Currently viewing the category: "Questionable Quidity"

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

Just a quick post here on patented mathematical tools using long wooden planks in a sliding frenzy to find displayable answers for 19th century schoolchildren and their addition problems. I know a good set of Napier's bone could come in very handy (appearing much earlier on than these instruments), but I'm just not sure what kids could learn from using these tools–like any other calculating device, early or late, they have a questionable quidity so far as appreciating the essence of numbers is concerned. That said, the drawing for the Meyers' machine is beautiful, and could no doubt lead to a number of short, noir-y stories.

Source: Google Patents, here.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1825

Ads--heroinLooking at old advertisements for the application of new/improved pharmaceuticals can be an experience in search of an explanation. Certainly we recognize the impact of these drugs today for what they really are, the business-end of their basis unmasked. But at the time–well, at the time, before revelation, there was hope in the use of them.

Opium of course has been used for centuries, but it was synthesized first in 1874 by the English chemist C.R. Alder Wright, though that first application went basically nowhere. The big push came when it was independently re-synthesized and re-discovered by Fleix Hoffmann who was working at the time for the Aktiengesellschaft Farbenfabriken of Elberfeld, Germany, which is todyay known as Bayer, and which was re-named and marketed under the name, "heroin".

Ads--heroin bayer
Heroin was sold for nearly two decades as a cough suppressant, a safe replacement for morphine, and also non-addictive.

Narcotics in general however were applied somewhat liberally for complaints of all manner–narcotics not being controlled until 1925, banned by the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs and the League of Nations (for its signatories, at least). AS we can see int he detail of this Punch cartoon of 1879, the problems to be brought on by the new applications of electricity (still quite young in its modernistic sense at this time) could be sleeplessness for birds, as the outdoor lights might keep them awake.


But in detail, the sleepy old owl might have been dipping a little heavy into one of those bottles with bumps on its sides, its bottle of "narcotics" to help in tracking down sleep:


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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1824

Racism and discrimination are never so more obvious I think than when it is present in everyday bit and pieces of our lives, as gratuitous indulgences, unnecessary except to disparage its target–it is at these times that you can see how deeply something is ingrained in the culture of a place.

And an excellent example of this is the transforming/movable puzzle created by the master puzzleteer, Sam Loyd. He patented the idea of mechanism of the thing in 1896 and published it in the same year, selling millions of varieties of the thing. One of the most successful of the puzzles using the design was called, with a fantastically indelicate title, Get Off the Earth.

Working version from the website, here.

The title would mean less had not the most popular version of the game featured Chinese men who were getting off the Earth, and this of course at a time of indoctrinated, inculcated, adjudicated and legislated, legalized segregation and discrimination. It was a time of very high Sinophobia, with all manner of advancements against people of Chinese descent: the Anti-Coolie Laws of 1862, the Pigtail Ordinances (of California) of 1873, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (renewed in 1892 and 1902), and so on, displayed America's unease and at times hatred of the Chinese people. Loyd referred to the men as "warriors", which I think disingenuous, as the characters hardly have a warrior-like quality to them–they are simply racist. And they were being made to disappear from the Earth, something many people in this country wanted to happen.

According to several web sources, the puzzle was actually used by the William McKinley campaign of 1896 in an effort to out anti-Chinese his opponents2.

What these objects do for us today is help us think about what "get off the Earth" objects we have in 2012, and how awful they'll look in the decades to come. The fabric of society has not crumbled under the weight of allowing non-land-holders to vote, or to allow women more equal rights or the right to vote; abandoning slavery did not crush the country, nor did Brown v. Board of Ed, nor did the abandonment of the miscegenation laws. I can hardly believe that an issue such as Gay marriage will be the great under of the Republic as it has been present in legislation and state constitutional amendments; it will look as bad in a few decades from now as does the Get off the Earth puzzle looks now, or the idea of slavery, or the idea of voting privileges only for the privileged male, or maintaining Jim Crow laws, and so on, on a nd on into the misty night of bad ideas and societal discrimination.


1. Nice stories on Sam Loyd and deep on puzzles in general, here. Sam Loyd's book of 5,000 puzzles.

2. A summary of the McKinley presidential campaign making use of the puzzle to help raise itself in the eyes of the anti-Chinese voters, see here.

The odd thing is that current sites have referred to the men surrounding the globe (below) as "Chinamen", or still use the Loyd reference to "Chinese warriors", and many still hold to the indulgences that this is a simple puzzle and nothing else. It is hardly that simple.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1777 [Part of the Bad Ideas series.]

Jello440 "Gelatin is a protein substance derived from collagen, a natural protein present in the tendons, ligaments, and tissues of mammals. It is produced by boiling the connective tissues, bones and skins of animals, usually cows and pigs."

Gelatin of course is still around, present in all sorts of things, the Old School equivalent of the coming New School use of cellulose filler in everything–except of course that cellulose isn't the leftover stuff on the slaughterhouse floor. Lots of kid foods are made with it–gummy bears are just about all gelatin, all the time, with the exception of the shelf-life lengtheners and coloring.

Jello439The first lively hard-sell pamphlet, The Use of Gelatin in Ice Cream, and Buttermilk and other Dairy Products (1935) was assembled by the "Gelatin Department" of Swift & Company. Swift (purchased in 2008 by JBS S.A.) used to be the world's largest processor of cows and pigs and other things with eyeballs and veins and brains, making them into food for human beings. The company (started in 1855) expanded into other things in the mid-19th century, getting into the insurance and petroleum fields. It used to own Peter Pan peanut butter, too. And Playtex, makers of bras and etc.

I have to give Swift credit though for stating exactly what gelatin is, right there on the first page, in no-nonsense language. The short (12-page) pamphlet is then given over to a quick sales talk on the uses of gelatin–in chocolate milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream, sorbet and buttermilk–and how to prepare it. At first a reader might think that the use of gelatin in the pre-WWII days was not so widespread, until they remembered that this pamphlet was directed at just dairy products. There was a whole other world of gelatin use besides this one.

And that’s been the story of Jell-O, a product of extraordinarily modest and not-pretty means, morphing itself and Jello434the Postum Company over a relatively short period of time (from 1895 to1925) into the megamonolth: the General Foods Corporation. “America’s Most Famous Dessert” got its third (or better) start on life in Le Roy, New York, under the creative hands of Mr. & Mrs. Pearle B. & May Wait (true!), who took sugar, powdered gelatin and artificial fruit flavors to make a concoction May called “Jell-O”. But her reach was none-too-grand compared to that of Frank Woodward, who bought the company from her and created the demand for this ‘food” and who ultimately created General Foods with it. (Its an old story: consumable and saleable product with no consumers: Marlboro cigarettes started out as a specialized cig for “ladies” and failed; the same cigarette was then re-marketed as a testosterone-laden product and then succeeded beyond all wild expectation, killing millions of its consumers in the process.) In any event Ms. Wait trumped another New York state resident, Charles Knox, in the race to develop a pretty and tasty granulated/[powdered gelatin desert mix. "Knox’s Gelatine", originally made with calves’-foot jelly, was a little earlier to the table than Mrs. Wait, but failed to properly develop his product. It also suffered its own "purity" by not having any sugar in it.

Plus, there's the entire aspect of colors-not-normally-found-in-nature inherent in the spectacular nature of gelatin:

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JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

This is as beautiful as it is heavy; and it is in its way very beautiful, so I guess that also means that is is very heavy…

And speaking of heavy, this balloon doesn't seem large enough to lift the very heavy ship-like carriage:

Another flying boat: I don't see a power source to drive the "fans"/propellers on this one, though there is a tail for its "kite" body:

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1549

(The following images are taken from the U.K. Intellectual Property Office Espacenet patent search page, here. The quotations following the illustrations for the patents are from that page.)

Close Straightening Encounters for Children of the Reading Kind

Here's an interesting implement that no doubt brought secondary thoughts about reading to any child made to wear this thing–the unhappy child is at left, and the skull-cap, at right.


First page clipping of GB 190421618 (A)

Abstract of GB 190421618 (A)

"Lorenz, H.. For indicating when wearer deviates from an upright position; caps.-A cap I is made in the form of an inverted bottomless saucer with holes 3 in the side for lightness and ventilation. It is intended to be worn by school children to prevent stooping, inasmuch as it only remains on the head so long as the wearer remains in an erect posture…"

Hand Guard for Cutting Things

First page clipping of GB 190402703 (A)

Francis John Crell: GB190402703 (a) "A Hand Guard for use in Cutting Bread and for Other Like Purposes". I'm not sure how this works as a glove-protective unit given the spaces in-between the springy fingers–mostly it seemed to increase the cutter's grip rather than protect them for accidental cutting.

Walking and Running Anti-Deformation Appliance

Patent Brit walking running machine

Abstract of GB 190414477 (A)

"Skorzewski, Comte V. Walking and running, appliances for aiding.-A n appliance for aiding walking and running is adapted to store up, and to give up at the required moment, the energy resulting from the alteration in height of the centre of gravity of the body. The user sits on a saddle 2 adjustably attached to a tube 1 provided with handle – bars. The tube 1 branches into two tubes 5, which are connected by joints 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17 to other tubes of narrower crosssection, conforming in shape to the legs of the wearer, who is strapped to the appliance. The joints 16, 17 are connected by means of stirrups 18, 19 to soles 20, 21, or to straps by means of which soles may be attached to the appliance. The tubes are filled with compressed air through a suitable cock or valve. The joints are preferably formed of armoured rubber tubes, coated or not with para rubber."

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JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post in the Questionable Quidity series

I came across these bits looking for spacecraft propulsion systems, and was surprised to find so many, well, “questionable” applications of brain power and time. Sushi boats for lazy eaters? Non-proto-Mayan naive electromagnetic spacecraft? Swinging (on a swing)?

I thought the swinging patent was a joke; it seems not to be. Isn’t this like, say, patenting walking by using shoes?

The least and the most one might say for the sushi boat is that it is powered by water, though I’m not entirely sure what else there is to be said; seems a little close to being a trough for my taste, though I have to admit that I’ve never had an experience where I pluck my food froma moving object. Perhaps if the little boats were on fire it would be more attractive? Or if there were submarines?

An earlier version of this idea from 1887, showing the use of “midget electric trains” “at the kitchen and dinner-table of M. Gaston Menier”–somehow this is a little more appealing, though the prospect of eating on a miniature railway track is not all that appetizing:


This is an interesting variation of the two bits above, though (surprisingly!) there is no food involved:


Back to sushi: evidently a much bigger idea than I gave it credit for:

And from America:

There were many other novel and noble efforts in the area of propulsion, particularly in the late 19th century, a few lovely examples of which can be seen here:





JF Ptak Science Books Quick QUIDITY Post

Certainly in the history of creative chemistry there were more reasonable things to do than this. But perhaps not, perhaps the folks in 1934 had come to the realization that the idea of creativity was spent, that there were not going to be any new, good ideas, that the era of reasoned inquiry was gone–and to celebrate, the sport of fire boxing was born.

These realizations came in 1934, and 1935, and every year, before and since. The struggle with or for creativity and genius is a second-by-second bout, and there is no doubt that the quidity of what passes for a "good idea" for x^x ideas must surely fill the middle of the infinite Encyclopedia of Stuff that Doesn't Make Sense.

My guess is that the number of bad ideas stays a relative constant among humans. The only difference over time is the number of humans having the bad ideas and the ways in which everyone hears about them.


The guy on the left bears a small resemblance to Augustus Saint-Gauden's Adams Memorial (sometimes called "Grief").

Quidity515 Adams-memorial-2

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

In the entire invento-sphere of things crying out for suitable invention, this "innovation" in smoking is surely not one of them. Perhaps if you needed an additional bit of strangeness in developing the quirkyness of an impossible boss for a character in a movie–someone who needed to be able to be free of the responsibility of flicking the ashes from their ciggie as they screamed at a subordinate, or a cook using the device to free up both hands while preparing a meal, or etc.–then I guess this invention could be part of the genius of a role. Beyond that, I don't know…particularly if there was a smoke-in-bed version.

Perhaps the downfall of such a device is seen in the eyes of the model, which are transfixed on the ashes in her nose tray. Maybe the settling of the ashes two inches from your nose would be a hypnotic event, altering the wearer's sense of place and attention, giving you poor vision, and a certain sense of smoky sullenness.

Bizzaro 509