Gadgets of Yesteryear

A Talk by Cyril Routley

The Speaker: Cyril Routley spent all his working life of 40 years teaching at Nailsea School in North Somerset. He initially was appointed to teach Latin when the school was a Grammar School but changed to French later on. He ran the reprographics room for a number years and was responsible for the introduction and development of a printing section to serve all the needs of a large school. During the latter part of his career he was the examinations officer, charged with all aspects of the administration of all public examinations and also internal, formal examinations in preparation for these. He retired in 2000 but fulfilled the examination role for a further two years, 2002-4 when the post became an administrative post rather than a teacher one.

During the past 9 years he has built up a repertoire of talks and speaks to all types of clubs and societies on Sundials, Gadgets of the early 20th century, Street Furniture (mainly in the local area), Collecting Goss and Crested China, and Blue Plaques in the local area. Currently he is reading several of the journals written by the early travellers to Australia on the SS Great Britain, with a view to producing a presentation on the realities of life on board the ship over 150 years ago. This is scheduled for late 2009.

The Talk: This very well-illustrated talk covered a selection of gadgets patented during the years 1901-5. It highlighted some of the weird and wonderful inventions made during that era, as a solution to problems which we never realised existed! The speaker commented at the outset that some things do not change - in the Innovations catalogue as recently as 2003 were nasal hair trimmers, slippers with 'headlights' ( or maybe that should be foot-lights), and a miniature vacuum cleaner for disposing of insects, spiders in particular.

Unfortunately there will not be room to illustrate this report, but a lot can be left to the imagination, and in some cases that will probably fall short of reality.

The first section focuses on items loosely connected with food. The first item was a tea-pot with a screw-in spout, being considered the most vulnerable part. A long-reach fruit picker, which did away with the use of a ladder and caught the fruit, was closely followed by a pre-milk-bottle invention for delivering milk to a container inside the door, to avoid theft of a container left on the step. Still on the subject of milk we saw a freestanding device for scalding milk - remember the dates -the burner of which would automatically be extinguished as the milk rose as it came to the boil. There was a fearsome -looking knife that could carry a variable number of blades at adjustable separations for cutting multiple slices of bread at variable thicknesses. Having cut the bread, using a spring steel 'glove' in case the knife slipped, there was a spring clip device to hold the slice for toasting at the fire. To keep it warm there was a toast rack with a reservoir below and hollow spacers, which could be filled with boiling water.. When you wanted to butter it there was a knife with a hollow blade into which one could also put hot water. Boiled egg tongs, spoons with the bowls at right-angles to the handles for the convenience of arthritic users, and a self-halitosis detector, rounded off that section.

This is followed by a group of items linked to clothing such as a ridge-tent sort of umbrella/parasol that balanced on the wearers shoulders to protect you from the rain/sun, a super-protective motorist's cloche hat to which one could have prescription lenses fitted, a 'boomerang' hat, and a top hat that was a combined production by Squires, an impresario, and Morehen, an electrical engineer. It carried a switched, revolving illuminated sign on top for advertising entertainments. Still on headgear, a double skinned helmet, invented by an Indian prince who lived in both London and his estates in India, with an extractor fan at the top of the inner skin, "driven by an accumulator carried on the person"! There was something to restrain protruding ears, a device to control a moustache, and shoes with bellows in the heel that would drive air in to the shoes below the feet to keep them ventilated and cool. To keep the nether regions warm in cold weather there was a tube from the nose and mouth to below the waist into which one breathed out, and finally gloves with moveable tips to the forefinger and thumb to help one to eat elegantly. Apparently, with no dining car/buffet facilities on board their trains at the time, the GWR provided them for the use of passengers taking advantage of the restaurant stop at Swindon

The third section concentrated on health and hygiene in the main with rather astonishing thoughts about cleanliness. First up was a shower with three settings and a spring loaded platform to automatically control the flow of water, followed by a portable shower, a bath with a trolley in it and a spring loaded soap-holder. A syringe-fed curved tooth cleaner and an annular bowl for going on the head while one was having one's hair shampooed - no bending over a basin in those days - both looked pretty impractical. If one was exceptionally fastidious one could have a toilet with two superimposed seats; the lower one was still available for visitors, while the upper one, for the use of the family, was lockable in the raised position. A similar need resulted in a drop-in toilet seat made of a light-weight folding material, and a disposable paper version. Looking rather like elaborate thumb-screws, was a device for restoring the curvature to finger nails put out of shape by the need to hand wash everything, and almost as fearsome a double-chin preventer for ladies - presumably the men's would be covered by their whiskers.

Finally there were inventions which were miscellaneous in their usage including an early form of pedal operated vacuum cleaner, a weed-cutter that eliminated bending, and a coach-built perambulator with automatic side protection to stop a restless and active child coming out over the sides. A wrist support to help with handwriting, and an eraser with a rubber bulb mounted on it that could be used to blow away the bits might be useful. However there was a degree of scepticism over the ingenious dog kennel with an automatically raising and lowering floor and a lowering and raising cover activated by the dog getting in or out. This increased with the sight of a bed with straps to restrain the blankets, which was viewed with considerable incredulity. It was with relief that we learnt that the trick 'test your lungs' device that would spray the unwary with soot does not seem to be available any longer.

There were some interested questions and observations from the audience, after which John Green proposed the vote of thanks to Cyril Routley for a most entertaining and informative talk. The audience expressed their appreciation in the usual way.
Andrew Smith