Great Ideas from 1862: A Look in Scientific American's Archives [Slide Show]
Some of these inventions from 150 years ago were very successful; others were hampered by a lack of understanding of real-world conditions or basic science.
Credit: Scientific American, July 26, 1862
ANCHORS AWEIGH: Whether you're setting out in a sailing ship or a steamship, you have to haul up the anchor. Brown & Harfield's widely used designs for capstan and windlass made that task easier.
Scientific American, October 11, 1862
ANCHOR TRIPPER: Designed as a secure way to make dropping a big anchor easier. Unfortunately, in high waves the anchor would have bashed a hole in the side of the boat.
Scientific American, July 26, 1862
SWING BRIDGE: Canals criss-crossed the country in 1862, leading to this design for a bridge that does not need approach ramps, activated by a crewman on a passing barge (apparently to the surprise of the horse that was about to cross).
Scientific American, October 25, 1862
EVOLUTION OF NUTCRACKERS: An elegant and efficient design in the form of a bird's head. By 1862 English walnuts and native black walnuts were readily available for eating and cooking.
Scientific American, March 1, 1862 Advertisement
LETTERBOX: a sensible and aesthetically pleasing design. Stoutly built, it could last longer than the U.S. Postal Service.
Scientific American, November 22, 1862
SECURE STAMP: The envelope has a die-cut hole and the stamp is affixed directly to the letter; the dated cancellation mark leaves its imprint on the letter for posterity—and for any future legal cases.
Scientific American, July 12, 1862
EASY LAUNDRY: “The accompanying engraving illustrates another alleged improvement in machines for washing clothes.” Apparently even back then we didn’t think this device was going to lighten the burden of domestic labor.
Scientific American, March 29, 1862
TOWEL DRYER: Old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity. The wooden bars fold out to hang wet dishtowels on, and fold up and away when not in use. My family has one like it in the low-tech kitchen in our old summer house in Maine. It's very useful.
Scientific American, March 8, 1862 Advertisement
ROAD SCRAPER: Patent number 34,194 for moving earth or stones while building roads, ditches or cellars. Within a few years he would have upgraded the motive power from bullocks to steam engine.
Scientific American, April 19, 1862
STEAM EXCAVATOR: An early but cumbersome attempt to harness the power of steam. “The use of the ponderous machine here illustrated is to excavate earth,&rduo; which is dumped into hand-pushed carts (only one of which is shown here).
Scientific American, January 18, 1862
ICE SKATES: Before people laced up skates in locker rooms at rinks, a lot of thought was put into how to transform ordinary footwear into ice skates. On the left, a skate that clips onto a boot. On the right, a strap-on skate designed for people with weak ankles or legs.
Scientific American, March 15, 1862
LOCOMOTIVE AND FIRE ENGINE: Designed by a train man for use in railway yard fires. It is practical in a limited sense, but it makes me wonder what the inventor’s working conditions were like. I don’t see anyone in my office sporting a Mac computer with a built-in fire extinguisher. I’ll probably wish I hadn’t said that.
Scientific American, July 19, 1862 Advertisement
INGENIOUS SHIP REPAIR: In August 1862 the giant steamship
Great Eastern ripped an 83-foot-long hole in its hull. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's double-hull design kept everyone safe and dry. The ship was repaired in five months using this watertight caisson that covered the gash, and was held in place by chains. Scientific American, December 27, 1862
OTIS BROTHERS ELEVATOR: The company in Yonkers, N.Y. profited greatly from their patented safety device that prevented injuries and deaths from elevator mishaps. In 2012 the Otis Elevator Company has about 2.4 million elevators and escalators operating worldwide.
Scientific American, July 26, 1862 Advertisement
Some of these inventions from a century and a half ago were very successful, and some were limited by a lack of understanding of real-world conditions (such as basic science, feasibility or cost) or an overestimation of their utility.
» View the Slide Show Advertisement