Great Inventions from 1864 [Slide Show]

A brief look at some good ideas (and some not so good) from the Scientific American Archives of 150 years ago

By Daniel C. Schlenoff

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Cog Railway:

The first cog railway, or rack-and-pinion railway, was patented in 1811. The cog railway shown here was developed by Sylvester Marsh,  who overcame much skepticism to open a railway up the slopes of Mount Washington in New Hampshire in 1868.....[ More ]

Smart Board:

An aid to education in 1864. The patent holder, from Miamitown, Ohio, combined a blackboard with a case that kept maps safe from fading in sunlight and from “mischievous little fingers.”....[ More ]

Clean Shirts:

This shirt front made of metal is “designed to remain clean with but little care.” It was also noted that it could protect the wearer from a “blow from any sharp instrument.”....[ More ]


Ship armor was built up of layers of plates, held together by rivets or bolts. A hit by a cannonball could turn these bolts into deadly missiles, with the results shown on the right side of the picture.....[ More ]

Kitchen Help:

“A family machine” from 1864. It is pedal-powered, but it “is designed to wash dishes, clean lamp-chimneys, and scour and sharpen knives, not at one and the same time, however, but by several operations.”....[ More ]

Vegetable Slicer:

“A decided improvement upon the old-fashioned utensil.” This  new (for 1864) device has a cast-iron base and the knife can be removed for cleaning and sharpening (although maybe a few fingertips ended up in the soup).....[ More ]

Steerable Sled:

Even though zipping down a snowy hill with no semblance of control is actually more fun. Many inventors, such as this one, sought to build steerable sleds, but Samuel Leeds Allen had the greatest success when he patented the Flexible Flyer in 1889.....[ More ]

Smashing Hay:

Bales of hay were either stored on the farm for use or transported to market for sale.  This device, patented by an inventor in Mattoon, Illinois., used horse-power to drop a heavy weight on the hay, compacting it, and making it cheaper to store or ship.....[ More ]

Machine for Hard Work.

This inventor from New Bedford, Mass., hoped to sell this device to laborers and farmers to clear stones and pull tree stumps. The design is solid but constructions such as these were too expensive for small farmers.....[ More ]

Horse Power:

Horse-powered treadmills such as this one were widely used to power various farm machines in 1864. Steam engines were still much too expensive for the small farmer, but in a few short years that would change.....[ More ]

Steam Plow:

“Steam has become the indispensible ally of progress.” Steam power still had a high cost and low efficiency, so in 1864 the horse-drawn rig had many years of service left, but the future of agricultural machinery was beginning to take shape. ....[ More ]

Small Sawmill:

This portable saw was powered by horses harnessed to a “sweep” and walking in a circle. It was designed by an inventor from DeKalb County, Indiana, and was thought to be especially useful for “newly settled parts of the country.”....[ More ]

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