10 Victorian Inventions That Never Quite Took Off

Flops from a “knife and fork cleaner” to a “cholera belt” provide a curious look at life in 19th century England

Hat Cigar Holder, Godfrey & Nathaniel Levi, 26 London Road, Liverpool, 1851. "For most of the Victorian period top hats were worn by middle-class men," writes Halls. "They became a symbol of urban respectability." So, naturally, inventors filed a number of hat-related patents, including this one for a hat cigar holder. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Campaigning Waterproof Sheet and Valise, Thomas White, Aldershot, 1878. With the rails of Britain expanding by the thousands, people were on the move. Inventors designed inflatable hats that served as travel pillows, portable cooking devices and waterproof sleeping bags with pockets for stowing gear. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Cholera Belt, Dodd & Monk, Albert Mill, Canal Street, Congleton, Cheshire, 1882. With little understood about the disease, there were many bogus treatments and preventative measures against cholera. "The cholera belt seems like the most unlikely protection," writes Halls. "However, it was believed that a chilled body could cause disease, and that keeping the stomach and abdomen warm could protect against bowel complaints." The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Alarm Gun, Isaac Naylor, Burton near Barnsley, Yorkshire, 1850. Designs filed in the mid-19th century show a preoccupation with safety. This six-barreled alarm gun would be tripped if an intruder made contact with the weighted string attached to it. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
The Luffer Chimney Top, John Martyn Fisher, Ironmonger, Fore Street, Taunton in the County of Somerset, 1855. “The fireplace was a symbol of Victorian domestic life—of ‘hearth and home,’” writes Hall. “Unfortunately, it could also be a cause of household accidents.” This chimney top from 1855 funneled wind to create a strong upward draft that prevented smoke from lingering. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Life Raft, Walter Raymond, Master mariner, 4 (East) Albion Square, Queen’s Road, Dalston Middlesex, 1850. It was not common in England at this time to know how to swim. Inventors took to designing life preservers, buoys and rafts, like this rather complex one from 1850. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Knife and Fork Cleaner, Thomas Parker, Kensington, Middlesex, 1850. Industrialization in 19th century Britain led to the mass production of many household items. "The increase in the number of objects meant that there were many more things to keep clean," writes Halls. "The plethora of new objects created not only a need for servants but also a market for labour-saving devices: the registered designs include early attempts to save on washing up in the form of knife and fork cleaners—which appear more labour intensive than the conventional method." The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Oyster Opener, Adolph Aubert, Nantes, France, 1852. Single-purpose gadgets, like this sturdy oyster opener, were on the rise, as hosts of dinner parties were judged on their fanciful kitchen tools. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Croquet Register, George Brown Councell, Thornbury near Bristol, 1870. Regulations on the length of the workday led to more leisure time for the working and middle classes. This “Umpire” croquet register, with movable rings on its shaft, could help players keep track of their strokes. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright
Travelling Case, Messrs Mechi & Bazin, 112 Regent Street & 4 Leadenhall Street, London, 1861. This case could hold stationary and pencils as well as toiletries. The National Archives, London, England 2014. © 2014 Crown Copyright

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."

Inventions That Didn't Change the World

A fascinating visual tour through some of the most bizarre inventions registered with the British authorities in the nineteenth century.

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.

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