In the attempt to hit a home run, there are many, many foul balls. Just consider the inventions that came out of Victorian England. For every telephone and sewing machine, there was a “ventilating top hat,” “reversible trowsers” and a “corset with expansible busts.”
Julie Halls, a records specialist at the National Archives in London, is quite familiar with the harebrained schemes of 19th century British inventors. Many tinkerers hoping to make a buck off of gizmos meant to ease all sorts of tasks—from picking fruit to pulling off boots—filed detailed sketches to the United Kingdom's Designs Registry, an arm of the Board of Trade. For 10 pounds, the designer could obtain a copyright that lasted three years—a process that proved more surmountable than securing a patent. The Registry kept copies of the designs in leather-bound books, now part of the National Archives' collection.
Nosing through these tomes, Halls found the inventions, most never seen by the public, to be an interesting window into the era. She features more than 200 of the beautifully drawn products in her new book, Inventions That Didn't Change the World. Patent and registration agents, many engineers by training, often produced the drawings to the inventors' specifications or hired draftsmen to do so, according to Halls.
"Some seemingly inexplicable inventions make sense within their historical context," she writes. "One example is the 'Design for a Flying or Aerial Machine for the Artic Regions', which was registered at a time when exploration of the Arctic, and in particular attempts to find a trade route through the Northwest Passage, was the subject of sensational news stories. There are several designs registered around the time of the gold rushes, and the 'Anti-Garotting Cravat' coincided with a national scare about incidents of robbery."
While no single gadget in the book changed life as we know it, collectively they shaped an outlook on innovation that exists even today.
"The 19th century really invented invention itself, not just the production of occasional new devices but the unremitting, self-reinforcing stream of novelties that generated our present expectation of innovation as the normal state of affairs," writes Peter Pesic in the Wall Street Journal.