Inventions: Your Halloween Fright, and it’s not the jack-o’-lantern helmet that’s scary

Inventions: Your Halloween Fright, and it’s not the jack-o’-lantern helmet that’s scary

This one is interesting … and scary: “a new and useful Improvement in Jack-o’-Lantern Helmets”. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a jack-o’-lantern helmet, but we’ll assume it was a thing back in 1903 when this patent was granted. When I stumbled across this I first thought of a bike helmet. After looking over the patent, my second thought was “oh … oh dear. That’s a hell of a design flaw”.

Our inventor, one John Du Ket, of Toledo, Ohio, invented an easy to ship and assemble head mask for any occasion, “including campaign parades, masquerade balls and carnivals”. He was granted a patent Aug 25, 1903 (patent no, 737,371). After reading the patent, it becomes painfully aware why governments have health and safety regulations… and recalls.

If you give it a quick glance, it’s pretty cool. The key is the use of flexible cardboard that could be printed with whatever image the customer wanted. Say for instance a person wanted 100 Frankenstein heads for a parade, or 50 copies of the current presidential candidate’s head for a rally. No problem. They could be mass produced and shipped with little hassle. Du Ket’s design allowed the masks to lay out flat, ready for the person on the receiving end to assemble the kit, kind of like a Halloween Flatpack without the screw driver hassles. No assembly was required at the seller’s end, which would cut production time and costs.

Patent image from Jack o' lantern mask

In some ways, this is ingenious. He took a basic idea and added a modern marketing twist to it – fast to produce, easy to ship, offload assembly to the customer. What, you are asking, is so terrifying about this design? Let me show you:

Image from patent papers: Candle atop a person's head

“To secure the parts together in form for use, the sides 6 are first folded to form a socket, and a short piece of candle is inserted therein.”

Ponder that for a moment – a cardboard headdress, surrounding a candle in a metal holder that conducts heat, atop a person’s head.  One of his “improvements”, along with the use of flexible cardboard and a flat design, was the inclusion of a candle holder made of sheet metal.  Not sure what the weight would be like, but I’m quite sure after a short while it would be a bit much, especially when it heated up.

On the positive side, Du Ket did consider wax spillage:

Image from patent papers showing candle holder

“Preferably the diaphragm 2 is shaped by a die to form one or more grooves 16 concentric around the candle-socket, which are adapted to receive any of the material of the candle which may melt and run down on the diaphragm and prevent it spreading to the outer edges of the diaphragm.”

Grooves would be stamped into the metal candle holder and a spillage area would (hopefully) contain the wax. Just don’t move your head around a lot or risk it spilling over the lip of the holder.

Now if this doesn’t scare the crap our of you, you’re a stronger person than I.

Happy Halloween …


Read the full patent here  Jack-o’-lantern helmet.

Technological marvels –  lowly & underappreciated pencil sharpener

Technological marvels – lowly & underappreciated pencil sharpener

We don’t spend much time thinking about the little bits of technology that make life easier, do we? Here’s a case – the pencil sharpener. When was the last time you thought about one, other when you couldn’t find it and cursed the blunt point on your pencil?  Here’s my favourite:

photo of Staedtler pencil sharpener

Best pencil sharpener around – the Staedtler

The little metal Staedtler sharpener. I own 5 of them, including 2 hole, single hole and covered sharpeners. Oh and I have 2 of their beautiful mechanical pencils and about 20 of the Mars Lumograph pencils. I have a thing for tidy, beautiful examples of technology that works. I also have a thing for Staedtler. The first time I saw a Staedtler sharpener, I coveted it. I was in the library and watched, with envy as someone whipped out a little perfect work of technological art and sharpened pencils. I leaned over the table and asked him where he got it.  I was awestruck. When I finally found one I bought it. It was beautiful.  The little metal body makes it durable – can’t tell you how many of those dreaded little plastic ones I’ve crushed over the years.  And quite honestly, the plastic sharpeners are crap, they break off the point because the angle of the blade is often just off enough that it gouges out chunks of pencil. The little Staedtler shaves off thin slivers of wood and hones pencil leads to a perfect point. Maybe I should just retitle this “Ode to a pencil sharpener” and be done with it.  The angle and quality of the blade, durability of the casing, the ridges on the sides to make holding it easier – everything about the sharpener is “right”.

My mini love affair with Staedtler pencil sharpeners (and pencils) sparked a bit of curiosity about the evolution of sharpeners. While searching, I found some intriguing early patents for pencil sharpeners and references to the first practical design. Bernard Lassimonne, a French mathematician, is credited with receiving the first patent for a pencil sharpener.  I’m searching for a copy of it, but I’m a bit hindered by my disgraceful French. He evidently took an ad out in Le Constitutionnel, a French newspaper, sometime in 1829 to promote his invention. I’m also searching through the newspaper’s archives and hope to find the ad, but … it may take me a long time to find it.  Although I’m having little luck with my initial search, I have found what I think would have been the coolest sharpener ever – the G. H. Park pencil sharpener and lead protector: Patent #193,545, Patented July 24, 1877. You can see the original patent here.

Here’s one view of it, from the patent papers:

Drawing of G. H. Park's pencil sharpener from his 1877 patent

Drawing of G. H. Park’s pencil sharpener from his 1877 patent

In 1877, George Park, of New York State  “invented a new and valuable improvement in pencil-sharpeners” and it’s pretty damned cool:

“This little instrument is intended to remain on the pencil while in use and until the pencil is consumed.

It also forms a point-protector, as it can be pulled down sufficiently far to bring the point of the pencil within the sharpener, and when the pencil is to be used it is readily pushed out again, the spring of the metal holding the instrument at any point on the pencil.

The instrument thus forms a combined sharpener and point protector, and it can be manufactured at a very trifling cost, and is simple, durable, and effective in operation. It adapts itself to any-sized pencil, and is not liable to be lost, as the spring of the metal holds it with sufficient tension or friction on the pencil.”

Image from patent papers for the pencil sharpener

Image from patent papers for the pencil sharpener

Here’s another view that offers a better idea of how it fits on a pencil:

So, you slip the sharpener onto the pencil, it automatically expands or contracts to fit the body and, as you shave the pencil down, will hold the lead point so you don’t snap it off by accident. It’s like hybrid mechanical pencil when you think about it.  No more searching for your sharpener – it’s always attached.  Might be a bugger if you lose your pencil though. I’ve looked around to see if it was ever produced and can’t’ find any examples. Maybe it was one of those great ideas on paper that didn’t translate to real life. There were a number of similar designs that promoted “ever point” sharpeners and a couple made it to market. But not a sign of this one. Kind of a pity really.

Visit my Facebook page and hit the Like button if you want to see more old patents. I’ll be exploring more over the coming months. If you have a favourite, drop me a line (either below in the comments field) or on the Bitter Grounds Facebook page