What's your favourite invention?

CLIVE Sinclair's latest invention, the A-bike, a fold-up contraption launched this month, has met with almost as much mixed reaction as his C5 did in 1985.

CLIVE Sinclair's latest invention, the A-bike, a fold-up contraption launched this month, has met with almost as much mixed reaction as his C5 did in 1985. HANNAH STEPHENSON reports on which inventions were a hit - and which fell flat.

THE C5 may have run out of steam quite early on in its existence, and the latest A-bike has been described by critics as 'uncomfortable' and 'flimsy', but stranger things have caught on.

It's just one of a catalogue of weird and wacky inventions which have been created by the great and the good over the years - some were instant hits and others disappeared without trace.

Critics may scoff at some of the creations to hit the marketplace in the last century, but some inventors have had the last laugh.

"When you've finished chuckling at the hat gun, the flying submarine and the automatic baby patter, remember that people laughed when Trevor Baylis came up with his idea for a clockwork radio - for this apparently bizarre notion proved to be a godsend for tens of thousands of poor people around the world," said Tom Quinn, author of Science's Strangest Inventions.

And gadget collector Maurice Collins, whose two books Eccentric Contraptions and Ingenious Gadgets chart the progress of a wealth of weird and wonderful inventions, has his own favourites.

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"The teapot, that when you press the lid delivers just one cup of tea, is a favourite - it looks better and works more efficiently than many a modern tea or coffee pot.

"And I love the brass boot warmer that you can stand in with your boots frozen and it will thaw your footwear and your feet all at the same time."

No matter how weird or wacky their ideas may seem, Maurice said inventors have our best interests at heart.

"Everybody who invents something tries to answer some sort of need or to make life easier for people," he said.

Here are just some of the hit and miss inventions of the last few centuries.


:: The monkey calculator, patented in 1916 by William Robertson of Belmont, Ohio. This mechanical calculator was in the form of a monkey. When each of the monkey's feet are moved to point at two numbers, the monkey's hands move to point at the product. It was an early forerunner of the commonplace calculators we rely on today.

:: The vacuum cleaner made housewives' jobs a cinch, but many people could not afford them initially. Like many new inventions they were extremely expensive at first - early vacuum cleaners cost hundreds of pounds.

:: One of the most important transport inventions are reflecting road studs, also known as cat's eyes, invented by Percy Shaw in 1934. Although very simple, they are a major factor in road safety today.

:: The bicycle is believed by many to be the greatest invention of the past 250 years.

:: Pencil sharpener. Many thousands of patents were produced for the job of creating a point on a piece of lead. It's still used widely today.


:: The strap-on travel washing machine, invented in America in 1952, was designed to make camper travel as good as staying at home. It was strapped to the rear wheel of the camper van so it just looked like a very fat wheel. It worked while you drove, but after half an hour you had to stop the van to drain off the washing water and fill the drum again so the clothes could be rinsed. Also, the camper van had to be jacked up every time you wanted to attach or detach the washing machine. Worse still, travelling at more than 25 miles an hour destroyed your clothes, resulting in mangled zips.

:: Chicken spectacles. One bright scientist invented them more than a century ago to stop birds reared on industrial farms from pecking each other's eyes out. But it proved too costly, as several men had to be employed fulltime to run after the chickens and put the plastic goggles on them.

:: The memorandum clock was invented in the 1890s to allow clients of the professional classes such as lawyers to know when their appointment was completed. The name of the client was written in pencil on one of the bone noteslips and when time was up it would fall through the mechanism, triggering an alarm that continued until the noteslip was removed. It is believed that houses of ill-repute were also users of the clock. Time is money, after all!

:: Japan may have brought us the Walkman, MP3s, DVD games and other high-tech gadgets, but it's also produced its share of turkeys, including slippers for cats and dogs that double as floor dusters, and a small fan attached to chopsticks, designed to cool the food between the bowl and the mouth.

:: The motorised ice-cream cone holder was patented in 1999 by an American who obviously didn't have obesity in mind. This battery-powered mechanism was fitted to the base of an oversized plastic cone. The machine caused the top half of the cone, where the ice-cream was placed, to spin rapidly, thereby eliminating all that exhausting effort of turning the cone by hand.

:: Another American invention developed in the late 1990s was the fork which tells you off if you eat too much. It looks like a conventional fork but has a set of miniature lights - one red, one green - on the handle facing the user.

Eat carefully and slowly and the fork's green light stays on but start to gobble your food and the red light comes on and the fork emits a warning beep until you slow down again. Serious eaters found it was such a bully that they ignored it and deliberately ate more to make it flash furiously at them.


Science's Strangest Inventions, by Tom Quinn, is published by Robson Books, priced £8.99.

Eccentric Contraptions and Ingenious Gadgets, both by Maurice Collins, are published by David & Charles, priced £9.99 each.

N Which invention could you not do without? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.