We know of many great inventions from the famous inventors of modern time. How about the lesser known, and even bizarre inventions by these inventors who help shaped the modern civilisations? Today, let us look at these mostly forgotten, somewhat less successful, but no less interesting inventions from five of the greatest: Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Sir James Dyson.
Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Edison (1847-1931) once said: “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.” The famous American inventor of the humble light bulb was the record holder of over 1,000 patents. His Menlo Park, California facility was the world’s first industrial research laboratory.
1. Automatic vote recorder
In 1869, the U.S. Patent Office granted Edison the patent for his vote recorder which allowed the tallying of the number of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in legislative bodies. The user moved a switch to either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ which was recorded by a central recorder with the names of the people who voted. The results were printed on a special piece of paper.
However, the efficiency of the machine went against the ‘legislative culture’ of those days. Edison’s automatic vote recorder was never used.
2. Ore mills
Edison’s venture into the ore mining business started when he built an electromagnetic ore separator in 1880, which allowed the separation of magnetic metallic particles from non-metallic rocks and sand. He later invested over $2 million to develop a comprehensive system of concentrating low-grade iron ore into higher value briquettes.
However, his method soon proved inefficient when large quantities of iron ore deposits were discovered in the Great Lake states.
3. Electric pen
Developed in 1875, the electric pen is part of Edison’s autographic press system for creating copy of a document. The electric pen was one of the first office equipment to have a motor that drove a needle in the shaft of the pen to create a stencil, which was then placed onto the autographic press, then inked to produce copies of documents. The electric pen and press system was initially a success, selling to Canada, Great Britain, and even Asia.
At that time electrical apparatus required cumbersome acid batteries. Later, sales of the electric pen was negatively affected by the invention of the mechanical pens which having no batteries proved easier to use.
Did you know Edison also develop technical innovations for cement production? One of the by-products from Edison’s ore-milling operation was sand, which he realised could be used for cement manufacturing. He established the Edison Portland Cement Co. and developed the long rotary kiln which improved productivity but eventually led to over-production in the cement industry as Edison licensed this technology to other manufacturers.
Luckily for Edison, construction of the Yankee Stadium in 1922 requiring vast amount of Portland cement allowed Edison’s cement business to eke out a small profit.
5. Tinfoil phonograph
Before developing his successful wax cylinder phonograph, Edison’s first foray into voice recording and reproduction was the tinfoil phonograph in 1877. This phonograph used a piece of tin foil, instead of paraffined paper, wrapped around a grooved cylinder and operated by a hand crank. Edison recorded the ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ nursery rhyme onto the tinfoil phonograph, which shook the scientific community at the time.
With this invention, Edison became a household name and became known as ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’. Nevertheless, the tinfoil proved to be fragile and the phonograph required skills and finesse to operate. This and the lack of a clear marketing strategy meant Edison’s tinfoil phonograph soon ran out of audience.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is the inventor credited with bringing civilisation into the electrical age with the AC (alternating current) motor. His other important discovery, inventions and innovations included the rotating magnetic field, radio, neon lights, robotics, and he had even dabbled in the field of free energy. One electric car company even bear his name today.
During the Electrical Exhibition of 1898 in New York, Tesla demonstrated how he could radio-control a boat from a distance. In fact, Tesla discovered remote control and patented the invention of the radio-controlled boat.
Even when living in the 19th-century, Tesla was already fascinated by the idea of a future world with ‘intelligent cars’, ‘robotic human companions’ and even ‘autonomous systems’, in his own words. No wonder Tesla was credited as the ‘Father of Robotics’.
7. Earthquake machine
At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Tesla unveiled an oscillator later referenced to as the ‘earthquake machine’. The device was an electro-mechanical oscillator powered by a Tesla-patented steam electric generator.
The device came to fame when in 1935 Tesla claimed that a version of his oscillator caused vibrations and possibly a small earthquake in New York City. The ‘MythBusters’ TV series experimented with the claim in 2006 but found no evidence of earthquake shaking on the bridge they tested.
8. Wireless electrical power transmission (wireless energy transfer)
The Wardenclyffe Tower built by Tesla in 1901 in Shoreham, New York was originally meant to transmit messages, telephony and facsimile from America to England to experiment on his theory of using the ground and Earth’s ionosphere to transmit the signals.
Famously known as the Tesla Tower, he later decided to use the facility to experiment on wireless electrical energy transmission across the whole world. The project’s financier, JP Morgan, however discontinued financing the transmission tower when Tesla could not come up with a way to charge people for the electrical energy.
Weeks before German physicist announced his discovery of X-ray in 1895, it was believed that Tesla made the world’s first x-ray image. Tesla first started investigating ‘invisible radiant energy’ in 1884 after a botched experiment with a Crookes tube, an electrical discharge tube invented by Englishman William Crookes.
Later, using his own invention, the Tesla coil at high voltage, he created a vacuum tube with a unipolar x-ray bulb. And when he attempted to capture a picture of friend Mark Twain with the vacuum tube, the resulting image surprisingly showed the screw of the camera lens, purpotedly the first x-ray images, which he called ‘shadowgraphs’.
10. ‘Death ray’ machine
Tesla’s invention of the button lamp or ruby laser device in 1893 started his investigation into particle beam weapons. Later, he was thought to have modified the setup of the Van de Graff electrostatic generator to create a vacuum tube that generated extremely high voltages and shot out ionised stream of air or laser-like ray in pellets.
Tesla himself seemed to admit that he had indeed built a working model of the particle beam device. There was speculation that Tesla planned to construct a structure akin to the Wardenclyffe Tower to house the particle beam device, although it was never constructed.
George Westinghouse Jr.
George Westinghouse (1846-1914) was an American inventor, engineer and entrepreneur famous for his competition with Thomas Edison to establish the standard for an electricity distribution system in the United States. George Westinghouse’s partnership with Nikola Tesla was responsible for the adoption of alternating current for electric power distribution. His inventions included the rotary steam engine in 1865 and the railway air brake in 1869.
11. Rotary steam engine
Westinghouse began to work on an alternative to the reciprocating steam engine, widely used during the 1880s, which he felt was inefficient. The rotary steam engine was an early Westinghouse invention. He made improvement to the engine’s rotating disk and pistons, and received a US patent for it in 1865.
However, this type of steam engine proved impractical with the development of steam turbines in 1884. Westinghouse eventually adopted steam turbine technology in his factory.
12. Heat pump / perpetual motion machine
Westinghouse imagined the possibility of a heat pump that could harness heat from the atmosphere and continue to run itself, a device similar to a perpetual motion machine or a machine that never stops. His scientist friends, including British physicist Lord Kelvin, told Westinghouse that he would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Nevertheless, Westinghouse continued to experiment with the idea of the perpetual heat pump well into 1913 although he never produced any system for sale.
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was an American scientist and inventor known for his invention of the telephone. Bell also dedicated a good part of his life to teaching people with hearing disabilities, as his mother was almost deaf and wife Mabel Hubbard lost her hearing at age five due to scarlet fever.
A predecessor to the modern day’s fiber-optic communication systems, the photophone was a wireless communication device that used a beam of light for the transmission of sounds and human conversations invented by Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter in 1880. They successfully transmitted a wireless voice telephone message over a 213 metres (700 feet) distance.
Bell considered the photophone his life’s “greatest achievement”, although the device did not become a commercially viable product.
14. Aircraft design (Aerial Experiment Association)
Bell had began experimenting with tetrahedral box kites and wings in 1898. Then, in 1907 Bell founded the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) for research into heavier-than-air flight, with financial support from his wife.
They first built the Red Wing with a small air-cooled engine, followed by the White Wing and June Bug. Bell’s AEA crown achievement was the Silver Dart flown in 1909 which became the first aircraft flight in Canada.
15. Metal detector
Bell was a pioneer in the field of metal detector due to his invention of an electrical bullet probe to locate the bullet lodged in the back of U.S. President James A. Garfield, who was shot in July 1881.
The device used an induction balance that would produce a tone when approaching a metal object. The device however failed to detect the bullet. Bell later demonstrated the electrical probe to doctors and surgeons, which was then adopted and credited with saving lives.
Sir James Dyson
One of the most famous, and perhaps wealthiest, of modern day inventors, Briton Sir James Dyson (born 1947) is renowned for his invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner. Dyson’s other inventions and innovations included the Dyson Airblade fast hand dryer, the Air Multiplier fan without external blades, and the ContraRotator washing machine.
Dyson’s first invention was the ballbarrow, which was a wheelbarrow with a sphere as its wheel. It was released in 1974 in the UK. The ballbarrow had several design innovations such as integral rear legs and a plastic hopper. Dyson’s ballbarrow invention was awarded the Building Design Innovation Award in 1977.
17. The Wrong Garden fountain
Not exactly an invention, but in 2002 Dyson together with engineer Derek Phillips created M. C. Escher’s Waterfall optical illusion where the waterfall actually flows uphill. This water sculpture was displayed at the Chelsea Showgarden Chelsea Flower Show by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2003. The same concept was used to create a water feature at the Roppongi Hills building complex in Tokyo.
Now, take a seat and watch this not-so-high-resolution video of the eye-tricking water feature at Roppongi Hills.
Photos sourced from: 1., 2., 3., 4., 5. Thomas A. Edison Papers, Rutgers School of Arts and Science, 6., 17. Gizmodo, 7., 9., 13., 14. English Wikipedia, 8. Tesla Society, 10. bibliotecapleyades.net, 11. Google Patents, 12. Warehouse 13 Wiki, 15. The Garfield Observer, 16. Designophy