The Victorian Era was an incredible time for discovery and ingenuity which transformed people’s lifestyles and perceptions of the world. The period gave birth to the first electric bulb and domestic electric lighting, the telephone, the x-ray, the underground railway and many others. Together with ingenuity, however, came also the most bizarre and ridiculous inventions.
Would you be interested in an anti-garotting cravat with steel spikes against stranglers? What about a boot lever to put your boots on and pull them off? Well, some imaginative people from the 19th century thought you would.
While such useless inventions never took off, their creativity and charm continue to inspire curiosity to this day.
What Caused the Increase in Bizarre Inventions in the UK?
The inventions in the 1800s led to mass production and the emergence of the middle-class. People became obsessed with technology as they believed it was the key to social progress, wealth and fame. This idea remains pretty much intact till nowadays, where there’s no problem too petty, no solution too grandiose. Still, that was not the main reason for the countless useless inventions.
The patent system at the time was slow and expensive, discouraging inventors to fund their projects and ideas. Consequently, in 1839 the Board of Trade in the United Kingdom established the Designs Registry to protect the intellectual copyright on the so-called “ornamental designs”. For a reasonable fee, It offered 3 years of protection (instead of the original 14 promised by the Patent Office).
As a result, inventors of (literally) all sorts started to pursue copyright protection through the Designs Registry. All they needed was to pay the fee and submit two exact copies of their drawing: one for the Registrar, and one to keep for themselves.
Today, the registry copies of these designs are in leather-bound books and part of the British National Archives’ collection. One of the archivists working there uncovered those designs and decided to write a book about them.
Julie Halls: The Archivist Behind the Victorian Inventions
In 2014, the British archivist Julie Halls published her book Inventions That Didn’t Change the World. The book contains 200 color illustrations of contraptions and gadgets from the 19th century that seemed pretty revolutionary at the time but never turned into a commercial success.
Working for the National Archives in London, Halls discovered huge volumes of bizarre, almost steampunk-looking, designs from the Victorian era. In her opinion, they were a reflection of people’s lifestyles and “the small, everyday annoyances they had to deal with, problems they wanted to solve, or ways of doing things better, even if the solutions sometimes seem a bit misguided.”
List of Bizarre Victorian Inventions
The Anti-Garotting Cravat
That’s one fearsome safety accessory, inspired by the media-fueled garotting panic in London in 1862. With the increase in street violence and robberies, people were simply scared and looking for a way to protect themselves. As a result, Walter Thornhill invented a fearsome collar with steel spikes at the front that were well-hidden under a cloth cravat. His collar was meant to protect its wearer from potential garotters who would strangle their victims before robbing them.
The Bonafide Ventilating Hat
During Victorian times, middle-class men wore heavy top hats. According to Halls, most men used hair oil at that time, leading to “quite an unpleasant atmosphere inside the hat”. The Bonafide Ventilating hat was a desperate effort to tackle the problem. It had some kind of grille system to carry off the perspiration from the interior. The idea was noble but led to another useless invention.
The Corset with Expandable Busts
Such invention might not seem so crazy nowadays, but back then, there was no photoshop.
According to the drawing, there were two rubber pouches attached to the corset that resembled human breasts as much as possible. Once the corset was put on, its wearer could inflate the pouches via connected tubes.
The Alarm Gun
This is yet another of the countless victorian inventions, inspired by a strong preoccupation with safety. According to the device, a six-barreled alarm gun would be tripped in case an undesired “guest” made contact with the weighted string attached to it.
The Improved Diving Suit
The “improved” suit had a rubber tube inserted into the crotch, held in place with a rubber ring. The idea was to allow divers to urinate whenever nature calls, without taking off the suit entirely. It’s hard to imagine, though, how the invention would prevent the water from rushing into the diving suit while the diver is “taking advantage of the suit’s perk”. While the invention turned out to be a failure, it was also a noble effort to raise a concern regarding the problem.
The “Jack” for Putting on and Pulling off Boots
The strange invention of Edward Fox became another example of a beautiful and unsuccessful victorian invention. Similar to other gadgets (like the combined fork and knife), however, I suspect that such an invention was possibly meant for people with physical disabilities.
The Knife and Fork Cleaner
The Industrialization period in Britain encouraged the mass production of various household items. According to Halls, the increase in household items led to the need for more servants but also to a market for labor-saving devices.
The designs reflect early attempts to save on washing up in the form of knife and fork cleaners but, eventually, this turned out to be more labor-intensive than the conventional method.
For more contemporary inventions with a steampunk look and proven practicality, check out our Creative Steampunk Art for Your Home ideas.