Retro Fails: 10 Unsuccessful Victorian-era Inventions From Both Sides of the Atlantic

artificial-leech (Image: Science Museum)

We love the Victorian-era and the decades that surrounded it. There’s something fascinating about a time in history that was equal parts innovation, rebellion, public manners and private shadiness; it was a time when the world was changing daily with the advent of new technologies, bizarre fashion trends, and blossoming industry.

And inevitably, many inventions on both sides of the Atlantic never quite took off as planned as this exciting age of science and technology gathered pace. Some ideas seemed like practical solutions to everyday problems, while others were just downright weird. In the latest installment of our popular Retro Fails feature, we examine 10 strange and, in some cases, creepy creations that have been immortalized in history, if not mass production.

10. The Ventilating Hat

Hats were a huge part of Victorian Britain, and no self-respecting gentleman would go anywhere without one. It was also, of course, a time of hair product. But that combine product, hats, and the damp, dreary British weather can be a recipe for hat-related disaster.

top-hat-victorian-era (Image: Wikipedia)

Heat, dampness and perspiration would build up inside a traditional top hat, limiting its useful life span. It seems a little surprising, then, that the Bonafede Ventilating Top Hat never quite took off. The patented invention had a vent in the side to release the humid buildup inside the hat, making it far more comfortable (so the advertisements claimed) and extending its wear.

We’re honestly not sure why this one never quite succeeded, as it seemed to have the functionality and usefulness that all good inventions should. And it’s beyond debate that hats were serious business. They weren’t just a status symbol, but they were the subject of some semi-shady practices. Enterprising London traders would often collect old, worn clothes, paying a pittance for them. They’d then do what they could to refurbish and resell them at a profit and hats were one of the most popular pieces of clothing to do it with.

Old, worn hats would be cut in two. The bottom part – which had grown greasy with wear – would be removed, and the salvageable sections sewn back together. The creases would be ironed out and stitching covered with satin strips ready for resale. The seller would often claim the hat was ‘new’. The practice led to the popularity of taller top hats – indicating that in no way was the top hat in question second-hand.

9. The First Talking Dolls

Thomas Edison was one of the Victorian-era’s most prolific inventors, and when you’re inventing that much, you’re bound to have a few misses.

edison-taking-doll (Image: Science Channel via Gizmodo)

In 1890, Edison was at the top of his game. It’s not entirely surprising that the man who invented the phonograph would turn his attention to making other things talk – in his case, though, he should probably have stuck to the phonograph. When his technology first became a hit, he was rather particular about what it was used for. In 1887, he opened the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company, which came up with the brilliant idea of putting the phonograph technology into the body of a doll.

In some ways, things haven’t changed much over the last hundred years or so. Christmas was still a time when kids wanted the hottest new toys – and in December of 1890, that was Edison’s talking doll.

The scale of manufacture required to keep up with demand was impressive. Because there wasn’t a way to copy recordings from one to another, every doll’s voice needed to be recording straight from the source. Edison’s company thus hired several hundred little girls to read for the dolls. Quality control checked and re-checked the recordings, which were played using a crank mechanism.

But even though they were fine when they left the factory, the delicate mechanisms couldn’t stand up to the rigours of shipping – much less the rough and tumble of the nursery. By the time most little girls got their dolls on Christmas morning, it wasn’t the voice of other little girls they heard – it was more like the voice of the devil.

Realizing that the dolls were too fragile, production was canceled – although there are still a handful of them out there.

8. The Hard Labour Crank

Victorian-era prisons were nasty places; that was the point, after all. In those days, prison was a punishment, and not somewhere one wanted to be or return to. One of the most common sentences was hard labour, but it wasn’t long before there were more prisoners than there was hard labour to be done.

hard-labour-crank (Images: Old Police Cells Museum)

The answer? The hard labour crank. Also known as the Appold’s hard labour machine, it was simply that – a machine with a crank lever on it that kept track of how many times it was turned. It didn’t actually do anything else, but prisoners would be sentenced to turning the crank a certain number of times before they were allowed to eat or sleep. Some cranks could be hooked up to mills or counterweights but, in many cases, the idea that they were doing nothing added insult to injury.

Hard labour cranks could also be made harder or easier to operate, depending on how tightly they were assembled. Guards could adjust them as they saw fit, giving rise to the enduring nickname ‘screws’.

Needless to say, the crank fell out of fashion, and not for reasons of cruelty or the fact that it was wasted labour. They were notorious for not working properly, for breaking, and for not keeping track of how many times they had been turned, making them more trouble than they were worth, for the guards as well as the prisoners.

7. Victorian Traffic Lights

Today, they’re everywhere, and as annoying as they can be, life without them would be unthinkable. But the Victorian-era attempt at creating traffic lights ended rather badly.

traffic-lights (Image: Rob Smith)

Traffic signals hit the streets around two decades before cars came to London. In the 1860s, problems stemmed from the vast amount of horses, carriages, wagons and foot traffic all trying to navigate the streets of the city – streets that absolutely weren’t designed to deal with such traffic volumes. According to records, about 1,100 people were killed and 1,300 were injured in traffic accidents in 1866 alone – and as impossible as that seems, it meant London’s roads needed help.

John Peake Knight was a railway engineer and sometime inventor, who came up with the forerunner of the traffic lights we know today. Sitting atop a tall pole was a sort of mechanical policeman, operated by a real policeman standing at the bottom. Each signal had two semaphore arms. Straight up in the air signalled ‘Stop’, while ‘Go’ or ‘Caution’ were signalled when the arm pointed to the side. That was great in daytime, but traffic doesn’t stop at night.

victorian-london (Image: James Pollard)

So, Knight added a gas lantern, which could be adjusted to show the now-familiar red for ‘Stop’ and green for ‘Go’. The one and only signal was installed just outside Parliament Square on the corner of Bridge and Great George Streets, and for about three weeks, it appeared to be a massive success. That was until a gas leak and subsequent explosion – which severely injured its attendants – put an end to the experiment, and it wasn’t until electric traffic lights were developed that the idea took off.

6. The Artificial Leech

Leeches are gross, we’ll just get that right out of the way. But as disgusting as they may be, they’re also incredibly useful; they’ve been a major player in the medical world for centuries, and even though we know their initial purpose of draining blood and drawing out the illness was off-base, they’re still on call today. Modern medicine has yet to find a better option for, say, draining the blood out of a recently reattached appendage while veins heal, and in the Victorian-era, they were even more popular.

artificial-leech-2 (Image: Karl Ragnar Gjertsen)

Every good physician kept leeches on hand, and many of them used intricately beautiful containers for their segmented worms. But at the same time leech containers were becoming more decorative, people were looking for easier ways to drain the blood from their patients. A handful of mechanical or artificial leeches were invented at the time, and most worked on a principle of using a device that would first puncture the skin, then create a vacuum so blood could be drawn out of the new wound.

There were a number of different designs, including some that were spring-loaded and some that cut the patient with rotating blades. As we’ve found even today, though, sometimes there’s no match for a good, regular old leech.

5. The Electric Pen

Another Retro Fail from Thomas Edison, the electric pen was an odd idea that seemed to eliminate all the convenience of a regular pen. Rather than just writing by putting ink on the paper, the oddly-shaped, top-heavy instrument wrote by poking holes in a piece of paper. That paper was then put over another sheet, and ink was applied to print out a copy of whatever it was you’d written. It was more practical as an early copier than a pen as we think of it today. At a first glance, it could almost have been a success.

electric-pen-edison (Image: electricpen.org)

Not only could Edison make it work, he also ensured it was one of his first inventions to be successfully mass-produced. The electric pen represented an incredible leap forward in the technology of motors, when Edison found that he could regulate the speed at which the motor ran and, in turn, punched out the holes. He created both the pen and a press for inking and re-inking the stencils, proving that it could reproduce illustrations as well as text.

Like so many inventions, Edison’s electric pen was soon obsolete. What might have been a massive success for him was quickly replaced by something much easier to use – the typewriter. Electric pens had a brief run of popularity, but that popularity faded very quickly – so quickly that there are only a handful of them left.

4. The Cholera Belt

The cholera belt was exactly that – a belt worn to, in theory, protect the wearer from contracting cholera. Why this one failed is pretty clear, but it’s a fascinating chain of logic that led to its development in the first place.

cholera-belt (Image: Wikipedia)

As far back as Biblical times, it was thought that the diaphragm was the organ in the body that divided the upper and lower halves. The upper half was the clean part and the lower half was rather more dirty. Belts were developed as a symbolic way of separating the two halves – thus the idea of a cholera belt makes a bit more sense in this context.

We’ve also long been aware that being too hot, too cold, or too sweaty isn’t good for us. Debates have raged for generations over just what materials should be worn when, how many clothes and blankets a baby should be wrapped in, and so on. By the Victorian-era, we knew that cholera was spread through impure water, and from there, it was surmised that clothing could be made that acted as a sort of purifier.

Different properties were associated with different materials; flannel, for example, was thought to weaken a person if it was worn next to the skin, making linen a more obvious choice. But flannel was also said to heat the body, making it something of a cure-all when it came to illnesses that left people chilled. At the beginning of the 19th century, wearing flannel next to the skin was considered a partial cure for illnesses like dysentery – doctors stressed that while there might be some discomfort at first, it was worth it.

zulu (Image: Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville)

By the 1830s, cholera was so widespread and the belief in preventative flannel belts so popular that it was a part of the uniform of British soldiers. It was also thought that the friction caused between the flannel and the skin would keep the body charged with an appropriate electrical current, and later in the century, it was pointed out that not only would the cholera belt keep the disease away, it would also make a handy bandage should one be injured on the battlefield.

The popularity of cholera belts had an astonishingly long run, included, in some cases, in military uniforms through the First World War and beyond. By World War Two, they had become less popular as disease prevention aids, but remained popular nonetheless.

3. The Panopticon

Many of the short-lived inventions we’ve talked about in our Retro Fails series are, on the whole, equal parts humourous and ingenious. But this one’s slightly unsettling, which isn’t entirely surprising given its creator – Jeremy Bentham.

Panopticon (Image: Jeremy Bentham)

We feel fairly safe in saying that anyone who donates their remains for public dissection in the company of friends, followed by public display, is probably a little eccentric. But while he was alive and kicking (albeit slightly before Queen Victoria took the throne), Bentham had other strange ideas too.

The Panopticon was a pre-Victorian blueprint for a prison system designed around the idea that inmates thought the guards were watching them at all times; it would encourage good behavior with a minimum amount of effort and manpower. The design was simple – the cells were the outer walls, while in the center was a guard tower. The inmates wouldn’t be able to see the guards, but they would know they were there – and that they were watching. Guards would be able to communicate with inmates at any time, through a system – the Panopticon – that would make the aura of surveillance complete.

Panopticon-2 (Image: Friman)

The idea is something of an eerie premonition of what would eventually become CCTV – taking Bentham’s ideas to the streets. Several prisons were designed with the basic layout in mind, but none were constructed that followed his blueprints precisely. Bentham had even bought land to construct his ideal prison. It was never built, but the land is now used for a structure that was designed in homage to his plans – the Tate Britain.

In an epic sort of footnote, Jeremy Bentham’s creepy auto-icon, on display at University College London, now has its own surveillance system – a camera they jokingly call the Panopticam.

2. Safety Coffins

During the Victorian-era, there was an understandable fear of being buried alive. Stories abounded of people being exhumed only to find their hands torn to the bone as they tried to claw their way out of their coffin. But while there are plenty of stories, there aren’t many confirmed, documented cases.

safety-coffins (Image: Antoine Wiertz)

Nevertheless, burial alive was a very real fear – and it wasn’t until now that doctors were developing a truly scientific method of diagnosing death, either. (And then, they did what all good doctors would do – they held a contest.)

Relatives of the bereaved had to be certain their loved ones weren’t going to be buried alive. So in the latter part of the 19th century, more than 30 patents were developed for the so-called safety coffin. Some included ropes that would ring a bell on the surface. Others were equipped with rockets and fireworks that could be lit from inside. Some had breathing tubes, while others featured a supply of all the basics – food, water and a shovel.

There were lots of patents, but nothing to show that the designs were ever used, much less saved anyone. Because of the close quarters of the coffin, many featured ropes and pulleys that were attached to the arms or legs of the not-so-deceased, so that they would set off the alarms even with their restricted movements. But it wasn’t very practical, and chances were high that the alarm systems would have been set off by the movement of the naturally decomposing body anyway. Medical journals from the period were clear that, with the limited air in the coffin, anyone buried alive wouldn’t be alive for long.

But that didn’t allay the fear – or stop one safety coffin inventor from setting himself on fire to make absolutely certain he wasn’t going to be buried alive.

1. The Disasterous Inventions of Gail Borden

You know Gail Borden – or rather, you probably know the face of his only successful invention. Borden patented a process for making condensed milk in 1856, making it easier to transport, healthier, and longer-lasting. Elsie the Cow was the face of his milk product, and it was a brilliant idea. But his other inventions…. not so brilliant.

gail-borden-condensed-milk (Images: Alaska Commercial Company, Wikipedia)

Borden’s first attempt was a poignant one. After his wife and son died from yellow fever, he wanted to cure the disease. That supposed cure came in the form of a giant refrigerator, where he proposed to chill out the raging fever. Volunteers would he required to stay in the fridge for about a week… but there were no volunteers.

There was also his attempt at a ‘terraqueous machine’, designed to travel on both land and water. He debuted it after a dinner made from dirt (that he claimed to have transformed, but we’re not sure how well that one worked out), but his amphibious craft worked no better than his meal sounded.

He then tried meat biscuits, which sound horrible but – we’re told – were supposed to be incredibly practical. The dehydrated meat was supposed to be a long-lasting, healthy alternative for people in extreme conditions. But the US Army decided that, not only were they disgusting, they also caused headaches and nausea in those unfortunate enough to eat them.

It was the meat biscuits that launched his obsession with condensing foodstuffs; before milk, he tried potatoes, pumpkin, and even watermelon. He condensed liquids, too, like cider and juices.

But it was Elsie the Cow and her milk that took off, and this story has a happy legacy if not a happy ending. Borden died aged 72, a well-liked eccentric. Today, the Borden Family of Companies, named after him, does almost $3 billion of business annually. Maybe someday, that’ll be enough to finance that amphibious craft.

 
 


 
 
 

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