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Category Archives: Historical Gadgets

The Righteous Cyclist

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There was once a man in a large department store in America, balancing a canoe on his head as he passed the cashiers at the front of the shop, and the security guards; he smiled sheepishly and pointed to the canoe, saying, “They didn’t have a bag big enough.”  Only after he was long gone did they find out that he’d stolen the canoe – it was in plain sight, but because it was so bold, no one ever thought to ask to see a receipt.

Hiding things in plain sight is a frequently-used form of deception, from animals to thieves, and in this particular story, a cyclist whose racing bike was stuffed with forged documents; but the cause was much more important, and changed the lives of countless thousands through the generations.

Gino Bartali (July 1914 – May 2000) was a champion racing cyclist in Italy, who won races both before and after World War 2.  A devoutly religious man, he used his celebrity status, as well as the cover story of “training” to ensure that hundreds of Jews were rescued from the Nazi occupation in Italy.  Not only did he risk his and his family’s lives by hiding a Jewish family in his cellar, but he also used his fame to slip by undetected as he delivered forged documents and messages hidden within the frame and handlebars of his bike.  In 1943, he led a group of Jewish refugees toward the Swiss Alps; he cycled, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment; when he was stopped by a German patrol, he simply said that it was part of his training.  Working with the Assisi underground, his speed, fame and cover story enabled him to quickly travel 35-40 trips between Florence to Perugia, Assisi, Lucca and Terontola to deliver paperwork that saved the lives of over 800 Jews; if you look at those distances on a map, its mind boggling to think that he often made the trip out and back within the same day.

When he went to train stations, he would use the confusion of the crowds of fans to distract the German guards checking the identifications of passengers entering the train, thus slipping the Jews aboard in the chaos.  Once, when he was taken in for questioning, he asked that they not touch his bicycle, claiming that its parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.  He believed that talking about the good one does is taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for personal gain.  “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”  He refused to wear the label “hero”, wanting instead to be remembered for his sporting achievements; he said, “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”

He kept his actions hidden for over 50 years, and only after his death did the story begin to emerge; he was declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2013.  Please click on the image to watch a short video about a cycling tribute along the routes he traveled.

gino-bartali-righteous-among-the-nations

The First (& Slowest) American Car Race

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1895-first-automobile-race-frank-and-charles-duryea-winners

Frank and Charles Duryea, 1895

Taking nearly 10 hours to race 54 miles, it’s not exactly what we would think of today as a race; more like an amble.  But the Chicago-Times Herald race goes down in history as the first automobile race in America, and it took place on this day in 1895, which that year was Thanksgiving Day, from Chicago to Evanston and back.  The race had been delayed from an earlier date because at the time, it was forbidden for cars to drive on city streets (likely because they were loud and would frighten the numerous horses, causing traffic chaos).  Once the organizers convinced the city council to permit the cars on the roads, the race took off.

We think of cars as being four-wheeled; but aside from 4 four-wheeled cars in the race (3 of which were German Benz cars, the 4th being a motorized wagon driven by Frank Duryea and made by Charles Duryea, founder of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, and inventor of the first working  gasoline-powered car in America), there were 2 two-wheeled “automobiles”, but these motorized cycles lacked the power to climb the steeper passages.  An electric car was also entered in the race, but because of the cold weather, its battery died before getting very far.

One Benz car struck a horse just after taking off, and was forced out of the race, leaving just three cars; Duryea’s car won the day, with a time of 7 hours and 53 minutes (making his average time 7 mph / 11 km/h). The second car made it in 1 & 1/2 hours later, and the third never made it.  The driver of the second car had fallen unconscious due to exposure in the open vehicle and the cold weather, and the car was driven across the finish line by one of the race’s umpires.

The race was widely publicized, and predicted the demise of horse-drawn transport; it sped up the production of motorized vehicles, and the rest, as they say, is history.

1896-duryea-ad

Information source:  Wikipedia

Vintage Life Hack #2: How to Engrave on Steel

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Gallaher’s Cigarettes was founded by Thomas Gallaher in 1857, in Derry (Londonderry), Ireland.  He went from one man selling cigars and cigarettes from a cart to the largest tobacco factory in the world within 40 years. In 1863, the company was moved to Belfast, and by 1896 had opened his famous factory.

In the late 1800s, colour lithography had been developed, and it wasn’t long before companies were investing in creating attractive images to market their products.  In 1910, Gallaher’s ran a series of ads that we refer to now as “life hacks” – tips and tricks on how to do tasks in and around the home.

I’ll be sharing them here occasionally, so just follow the trail of “Vintage Life Hacks”!  Being interested in history, as well as handy tips for crafts, this hack is great.  Sulphate of Iron is used as a moss killer on lawns, or a lawn greener / conditioner, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to find.

If you test this tip, please let me know the results!

5-how-to-engrave-on-steel-15-how-to-engrave-on-steel-2

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Vintage Life Hack #1: How to Adjust a Door

Life hacks might seem to be a modern invention, but they’re not; they’ve probably been around as long as the need to communicate with another human has.

“How’d you light that glowing thing?”

“Fire?  I rub these sticks together until something happened.  Don’t touch – it’s… hot.”

Here’s a vintage life hack for fixing those squeaking doors; with winter coming up for those of us in the northern hemisphere, this might just come in handy if you don’t have any WD-40 on hand.

Historical Gadgets for Cosmetic Alterations

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Cosmetic alterations are nothing new; if we go way back, the first animals skins fashioned into clothing were the very first “enhancement”.  Makeup is the most common; we tend to think of it in terms of foundation, eye-liner, etc., but the term also encompasses body art, from war paint, tribal markings (whether tattoos or scarring) to henna tattoos.

This generation, as obsessed as it is with physical perfection (which is impossible, but that doesn’t seem to deter some people with more money than sense), has perhaps taken alterations to an extreme with injections of the toxin Botox and plastic surgery addictions that render the patient unrecognizable (I won’t go into the psychological implications of not being able to recognize one’s own face in the mirror each morning, but if you’re interested in the topic, please click here.)  But is such behavior new?  No; poisons have been used cosmetically before, with one example being lead-based white make-up used as far back as Roman times.  Women in 16th century Europe would bleed themselves to become paler, which was considered more aristocratic; this standard of pale being a condition to aspire to goes back to ancient times.  In Song of Solomon 1:6, the heroine explains that her dark skin came from working the fields, because her brothers were angry with her and burdened her with those tasks.  Even today, this skewed perception of what is beautiful effects the lives of many dark-skinned men and women around the globe; to watch a 5-minute video about their experiences, please click here.

Along the way, gadgets have been invented to curl, dry, tan, tuck, nip or pinch.   Here are a few historical gadgets for your amusement.  Enjoy!

Dimple machine

Dimple Machine

A 1940s beauty treatment at Helena Rubinstein’s salon

A 1940s beauty treatment at Helena Rubinstein’s salon

A fruit mask from the 1930s

A fruit mask from the 1930s

A permanent hair procedure (presumably hair waving) being performed in Germany in 1929

A permanent hair procedure (presumably hair waving) being performed in Germany in 1929

Pre-war women would spend hours with their hair bundled up into creepy heating machines like these to achieve a fashionable curled look

Pre-war women would spend hours with their hair bundled up into creepy heating machines like these to achieve a fashionable curled look

Slenderising salons in the forties devised all sorts of weight-loss treatments, one of which was massage chairs like these, which massaged clients’ legs with metal rollers

Slenderising salons in the forties devised all sorts of weight-loss treatments, one of which was massage chairs like these, which massaged clients’ legs with metal rollers

This ‘Glamour Bonnet’ from the forties promised to give users a rosy complexion by lowering atmospheric pressure around their head to simulate alpine conditions

This ‘Glamour Bonnet’ from the forties promised to give users a rosy complexion by lowering atmospheric pressure around their head to simulate alpine conditions.

This device from 1930, invented by Max Factor, helps correct the application of make-up

This device from 1930, invented by Max Factor, helps correct the application of make-up

This Thirties suction machine consisted of tiny glass nozzles, a rubber hose and  a vacuum pump. It promised smooth, spot-free skin

This Thirties suction machine consisted of tiny glass nozzles, a rubber hose and a vacuum pump. It promised smooth, spot-free skin

Toilet Mask

Toilet Mask for bleaching and preserving the skin, “to be worn three times in the week”.

[The images have been gleaned from Pinterest and around cyberspace over the years, so I don’t know where to give ownership credit – if you own one of the photos, please let me know so that I can give credit where it is due.]

Business Histories

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If you’ve ever been curious as to when the first this-or-that happened, and perhaps led to an invention or an industry, then look no further than the gem of a site that I just came across!  Just click on the image below to go to the website, and enjoy!  There, you’ll find the following categories:

Accountancy; advertising; agribusiness; agricultural machinery; aircraft; airlines; arts; automotive (A-G) & (H-W); banking; beverages; biotechnology; broadcasting; business services; chemicals; computers; conglomerates; construction; consumer (non-cyclical); containers; defence; drugs;  electronics;  engineering;  entertainment; family business; fashion & beauty; financial services; food 1 & 2; food service; footwear; forest products; gaming; gas; healthcare; high technology; home furnishings; hospitality; household appliances; industrial equipment; information technology; insurance;  internet; jewellery; law; leisure; machine tools; manufacturing; media;  metals; mining; nonprofit; office equipment; oil; oil service; paper & packaging; publishing to 1900, from 1900, A-L & M-Z; railroads; real estate; regions (A-M) & (N-Z); retail; rubber; savings & loans; securities; shipbuilding; shipping; sports; steel and iron; telecommunications; textiles; tobacco; tourism; toys; transport; utilities; waste disposal; weapons; whaling; blacks in business; kids & business; women in business; and scandal & fraud.

 

Spiral Clock Face

Vintage Political Incorrectness: Cola

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weird funny marketing ad failsThe fine print reads:  “How soon is too soon?  Not soon enough.  Laboratory tests over the last few years have proven that babies who start drinking soda during the early formative period have a much higher chance of gaining acceptance and “fitting in” during those awkward pre-teen and teen years.  So, do yourself a favor.  Do your child a favor.  Start them on a strict regime of sodas and other sugary carbonated beverages right now, for a lifetime of guaranteed happiness.”

  • Promotes Active Lifestyle!
  • Boosts Personality!
  • Gives Body Essential Sugars!

There are just so many things wrong with this ad; from today’s perspective, each and every claim this ad makes is bogus at best, misleading or damaging at worst. I wonder how they proved with laboratory tests that teens fit in better after drinking sugary drinks?  And how much damage did they do to the nation’s overall health when mothers began putting their pre-teething babies on a strict regime of sugary, carbonated chemical bombs?

We’ve come a long way, baby!

 

Not Just Another Pretty Face

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We tend to think of such modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to be inventions of our generation; but in fact they go back to the 1940s.  Bluetooth was itself named after the 10th century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united Danish tribes into a single kingdom and introduced Christianity to his people (its name was chosen to imply that it would similarly unite communication protocols into a common standard).

So, what do the following three things have in common:  A young Jewish woman by the name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria; the spread-spectrum technology that enables Wi-Fi, CDMA & Bluetooth; and a Hollywood starlet discovered in Paris by Louis B. Mayer in 1937?  Quite a lot, in fact; because the woman born in Austria was otherwise known as Hedy Lamarr, inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for developing technology useful for a radio guidance system for torpedoes, the concept behind Bluetooth, Wi-Fi & CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and now used for entertainment and communication around the globe.

Lamarr, who became known as “the most beautiful woman in Europe”, was the only child of a prominent upper-class Jewish family.  At 18, she married Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third wealthiest man in Austria and an arms dealer who made a killing during the wars (in both senses of the word), in the proverbial bed with both Mussolini and the Nazis.  Lamarr would attend lavish dinner parties and business meetings with her husband as he networked with scientists and those involved in military technology, and her intelligent mind soaked up the information, nurturing her scientific talents.  Lamarr escaped her controlling and jealous husband by disguising herself as a maid and fleeing to Paris, where she obtained a divorce.  There she met Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for European film talent.  In 1938 she made her American film debut in “Algiers”, but because of her beauty, she was often typecast as a seductress; to alleviate the boredom, she set up an engineering room in her home and turned to applied sciences and inventing.  With the outbreak of World War II, she wanted to help in the war against the Germans, particularly in improving torpedo technology.  She met a composer, George Antheil, who had been tinkering with automating musical instruments; together they came upon the concept of “frequency hopping”:  Until then, torpedoes guided by radio signals could be jammed and sent off course just by tuning into their broadcasting frequency and causing interference; hopping frequencies would enable torpedoes to reach their target before their signal could be locked down.

Hedy Lamarr - Austrian-Actress-Invents-Control-DeviceIn classic Hollywood-portrayal style, the US Navy wasn’t interested in a technology developed by a beautiful actress and a musician in some suburban home.  I find the Stars and Stripes article above very telling, as to their views of a pretty face actually being smart too; its tone is quite condescending from beginning to end.  The US military didn’t apply the groundbreaking technology for another 20 years, until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  That same technology serves as the basis for our modern communication technology, enabling many people to use broadband simultaneously without interfering with each other; such situations as portrayed between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” are unthinkable today, and all because of Hedy Lamarr.

So the next time you’re sitting in a café using Wi-Fi next to someone else on their own cell phone, give a wink to the memory of Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr 3

 

Lost in Translation: Lard Vintage Ads

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I’m sure there is a logical explanation why anyone would think this slogan (“eat lard”) worth it the first time, let alone repeating… I just can’t think of one.

Lard Ad 1Lard Ad 2

For other ads lost in translation, click here.

Snapshot in Time: 1939

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1939 - Kansas wheat, clothes for children so flowered print bags, washout labels

This photo from LIFE Magazine, 1939, shows Kansas wheat, of the Sunbonnet Blue Flour label.  Mothers sewed the flour bags into clothes for their children, so the bags were made in colourful prints with washout labels.  If only more companies today would make reusable packaging!  It may have just been the first commercial example of upcycling.

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