Even if these inventions never really changed the world like their slightly offbeat creators hoped, at least the patents they left behind serve a different purpose: they’re good for a laugh.
As we chuckle at strange patents from the past such as one for a motorised ice-cream cone, a nappy designed for pet birds or a spinning table that was meant to make childbirth easier (think of centrifugal force), it’s easy to forget how important free thinkers and their wild ideas really are, even if they don’t always hit the mark.
For next week at Floriade, when inventors and inventions take over the park, a team from Questacon’s new Technology Learning Centre has put together a show called “Patently Ridiculous” which explores how people come up with original ideas, no matter how big, small, sensible or silly they might be.
“It’s a game show all about inventing, so we talk about why people invent things, and why it’s so important,” says Rachel Rayner, who helped create “Patently Ridiculous” and will be presenting one of its four sessions each day for seven days from Monday, September 30.
“We do that by looking at some of the really wacky ways we can solve problems in our society; it’s really fun and light hearted.”
The effervescent host says her audience will be split into two teams who will have to work together if they’re going to solve the perplexing questions she poses and, of course, she can’t give away the unexpected answers.
“I can say that we will have a 3D printer on hand to show off what they do,” says Rachel.
“We’ll also have a few other interesting things people can look at to see some different ways people make prototypes and create their inventions.”
To give us a better idea of what “Patently Ridiculous” is all about, she shows the “CityNews” team around the eccentric inventions of Henry Hoke, which are on public display just downstairs from her office at Questacon’s new learning centre beside the Mint.
“The show’s based on the wonderful, whimsical nature of the Henry Hoke inventions, so we’ve taken that and we look at other whimsical, crazy inventions that have happened over the last two centuries and how the inventors were aiming to solve big problems, how they went about that and whether we actually use those inventions today or not,” says Rachel, as we stop by a large ride-on contraption called the random excuse generator, covered in knobs, switches and levers with labels like “credibility gap tolerance”, “flattery booster”, “blame shifter” and “hypocrisy filter”.
Following in the footsteps of his father Silas, who came up with dehydrated water pills, the younger Mr Hoke went on to sell a whole range of not-so-useful and slightly dubious products, such as the rope hammer. “Really good for hammering around corners but it does take quite a bit of practice,” says Rachel.
“Then there’s the corrugated iron, for ironing the wrinkles back into your clothes,” she says, pointing to another display case. “If your grandmother irons your jeans, well sometimes ironed jeans don’t look right, so you have to iron the wrinkles back in; it’s one of those inventions you never knew you needed, but every now and then might be quite useful.”
Next, she shows us the original prototype of Mr Hoke’s well-known sceptical training apparatus, a piece of heavy metal called the long weight, which would be familiar to many who’ve done apprenticeships in the building trades.
“Apparently he made day-long weights too, but they were pretty heavy and they’ve all sunk into the earth without a trace,” Rachel explains.
“This one’s really important,” she says, pointing to a small glass bottle. “This is bulldust. This does feature quite a bit in the show. Refined bulldust was used a lot in Henry Hoke’s inventions to get them to work, particularly the random excuse generator; it runs on bulldust.”
“Patently Ridiculous”, at the Inspiration Hub, Floriade, September 30-October 6. There are four shows a day at 10am, 11am, 2pm and 3pm.