Historic gadget flops

Tech that should never have made it off the drawing board

They don't make 'em like this anymore. With very good reason...

We’re not saying that no daft tech is created nowadays – just look at wrist exercisers and aromatherapy foot spas – but it does seem that the golden age of inventive yet mad gadgetry went west with the British empire and tennis players in long trousers.

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Just look at these failed inventions of yore and weep for the passing of an era when anything, no matter how foolhardy, futile or lifeendangering, was possible...

Behold! The Boat Coat
Peter Halkett's jacket for Arctic explorers inflated into a boat, so one minute it kept out chilly winds and the next it'd transport you across freezing waters. All else a gent needed was a walking stick for a paddle and an umbrella sail. Renowned explorer John Franklin - who on one previous expedition was reduced to eating his own boots - took one on his voyage in 1846, the year after its creation. History doesn't record whether he used it or not, probably because he died.

Early SatNav
In the 1920s, before the days of GPS, the discerning driver would don a wristwatchstyle device filled with tiny parchment maps - the miniature scrolls would revolve as he turned the dial during his journey. The need to keep one hand constantly on the watch, combined with the lack of motorists in 1920, meant sales weren't staggering.

Hot foot it
In 1927, before people fully understood the dangers of radiation, Jacob Lowe patented the Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope, which used X-rays as a way to accurately fit shoes. Over 10,000 of the machines were distributed across shoe shops in the US and Europe. However, skin burns and bone stunting became apparent in users, with the woman who modelled the invention having to have her leg amputated after suffering serious radiation burns. It did save her money on shoes though, so every cloud has a silver lining.

Idiotic bike
Invented in the 1880s, the Penny Farthing was ridiculous. The rider was unable to touch the ground once mounted, and the centre of mass was stupidly high and close behind the large front wheel, so any sudden stop would send the rider over the handlebars (referred to as "taking a header" or "coming a cropper"). As if this weren't bad enough, it was common for riders going downhill to hook their feet over the handlebars, giving them speed, but zero chance of stopping.

Not the full octave
Pianists need a wide handspan to be able to play effectively, so in 1910 a "finger stretching" machine was developed in America to help them increase their reach, the better to play the range of notes demanded by the wildly experimental composers of the time. As you'd imagine, said device was quite hazardous; German composer Schumann was said to have destroyed his hands using one. Admittedly it's also been suggested his hands deteriorated as a side-effect of syphilis medication but either way, his story does not end well.

Rocket man
Man's first recorded attempt to reach the moon was in 16th century, Ming dynasty China. Presumably brimming with confidence in his country's fledgling grasp of firework technology, Chinese official Wang Hu ordered a wicker chair be built and fitted with no fewer than 47 great big rockets. Needless to say, the rockets duly blew him to chargrilled smithereens.

Singe your fringe
In 1951 John Boax invented a machine to shorten hair using heat. After placing the machine over the user's head it would suck the hair through a series of holes and electric coils would burn the hair off at the desired length. However, the invention never became popular, mainly due to the risk of electric shocks. And the risk of the user ending up looking like a spent match.

Tea or death?
In 1902, the Clockwork Teasmade was patented in Birmingham. When the Teasmade's alarm clock sounded it triggered a switch that caused a match to strike on sandpaper, which in turn lit a spirit stove under the kettle. When the water boiled, the steam pressure lifted a flap which tilted the kettle, filling the teapot beneath with a mornin' cuppa. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Tip the titfer
Transport yourself back to the late 19th century; you've chanced upon a lady but you have your hands full. How the devil, sir, will you tip your hat, as society demands? In 1896 James Boyle had this same nightmarish worry, so invented the Tipping Hat. The wearer needed only to give a slight nod, whereupon an arm and ball pendulum mechanism, wound up and fastened to a hat of your choice, would cause the hat to shift back and forth. Good day to you, madam!

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