Posts Tagged ‘blog: true stuff from old books’.

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.



True Stuff: The Art of Letter Writing

sit up straight

Every now and then you see someone talking about “the lost art of letter writing.” There was a TED talk, and a book last year, and there always seem to be articles and thinkpieces aplenty:

Thomas G. Knoles, the Marcus A. McCorison Librarian at the American Antiquarian Society, has an intimate knowledge of the more than 100,000 handwritten letters, as well as 1,500 manuscript collections, spanning from 1630 to present day, that are housed in the society’s archives.

“Life was so different in the 19th century. People didn’t have television, computers or radios, any of the distractions that they have now,” Knoles said. “Between the fact that it was the only way of communicating with people who were local and the fact there was actually disposable time to write the letters, letter writing was something that was a common practice.”

…While he feels the transition to the computer is a natural one, Knoles said there will be a whole texture of what everyday life was like that is going to be much harder to recapture because people don’t keep letters like they do emails and texts.

“We can grieve for anything that changes, but my own feeling is that you have to accept the fact that things are going to change,” Knoles said. “People grieved when the typewriter came. People grieved in the mid-19th century when the envelope was introduced and before that they used sealing wax.”

“Mass. Scholars Mourn Lost Art Of Letter Writing”, CBS Boston, March 22, 2014

To be clear, I am a fan of letter writing!

• As the quote above says, letter writing, its other charms aside, preserves history. On this site I’ve discussed correspondence by the Wright Brothers and shown off letters my mother received from Isaac Asimov. My mother, a prolific correspondent, has saved bushels of letters we’ve come across decades later, but in the future, we are likely to find few from the era since she began sending emails.

• A couple years ago, I sent letters — 521 of them — to every head of state in the world, every governor in the U.S., 200 of the world’s top CEOs, and the pope. I got 52 letters back!

• People send me letters! I love it when they do. Here’s one I got recently (click for bigger):

another currency by mail scheme

…Of late, however, we faced a quandary regarding your fine publication. Sharp-eyed old Grisby noticed there is a price cited on your mast-head. Imagine our shame at discovering we have been leeches, sucking the bounty of your blood for close to eleven years, without so much as lying about paying…

Enclosed please find the requisite payment of six pence… Notices of subscription renewals should not be sent and will go unanswered. We consider the matter closed.

none the richer, alas

• Hundreds of people sent us letters about Machine of Deathwe asked them to, in exchange for us sending them a death prediction card in the mail. We said “send us anything,” and the results were amazing.

So, I’m firmly on the side of writing letters. But it’s true that it’s somewhat of an affectation these days. I correspond with people all the time, but the last letter I wrote was an angry one to the IRS.

One of my favorite historical books, though, is all about writing letters…

True Stuff: ‘Women Are Funny That Way’, According to 1927

Perhaps you saw this Onion article from about a year ago: “Area Man’s Intelligence Probably Just Too Intimidating For Most Women”


It’s hilarious and terrible and I’ve seen it passed around a lot in the last few weeks. Dudes who know everything about everything are of course valuable contributors to society and thank heaven there are so many of them.

In my regular trawling of old-timey nonsense (of which I post a lot to Twitter), I happened across a brief humor column in an issue of Life magazine, 1927.

Somewhere north of 75% of the jokes in 1927 Life magazine are incredibly sexist, including one on the very same page as this piece, so the fact that this one — besides very clearly poking fun at advertising — seems to deflate the suitor’s balloon a bit is notable for the time.

And of course, “the more things change”, etc.


Women Are Funny That Way

The sign in the barber shop said: “Present a neat appearance. You can win HER by having your hair cut regularly.” Well, it kept me pretty nearly broke, but I visited that barber shop every day.

Then I thought perhaps the trouble lay in my social defects and that I was one of these stupids who never say a word all evening. So I learned French, Spanish, Greek, Crow and Old Crow, Choctaw, Coptic, Cuneiform and Hunt & Pick. I got so cultured up that nobody could pass a wisecrack without my hurling a fast one right back at him.

I drank Listerosis by the gallon, because the advertisement said not to ruin my chances with HER by neglecting it.

You should have seen me delve into Elbert Haldeman-Julius’s Scrapbook. I knew Aristotle as well as Babe Ruth knows his batting average. You have to get next to the best minds of history to be able to knock HER for a loop. I found that out in the magazines.

I became an expert on more musical instruments than Paul Whiteman ever heard of. People used to stand entranced outside my window, under the impression that I was the Street Cleaning Department Band and that Lindbergh had just landed again, or something. You can’t win HER without Art.

I joined all these clubs that prescribe the best book of the month to you. In that way I got four different books every day. A thorough grounding in current literature always goes great with HER. If you don’t believe it I’ll show you the clipping that says so.

That wasn’t the half of what I did to gain HER love.

And still she regards me as something even the cat wouldn’t bring in.

Doesn’t SHE know the rules of the game? What’s the matter with the girl, anyway?

— Tip Bliss.


Here is a comic strip from the same year (1927, a few months later) that I quite enjoyed. Click for a closer look!


I love that they’ve given over a whole page to this gag!


True Stuff: Mortality record from 1665

(click image for bigger)

I love this: Via Slate’s The Vault, “In 16th- and 17th-century London, in response to recurrent epidemics of bubonic plague, authorities instituted the tradition of publishing a bill of mortality each week.”

See Slate’s brief article, with more links, here.

They also link to Craig Spence’s Bills of Mortality blog:

The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths. It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis…

The content of the Bills was provided by the parish clerks who reported weekly accounts from each parish to the Hall of the Company of Parish Clerks. The Company then collated and printed a weekly sheet; one side held a listing of the number of burials by parish and from the mid 17th century the reverse listed a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’.

These covered a wide range of illnesses, some of which are readily identifiable to the modern reader and some which are not.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been suffering from ‘scowring’ for weeks

(h/t to @PublicDomainRev, where I first saw this)

True Stuff: The Internet According to 1995

One of my recurring fascinations is reading pearl-clutching editorials over the menacing march of technological advance (such as the telephone, the printing press, or writing itself). So I loved this 1995 column from Newsweek by astronomer and Klein-bottler Clifford Stoll:

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works…

“Why the Web won’t be Nirvana” — Newsweek, February 26, 1995

Stoll is the author of the 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, in which he was wrong about basically everything the Internet turned out to be. To his credit, he seems to have come around in the years that followed…And I wonder how many of those early curmudgeons eventually came around to the telephone, and how many of them railed against the infernal motor-car! to their dying day.

In a way, it seems Stoll’s pessimism wasn’t from a lack of understanding of the technology — he was an early adopter of Usenet and from what I can tell, was born on a BBS via 200 baud modem, or something.

It’s that he was too close — he only saw the structure as it was, and as he knew it; he couldn’t imagine what someone else, without that depth of understanding, could reimagine for it. (Or even if he could imagine great changes, didn’t think them possible, or likely to occur.)

But they did. It’s amazing what one can accomplish if one doesn’t know that what one is attempting is impossible.