Posts Tagged ‘craft’.

True Stuff: Build Your Own Propeller Car


Jeff Lane of the Lane Motor Museum

This is a 1932 Hélica! It’s a car that is driven by an airplane propeller.

Here is a video of it driving around! It, of course, sounds exactly like an airplane.

Here is another, longer and better video!

The Hélica was designed by Marcel Leyat, one of a number of French automotive engineers who experimented with “wingless aeroplanes”.

These vehicles were very light, since there’s no need for a clutch or transmission. A propeller engine like this isn’t hooked up to the wheels at all; the wheels turn freely as the propeller pulls the whole apparatus through the air (just like an airplane taxiing).

Fitted with heavy-duty motorcycle tires, the claim was that the propeller cars could drive faster, and on worse roads, than the heavy, low-slung traditional motorcars of the time. And Leyat claimed that the running costs for his craft were “less than for a motorcycle.”

screw you

“Don’t be silly, your hair will be FINE”

In February, 1921, you could read about Leyat’s cars in Popular Science.

Or, in August, 1922, you could read Popular Mechanics and learn how to build your own propeller car.

The Popularity of Mechanics

I love reading old books and magazines, but two that I especially love are Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. There are a few reasons for this:

• Google Books has huge, freely-browsable archives of them both. Often, when I’ll search the Google Books database for articles on a topic, results will come up from those titles first. This is at least partially due to the fact that there are just a ton of them digitized.

• The articles give us a glimpse into the technology of days gone by (a recurring theme in this series of True Stuff From Old Books). This lets us, for example, marvel at the tentative, baby-step emergence of technologies that would go on to become reliable and familiar:

i like this light but we definitely gotta change those colors tho

“I like this light idea but we definitely gotta change those colors tho”

sqweeka sqweeka sqweeka

“But what should we CALL it? How about a ‘demi-bicycle’!”

We can get a contemporaneous perspective on ideas and methods that we have since thought better of:

springtime fresh

“Ahh, that springtime fresh smell! Makes me a bit…sleepy”

We can even revisit and rediscover ideas that have since been forgotten (perhaps for good reason):

electricity in that gaze

“Hold a cigarette with my fingers? What, and look like an idiot?”

But! I also love this type of magazine for another reason.

Making Things By Hand

There are magazines and websites today, like Make and others, that are about doing projects and constructing things. I also really like reading Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, because it takes as its foundational baseline assumption that you can make, or repair, or adapt something yourself.

We sometimes picture old-timey turn-of-the-century stuff as having an artisanal or hand-crafted character. That has truth to it — as we’ll see in a moment — but the Industrial Revolution also enabled the opposite: mass production. Tools, equipment, vehicles, housewares, clothes… For the first time, they could all be ready-made.

For the farmer out in the sticks, the Sears-Roebuck catalog was a godsend; he could order anything from a hammer to a horsecart and have it delivered by train to his local station.

But, as often happens in times of transitions, there was also a pushback against the undiscerning march of technology — specifically, a renewed focus on what could not, or could only inferiorly, be created by machine.

Thus was the birth of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was a movement to consider the handcrafts (woodworking; the creation of textiles and pottery; metalworking and masonry; anything that you could make with your hands) with the same sort of thoughtfulness normally reserved for fine art:

…Of late years, however, a kind of revival has been going on, as a protest against the conviction that, with all our modern mechanical achievements, comforts, and luxuries, life is growing “uglier every day,” as Mr. Morris puts it.

…If Art is not recognized in the humblest object and material, and felt to be as valuable in its own way as the more highly regarded pictorial skill — the arts cannot be in a sound condition; and if artists cease to be found among the crafts there is great danger that they will vanish from the arts also, and become manufacturers and salesmen instead.

— Walter Crane, “Of the Revival of Design and Handcraft”, Arts and Crafts Essays, 1899

The Notion of the Home Workshop

So at the turn of the 20th century, the Industrial Revolution had wrought a world in which powerful machines and tools enabled us to manipulate materials and forces, like aluminum and gasoline and electricity, in ways never before possible.

But in this same world, people still wanted things to be beautiful, and customized, and repairable, and modifiable.

Thus: the home workshop.

This is why I love early mechanical magazines: because they let us visit a world in which it was expected that we were masters of the objects in our lives; a world in which the machines we interacted with, and made labor for us, had workings we could understand and, to an extent, control.

Gasoline-fueled motorcars were simple enough to be be fixed quickly with a wrench; or, if something more severe became damaged, the town blacksmith could fabricate a replacement for you.

In this pre-electronic age, the workings of things were visible, and thus, things could be worked.

Now, I know that it’s tricky to judge a society by its media — the audience for these magazines in particular wasn’t everybody in the world. It was a magazine for a certain type of person.

But that was the type of person who could look at Popular Mechanics’ proto-Cool Tools section and read about things like this:

the lament of the four-posters

“Hang on a minute, will you?”

Or this:

the lament of the pitchfork

“Yeah, keep your points in a line, GEEZ”

Or this:

canoe handle the truth

“canoe handle the truth”

…And be able to make them.

Let’s be clear! None of these are particularly hard projects for people with some mechanical ability and the right tools and materials.

But today, it is much less common to have access to those tools and materials, to say nothing of the inclination to use them. I don’t know how I would heat up pitchfork tines today if I wanted to!

The Ultimate Project

In August 1922, Popular Mechanics published one of my favorite examples of what one could build — or perhaps what one was assumed to be able to build, based on how many shortcuts and abbreviations and elisions are in the instructions — in a decent home workshop.

like the wind!

“Man, I’ve got all this angle iron and half a wrecked airplane, what am I gonna DO with it all??”

CAN BE BUILT BY ALMOST ANY AMATEUR MECHANIC: a propeller-driven deathtrap in which you can careen around at up to 50 miles an hour

The “wind wagon” has a long but little-known history in aviation. The term was used to refer to any of a number of propeller-driven land vehicles.

Usually fitted with a pusher prop, wind wagons were sometimes used as test platforms for airplane engines and propeller designs, as well as teaching tools to familiarize would-be pilots with the inertia of a propeller-driven engine.

Unlike motorcars, wind wagons had no gears, so it was possible to “stall” while going up a hill, if the propeller wasn’t putting out enough thrust to offset the craft’s weight.

“It is much better to gather such experience on the ground,” reads a 1917 account in Everyday Engineering Magazine, “than in the air.”

Wind wagons go back to Glenn Curtiss, one of aviation’s earliest pioneers. In 1905 he built a wind wagon to test what was then a very unproven propeller design. Here’s a replica at the Curtiss Museum.

Curtiss himself is speaking at the beginning of this quote:

“‘The machine, although of no commercial value, is thoroughly practical and will easily run at the speed mentioned, 30 miles per hour…

‘It is needless to say that the rig is a great horse scarer, and blows up a great cloud of dust when passing along the road, and will even pull the leaves from the trees where the branches are low.’

…There is no patent on the idea and any of our readers who have a small gasoline motor can build their own craft from the suggestions given in the illustrations.

…The same idea has just been utilized in France, where M. Archdeacon, of Acheres, applied the propeller to a motorcycle. In his case the propeller was carried in front, which had the effect of pulling instead of pushing. The entire outfit weighs 160 lb. and made a speed of 49 1/2 miles per hour over short distances.

The tests were required by the authorities to be made on secluded roads, for the French horses go wild as the big whirling blades come toward them.

— “A Motor Wind Wagon”, Popular Mechanics, November 1906

Wind wagons were fun diversions for the mechanically minded; the basic technology could be adapted to ice or water just as easily. And of course this same basic idea survives today as the airboat.

dry up

“I’m tired of you just barging in here all the time!”

chill out


And in 1922, as we saw above, Popular Mechanics considered the wind wagon, a device “capable of developing a speed of from 45 to 50 miles an hour”, something that “can be built by almost any amateur mechanic.”

The plans are quite elegant:

let me know when you're done

“Yeah that’s basically how I figured it would be built”

But that’s all you get. The text also helpfully leaves out a lot of detail — I guess because they assume you already know how to bend and join angle iron.

And that’s it! That’s what I love. This is a world in which that can be taken for granted.

Here’s my favorite part — the very end of the description, before the next article starts in about lawn care:

just get pretty close and it's fine

“I’m on the edge of my lawn just reading this!”

In other words:

“Just go ahead and carve the propeller. You know, the regular way. Oh yeah — add a propeller guard too. Probably should have mentioned that. OK! Then just start ’er up and off you go! You’re good! What’s next? Let’s talk about LAWNS.”

I don’t know whether these plans, in 1922, would have been practical or aspirational. I don’t know whether the typical tinkerer’s home workshop would have been adequate to build the wind wagon, nor whether the surrounding area would have been a good place to go tearing around at 50 miles an hour, ripping leaves off of trees and terrifying the horses.

But I love reading these magazines, and paying a visit to a (possibly made-up) world where that is ever-so-casually possible.



Improving the Fork: A Patent Trawl

I went to lunch today at a new market-slash-sandwich place that just opened in my neighborhood. It was really good!

The market (and neighborhood) is the type to offer fancy organic cold-pressed juice for eleven dollars and artisanal almond milk that comes in something that looks like baby food jars, so when I got this fork to eat my side salad with, at first I wasn’t sure if it was something exotic and fancy:

I used the strange fork to eat my salad and was pleased to find that it worked really well! The tiny serrations on the tip helped spear the individual salad leaves very securely. “Aha,” I thought, “someone has improved upon the simple fork!”

I went up and asked the guy behind the counter if all his forks were like this, and he laughed and assured me they were not. It was just a manufacturing defect!

I went back to work with my head spinning. Could this ACCIDENTAL IMPROVEMENT made to the fork be put to DELIBERATE use?

Had I been struck by the sort of coincidental circumstance that led to the invention of Post-Its, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and representative democracy??

I began to search the patent records. Soon I lost all interest in developing and marketing my new, improved fork. But I did really enjoy my trawl through the patent records for improved forks, because the language in a patent application has this very formal, stilted tone that nonetheless often features dashes of irrepressible personality bursting through the seams. Here are a few of my favorite finds and excerpts (bold is my own emphasis).

mom's spaghetti


The objects of the invention are…to eliminate the awkwardness of securing a portion of spaghetti around the prongs of the fork; to add to the pleasure of eating spaghetti; to construct a revolving spaghetti fork consisting of few and simple parts, easy and inexpensive to manufacture; and generally to provide a revolving spaghetti fork that is easily and simply operated for use and that is sufficient for its purpose.

can i frame this drawing

SERRATED FORK, Patent Application US20130152403 A1, 2011

My serrated fork will cut thru pastries, cakes, eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles, fish, fruit and other edibles with more ease than a regular fork. Step 1, I placed a regular fork tightly onto a vise. Step 2, I used a hacksaw with a junior hacksaw blade and I made some small notches on the outer tong of the fork. Step 3, I used a mini-grinder set to smoothen the edges. Lastly, I washed the fork to remove any tiny metal flakes. I made a fork for a right-handed person, another for left-handed user. I used a small fork to model both serrated sides…

The serrated fork offers an opportunity to restaurants and homes everywhere, worldwide to keep up with innovation and the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. When the “sphork” [sic] was created long ago, no one thought of marrying the butter knife and the fork. [Editor’s note: Combination knife and fork designs go back to at least 1881.]

The serrated fork brings these two together, the butter knife and the fork. I have seen children and adults alike licking a butter knife; this serrated fork will need the help of those skilled in the art to craft a perfect unity between the butter knife and the fork to create a masterful vision of the serrated fork which can be lick able. I can envision a serrated fork in every home! I can picture us cutting easily into a thick piece of Cod with just a wiggle of the wrist as we handle the serrated fork…

The more important feature of the invention, in order for the detailed description herein to be understood and appreciated by those of masterful skill in the art, are the notches given to the outside tongs. The notches are a skillful design between a butter-knife and a dull steak knife. The features are to be apparent and obvious to one skilled in the art.

spoon it


Look at that thing. Just look at it.

chop it up

COMBINED FORK AND CHOPSTICK ASSEMBLY, Patent Application US20090165307 A1, 2007

While forks are generally intuitive and easy to use, chopsticks require a great deal of skill and practice to be used effectively when eating. In a variety of restaurants, patrons might request chopsticks if they are proficient with the techniques and proper handling of chopsticks, while other patrons may request a fork if they are unable to efficiently handle their food with chopsticks. In still other cases, a patron may wish to try using chopsticks, and then later change his or her mind and wish to use a fork to continue eating.

Heretofore, the restaurant has been required to provide both forks and chopsticks separately to provide patrons with a utensil of their choice. This creates additional cost and takes up valuable storage space. Also, patrons have had to choose between using a fork or a pair of chopsticks and had to utilize two utensils if they changed their mind, creating additional waste.

While forks and chopsticks have long been known, there has been a longfelt need, for a combined chopstick and fork assembly that combines the elements and features of a fork and a chopstick, that can be used by a variety of patrons as a fork, a pair of chopsticks or both, at the discretion of the patron.

“a longfelt need”

an invention whose time has come

FORK WITH TIMER, Patent US5421089 A, 1994

The use of forks is known in the prior art. More specifically, forks heretofore devised and utilized for the purpose of eating are known to consist basically of familiar, expected and obvious structural configurations, notwithstanding the myriad of designs encompassed by the crowded prior art which have been developed for the fulfillment of countless objectives and requirements…

While these devices fulfill their respective, particular objective and requirements, the aforementioned patents do not describe a fork with timer that provides a cue to a user after an elapsed period of time for indicating that another bite of food using the fork may be taken

Therefore, it can be appreciated that there exists a continuing need for new and improved fork with timer which can be used for providing a cue to a user after an elapsed period of time for indicating that another bite of food using the fork may be taken.

I love this logic: “There does not already exist a fork with a built-in timer. Therefore, there is a need for a fork with a timer.” Go for it, N.M. Dubus and S. Springfield. That’s the spirit of invention.

Also: “It is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a new and improved fork with timer which has all the advantages of the prior art forks and none of the disadvantages.”

screw this, man

TWISTING PASTA FORK, Patent US5005293 A, 1989

A spring element forcibly urges the shaft out of the sleeve and a spiral mechanism twists the shaft and fork end as the shaft exits the sleeve. The mechanism includes a ratchet, ball and socket or other devices for retaining the shaft in the sleeve during an eating procedure when food is captured on the fork end…

Although some attempts may be been made to employ an automatic twisting arrangement for the fork tines, problems and difficulties are oftentimes encountered which stem largely from the fact that the fork tines may only be turned or twisted to gather food wherein the turning or twisting is then restricted while the user raises the implement to his mouth to consume the collected food.

Obviously, once the twist has been made, the food must be retained on the fork tines and no twisting or turning or rotational movement may be tolerated while the implement is being raised to the mouth of the user. Otherwise, the collected food will be dislodged causing embarrassment to the user…

Therefore, a long standing need has existed to provide an economical and convenient means for collecting pasta or other food commodities which rotates to gather the pasta, and which releasably locks in this position preparatory to eating…

Another object of the present invention is to provide an economic and convenient means for automatically gathering food onto the tines of a fork whereby the food may be readily consumed during a conventional culinary procedure.

I never knew that twirling pasta was SO HARD. Also, “conventional culinary procedure” is my new favorite way of saying “eating”