The Oddest Doohickeys of Industrial-Age Entrepreneurs

The Industrial Revolution ushered in an avalanche of inventions, of machines and gadgets that sometimes made our lives better, but often were as useless as snake oil. There was no shortage of people who rushed in to capitalize on a public that wanted the latest miracle device, no matter how outlandish. Maurice Collins collects those weird failed products, and has written a book called Bizarre & Outlandish Gadgets & Doohickeys. It chronicles the weirdest gadgets sold between 1851 and 1951. One example not in the book is the bygone memoranda clock.

“Let’s say you had an appointment with your solicitor,” Collins says, using the U.K. term for attorney. “You would go into his office and write your name on small piece of imitation ivory, probably bone. You’d place this time card in a slot, and at the end of your hour, the card would pop out the other end and a bell would ring. People say these were also used in houses of ill repute,” he adds. “Either way, at the end of your hour, you would have gotten screwed.”


The Memorandum Clock is not an especially disruptive piece of technology, unless, of course, you’re a customer in one of those houses of ill repute. It’s just a timepiece, you might say, whose time was up. For a better example of attempted disruption, as well as good old-fashioned charlatanism, Collins directs my attention to the “Anita” Nose Shaper, which, he tells me, was “the ultimate in nasal quackery.” The Memorandum Clock, he notes with some pride, is an English item. “This is American,” Collins says of the Nose Shaper, with just a trace of judgment in his voice.

According to an advertisement for the device, the cure for “nasal irregularity” is as easy as strapping on the nose adjuster before bed—“No need for costly, painful operations,” promises the advertising copy. In a few short weeks, your ugly nose will be as cute as a button. “What a con,” Collins huffs, “quackery to the Nth degree.”

Many of the doohickeys were produced not because there was a need, but because the technology used to produce them was available. See more weird and variably useful gadgets and gizmos from the era at Collectors Weekly.

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