Future historians will likely designate these times as the beginning of the end of the Gadget Era. Gadgets are usually defined as mechanical or electronic devices, usually small, that have a specific practical use, but also a hint of the novelty item.
Gadgets began their boom in Victorian times, and grew along with the expansion of the Industrial Age. The 20th century is littered with weird gadgets, but a funny thing is happening at the dawn of the new century.
Consumer electronics have been steadily combining the utility of multiple gadgets into singular devices. The smart phone is the primary example. Thanks to the versatility of software and installable apps, a single device can serve hundreds of functions.
The history of industrial design is littered with interesting and decidedly weird gizmos with a specific purpose. To wit: All of the following historical gadgets are real, with one exception. Can you spot the fake?
The Nose Sharpener
Developed by a 19th century perfumer who specialized in cutting-edge beauty products (heh), the Nose Machine was a contrivance which "applied to the nose for an hour daily, so directs the soft cartilage of which the member consists, that an all-formed nose in quickly shaped to perfection." Long and narrow Roman noses were considered the ideal of beauty in those days, and the invention came to be known as the Nose Sharpener. The inventor was something of a pioneer in cosmetic technology — he also developed gadgets for shaping chins and flattening ears.
The Wake Up Device
This 1882 personal productivity gadget took a refreshingly direct approach to problem solving. Designed to replace the bell or rattle alarm clocks of the day, the "Device for Waking Persons from Sleep" (branding was in its infancy, clearly) included a clock attached to a "light frame" which is suspended over the sleeper's head. At the proper time the frame would release to crash down "into the sleeper's face" and "strike a light blow, sufficient to awaken the sleeper, but not heavy enough to cause pain."
The Proto GPS
It seems like something from a Wallace and Gromit episode: Developed in 1927, the Wristlet Route Indicator was a wristwatch-type device that could be loaded with tiny paper road maps, which were then moved across the face of the watch using manual knobs. The idea was that motorists could "load" a map, then manually advance the scrolling paper as they drove along. The device was never mas produced, but it did retail at roadside shops for a short while in the U.K. for the equivalent of about $100.
The Automatic Page Turner
The idea of an automatic page-turning device for books was something of an obsession with Victorian-era inventors. Flipping individual pages turns out to be one of those fine motor skills that the human hand can manage with ease, but which is surprisingly hard to automate. Early prototypes were absurdly complex devices of cords, pulley, springs, pedals and levers. The automatic page turner is still a viable gadget to this day, and in genuinely useful for musicians and persons with disabilities.
In 1939, Popular Science magazine profiled the remarkable Goofybike, an absurdly complicated and delightfully dangerous gadget for the whole family. Invented by a married man and father, the Goofybike was designed to carry a family of four and, um, a sewing machine. While big brother provided the pedaling power, dad steered with an automobile steering wheel and the bike's forward momentum powered a sewing machine for mom, who sat side-saddle. Little sister got a free ride up front on the handlebars.
The Pre-PC Mouse
Long before the advent of personal computing, two separate research teams invented what we now know as the mouse, even though there was no personal computer to go with it. In 1952, scientists with the Royal Canadian Navy designed a primitive trackball style mouse, built from a standard Canadian five-pin bowling ball. In 1970, Douglas Engelbart and Bill English of the Stanford Research Institute received a patent for their "X-Y position indicator for a display system." The boxy device was nicknamed a mouse due to the wire tail coming out the back. Apple would later license the device for a nominal amount, and Engelbart and English never received any royalties for their famous invention.
In an unusual move for the typically conservative company, San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. introduced a pair of concept slacks in 1977 aimed at cracking the lucrative weight-loss and fitness markets. Vibraslacks featured a built-in, battery-powered "vibramatrix" that, when activated, stimulated weight loss and muscle growth by pulsating at variable speeds throughout the day. Vibraslacks never made it to market, however. According to internal company memos, prototype test groups tended to wear the slacks "for all the wrong reasons," and activated Vibraslacks were "profoundly disturbing to behold."
Arriving at the time when console gaming was just starting to go mainstream, the MassageMe game peripheral device was a similar concept and, in theory, a terrific idea. It's a DIY wearable game controller in which the buttons are embedded into the back of a thin vest-style jacket. The user "plays" the massage jacket, which is worn by a partner — presumably the frustrated significant other of the hardcore gamer. The upshot, according to the product's tagline: "Otherwise wasted button-pushing energy is transformed into a massage, and the addicted game player becomes an inexhaustible masseur."
The Solar Bikini
The most recent of our weird gadgets, the solar bikini went into limited production just last year. The outer surface of the bikini is covered with 1 x 4-inch flexible photovoltaic cells, which provide power to the 5-volt regulator and embedded USB port. The bikini will charge your iPod or phone at about the same rate a laptop would, and can even be worn in the water between charges. The designer is currently at work on a pair of men's solar shorts as well, designed to power an attached beer can cooling device. Progress!
Answer: The Vibraslacks are fake.
Note: This was written by Glenn McDonald, a Digital Crave contributor.
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