When Pioneer “Ideas” Were Jests (Jan, 1924)
When Pioneer “Ideas” Were Jests
Chance as Well as Necessity Responsible for Origin of Things Believed Indispensable to Mankind
WHILE necessity has long been accredited with being the mother of invention, it is safe to suppose, from the experience of striving geniuses, that accident has had much to do with the birth of a great percentage of the ideas which have astonished, as well as benefited, mankind.
What the loss to the world would have been had the phonograph not been discovered while its inventor was supposed to have been experimenting with the early telephone, is a matter for easy conjecture. Not only has it improved the tenor of life in many homes, but it has rendered aid to the business world in recording dictated letters for later repetition to typists. The industry that it represents has an annual output valued at more than 158 million dollars.
It was not so long ago that an Ohio merchant, while on a trip across the ocean, visited the engine room of the ship that carried him. His attention was drawn to the mechanism which registered the number of revolutions the propeller made each minute. When he returned to his home, he began work on a machine that would record the amount of purchases made in his store. Thus, we are told, was the cash register born.
Each new discovery or amazing invention, although it may be admitted to be the last word in progress, seems only to open the path of research further. After steam was found to be a force that could be harnessed and, put to work moving cars and boats, it was soon learned that brakes were also needed to check the momentum of railway trains when stopping. This need led to the airbrake, which in its early days was the subject of much derision among mechanical minds. Today, the rail transportation system that failed to equip its rolling stock with the device would be thought worthy of more laughter than that which greeted its first appearance.
Barbed wire for fences which has figured prominently in peaceful agricultural pursuits for years, and recently as an instrument of defense in warfare, came from the suggestion of a farmer lad;that sharp prongs on metal strands might keep roving animals from forcing their way into grain fields. His father was first to adopt that form of protection for his farm. It may not have worried the intruders so much as it did their owners when their cattle returned home with badly scratched hides.
Had the automatic dial telephone been looking for some one to invent it, it is questionable whether or not it could have reached the Kansas home of another farmer boy who is said to have given the invention to commerce.
From a half-penny toy once made in England, the motion-picture machine said to have received its start on the road to perfection. This was a cardhoard disk with a string passing through its center. On it was a series of little pictures of children at play. By whirling the card on i pivot a sort of motion was given to the figures as they passed before the eye. Later came another contrivance to give movement to photographs. Its origin credited to two wealthy gentlemen who had a wager as to whether or not a trotting horse lifted all his feet from the ground at the same time while running.
A row of cameras were set at intervals along the path the animal was to take, and at a level that commanded a view of his entire body. As the horse passed each camera it was operated. The resulting photographs were later pasted to a circular metal plate, placed on a pin, and spun rapidly.
In 1780 the first baby buggy is reported to have been built by a coach maker, for the daughter of an English nobleman. It was patterned much like the horse-drawn vehicles of that day, except that it was pushed by a person walking. What becomes of the thousands of its descendants annually worn out, is a question that might be answered by almost any boy, for the homemade soap-box cart generally looks to the cast-off perambulator for its wheels.
In 1864 the first submersible boat is thought to have been launched off the shores of New Jersey, though several earlier attempts at such a craft had been made without, success. However, among the relics in an eastern navy yard may be seen a forerunner of the elusive submarine boat that picks its path beneath the waves and rises at will under the impulse of powerful engines. This first device was propelled by hand and carried a crew of ten men. In size it was inferior to many whales which it must have resembled as it slid slowly through the water. Although dependent on man power for its motion, a speed of four knots an hour is said to have been attained under “full steam.”
It was about fifty years before the appearance of the underwater craft that the pioneer ship of the steam navies was slid into the sea. Unlike its modern prototypes, it was constructed entirely of wood with the exception of the machinery that was to drive it through the waves. A half century later the ironclad sides were added to the fortresses of the seas, and became a standard that was to revolutionize the building of battleships.
In like manner the locomotive has superseded the steam wagon, and the dirigible airship has grown from the balloon.
Among the simple articles of everyday use which have come down to the present day out of a past that is all but lost to history, is the safety pin. The Romans had them, and so had the early Egyptians, and they were probably old when Greek civilization was new.
It is interesting to note that this handy little article possibly originated with the cave dweller of the stone ages. When facing strong winds or fleeing before an enemy, it might have occurred to him that his fur garment could be kept secure by tying one end of a fastening bone pin about another with a cord. Some of them to be seen in museums are artistically fashioned from gold and silver, and many have been set with precious stones. They have been improved from time to time, but none of those found in the ruins of ancient cities differ greatly from the safety pins of today.