrivance that would set off a banshee wail when triggered by the unauthorized opening of a door or window. However, a hidden switch on the outside of the house would render the thing inoperative. The latter feature was installed for the inventor’s own homecoming.

It worked nicely for a week, then one morning the inventor came home, pulled the switch and opened the door. He was shocked into immobility by (a) the instant screeching of the siren, (b) a bucket of icy water flung by his frightened wife and (c) the appearance of a patrolling policeman, who collared him rudely. The alarm, it seemed, needed a bit more work.

Harken to the sad tale of the talking hotel chairs.

One G. Z. Sarnoff of Dallas, Texas, thought it would be a fine idea to install a hidden phonograph in a chair. When a person eased himself into it, his weight would actuate a lever that would start a record playing. When he got up, it would stop. Irwin Kramer, Vice-President of the Hotel Edison in New York City, took note and decided to put a few in his hostelry.

“It would be a direct means of advertising, ” Mr. Kramer told me. “When a guest came into his room and sat down, we thought he’d be pleased to hear something like welcome to the Hotel Edison, ‘ and a description of some of our features. We thought it would be quite a novelty. ”

It was.

A pretty girl came in, plumped herself wearily into the chair and the monologue started. She leaped up, peered into the closet and under the bed, then ran screaming into the hall. “There’s a man in my room, ” she gasped. The management had to quiet her.

A middle-aged couple checked in. The man sat down and the chair proceeded to chatter away, this time in a woman’s voice. The wife looked suspiciously at her husband, he stared back blankly—and both promptly went downstairs to complain.

A couple of honeymooners who had married against the wishes of her parents reported next morning that the voice of the bride’s father was haunting them. And a woman guest was furious—she was talking to her husband over the long-distance phone when the chair started to prattle and she had a hard time convincing him there wasn’t a man in the room.

“So we sent the chairs back, ” explains Mr. Kramer. Sy Preston, an aide, adds: “They scared hell out of everybody. ”

Funny? Sure, but with a touch of sadness, too. Gadgeteers find incidents like these hit very close to home. They work a *” long time, as perhaps you have done, only to see their fond inventive dreams pop and vanish like soap bubbles. The danged things just won’t operate the way they were drawn in the plans or conjured up in the mind.

If that’s your trouble, you’re in excellent company, the company of the masters. Listen to this little story and you’ll feel better.

In a Hoboken, N. J. factory one day, tension was so thick you could reach out and touch it. It was the “day of days, ” payoff time after 13 years of sweat and starvation. This was the debut of the invention that ¦ two earnest men fondly hoped would revolutionize an industry. The inventor himself stood poised with his hand on the lever of the machine he and a friend had worked on through all those heartbreaking years. Eyes shut, teeth clenched, muscles taut, he pulled. There was a whir, a rattle, a hum— and a gleaming gadget popped out. It worked!

The colonel breathed deeply and ordered a celebration. In came kegs of beer and sandwiches, in trooped workmen and then the colonel confidently showed off that wonderful machine again. He pulled the lever with a huge smile—but the smile froze, the inventor gaped and the workmen stared silently.

Nothing happened. They tinkered, hammered, adjusted, but to no avail. The machine was a failure.

The inventor was Whitcomb L. Judson. The friend was Colonel Lewis Walker. And the invention we have just described? You’ve heard of it. More years of failure and frustration ensued before a machine could be perfected to produce it, but it was finally done and it did revolutionize the entire clothing industry. It was the zipper.

The history books are full of stories of glorious inventions, but here are some intimate vignettes of boners you probably didn’t know about.

John P. Holland, a pioneer in the development of the submarine, drew his plans carefully and constructed a 14-foot model in a Paterson, N. J., workshop. With high hopes, he had it lifted onto a wagon and trundled to the shores of the Passaic River. Carefully it was taken off and gently it was slipped into the water. Down it went— and down and down and down, settling snugly into the ooze of the river bottom and refusing to rise! A few weeks later it was raised and submerged again. This time it came up after an hour.

But when the model was tried once more.

it went down and stayed for good. In fact, it remained many decades until it was finally hauled to the surface and put into a museum in Paterson.

There was still more woe in store for John Holland. In 1886, he organized the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company and built a 50-footer which was completely* demolished in an accident while it was being launched. Nine years later, he convinced government officials of the soundness of his plans, got an appropriation from the Navy and constructed a $150, 000 craft called the Plunger? Did it work? Sadly, no. It was another rank failure.

But Holland kept on. In 1898, he built the 53-foot Holland, which used an electric motor and storage batteries for submerged cruising and a 50-hp gasoline engine for surface running. This one worked. It worked so well, in fact, that the famed Admiral George Dewey, hero of Manila, declared himself much impressed and the Navy promptly [Continued on page 176] ordered a half-dozen.

Holland’s submarine was the forerunner of the craft now being used by our naval forces. Others, notably Simon Lake, contributed many improvements, but Holland’s was the one accepted by the Navy.

Lee De Forest is a revered name in radio. A pioneer in the field, he created the first real vacuum-tube detector. But even De Forest pulled boners. At the turn of the century he got his first real chance to demonstrate the workability of his wireless apparatus. The International Yacht Races, a great sporting event of the time, were to be held off New York and young De Forest saw his chance.

Guglielmo Marconi, who had developed a wireless message system a few years before, was assigned by the Associated Press to report the news from mid-river. De Forest wanted to get into the act, so he talked a rival news agency into letting him try.

He set up a transmitting set on a boat, put a receiver in a shack on the bank and happily flashed signals all day long. When the races were over, De Forest entered the shack beaming with expectancy—only to learn that his apparatus had flopped with a thud, that his operator had been receiving gibberish from morning until late afternoon.

Several years later, the races were held again. By this time the inventor had improved his system—he was again commissioned to report the event and this time with brilliant success. His De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company subsequently built stations for the navy in Panama, Cuba and Florida. And De Forest himself went on to carve his name in history.

Then there was Charles Goodyear, who was seeking a method of treating India rubber so that it wouldn’t melt and stick in summer or freeze into metallic stiffness in winter. He bought a quantity of raw rubber and proceeded to melt it over the kitchen stove. Then he kneaded the mixture, prepared a number of samples and tossed them into a closet.

But something happened. When summer arrived, the heat started to melt Goodyear’s concoction and spread a fearful odor throughout the entire neighborhood. Young Good-year’s “Big Stench” was one of the mammoth boners of all inventive history—or at least the most acutely noticeable.

But it didn’t stop Goodyear. He eventually discovered the process of vulcanizing rubber, thereby enabling it to retain its elasticity under varying temperatures, making it available for countless uses.

Then there were explosions. Ascanio Sobrero, who worked with nitroglycerine before Alfred Nobel, was evaporating a tiny quantity of the stuff in a glass dish over a spirit lamp when a blast came. Later, he tried to heat a single drop in a tube and the explosion that followed showered him with broken glass and even injured a number of other persons standing a distance away.

Despite the mishaps, Sobrero, professor at the University of Turin, gave nitro to the world.

Dr. Rudolf Diesel also pulled a near-disastrous boner. When he made his initial test with his new-fangled contraption, the resultant explosion hurled metal fragments like shrapnel into the walls and ceilings of his workshop, nearly ending the inventor’s career then and there. Lucky it didn’t because the German engineer ultimately succeeded. He developed the famous engine that bears his name—the Diesel.

Come right down to the present and that noise you hear is the snapping of inventors’ hearts as things go awry. Look at Finn H. Magnus, who worked interminably for many years to mold a plastic that would create a musical sound. He finally did it and just when he saw visions of a fortune, it broke—nearly breaking Magnus’s heart with it. Today, his Magnus Harmonica Corp. of Newark, N. J. is big business, turning out not only plastic mouth organs but a variety of other musical instruments. His gross sales run into the multi-millions. You see, boners or no boners at the start, he kept at it and at last he succeeded.

Frustration is the lot of every inventor, so don’t smash up your model for firewood just yet.

Thomas A. Edison, in his search for a cheap and efficient filament for the electric light, tested hundreds of substances ranging from paper fibers to the hairs on the beard of one of his workmen!

And a New Orleans inventor pulled what must rank as the prize inventive boner of the past year. He invited a group to a demonstration of a new lawn-sprinkling kit, consisting of a half-dozen outlets going at once and traveling along the greensward by themselves. Would-be buyers and their wives attended, attired in garden party duds for the refreshments that were scheduled to follow the triumphant showing.

Oops! There was a little slipup somewhere. The ladies in their frilly frocks got soaked to the skins, the gentlemen were damp and disgruntled and the refreshments were canceled.

Even the sandwiches got doused.

  1. druzz0 says: June 30, 200810:05 am

    Um.. I just hope that the cultural idiom for the word “Boner” was different when this was published

  2. JDT says: November 1, 20103:24 pm



  3. Firebrand38 says: November 1, 20103:54 pm

    JDT: I think I know why that stand up career never took off.

  4. Anton says: November 2, 20107:55 am

    “Bonehead” is a slang term for someone considered stubborn, thick-skulled and stupid. They may often produce or cause boneheaded mistakes termed “boners”. Yep, you guessed it. I’ve produced some real boners myself even while others tried to turn me around. But even a blind squirrel may find an acorn sometimes.

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