Review: Julie Halls’ ‘Inventions That Didn’t Change the World’

Inventions That Didn’t Change the World. Julie Halls. Thames & Hudson. 224 pages. $30.
Inventions That Didn’t Change the World. Julie Halls. Thames & Hudson. 224 pages. $30.

Are you unhappy with your pickle fork? Do you wish there were a more useful stand upon which to rest your accordion? Would you prefer an artificial leech to the real thing? Does your hat often get stepped upon whilst resting on the floor at the theater? Do you tire easily and long for a rotary hair-brushing machine?

If so, hie thee to the store for the delightful Inventions That Didn’t Change the World a compendium of curiosities designed by British inventors in the Victorian Age, when Britain was the workshop of the world. Digging through the Designs Registry now in the care of the British National Archives, Julie Halls has assembled a remarkable collection of design drawings for inventions long forgotten.

The mania for invention in mid-19th century England stemmed from a confluence of socioeconomic factors, including industrialization, expansion of rail travel, migration to cities, growth of the middle class and an increase in leisure. In addition, the government reformed the patent registration process to spur innovation, perhaps most grandly expressed by the first world’s fair, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 in London.

From Cheapside to Birmingham, dreamers designed the apps of the Victorian Age. For example, “An Early Calling Machine” is an alarm clock in which one end of a tape is attached to a weighted lever and wheel and the other end of the tape is attached to the nightshirt so that one is gently pulled awake. Or the rather poetically named “Trouser Alliance,” which is a waistcoat that, because it is affixed to the back buttons of trousers, serves to keep one’s pants up. “The Amphirepolax Boot” has a circular brass plate attached to the heel that can rotate over time to prevent wear. The “Fumigating Apparatus to Cure Syphilis” has a rather dangerous flame in what looks like a chamber pot, and the “Antigarrotte Collar” is “warranted to withstand the grip of the most muscular ruffian in the metropolis.” There are two examples of the proverbial better mousetrap. Perhaps the most ambitious design of all is for a “Flying or Aerial Machine for the Arctic Regions.”

Along the way, Halls touches upon many related aspects of Victorian life, such as the first celebrity endorsements. Rudyard Kipling shilled for Bovril Beef Extract, and Oscar Wilde praised Madame Fontaine’s Bosom Beautifier (although one wonders how earnest he was). Queen Victoria herself was caught up in the craze for innovation: She was one of the first in the nation to own a tricycle.

Covering everything from home and garden to sport and safety, these misfit inventions tell a story that grew curiouser and curiouser. This is the perfect book for your quirky uncle who spends too much time tinkering in the basement.

Keith Donohue reviewed this book for The Washington Post.