Old Patents That Could Have Set the World Aflame!

From U.S. Patent No. 737,371 for a Jack-O'-Lantern Helmet.

When it comes to patentability, safety is not necessarily a major factor in the equation. The Patent Office only cares if an invention is sufficiently inventive. Whether or not it’s safe is a superfluous question. Common sense, the market, and trial lawyers can make sure the products on our store shelves are sufficiently safe.

And yet I’m always amazed at how cavalier inventors can be about the safety of their inventions — especially inventors from the past. For example, most patents for cradles from the 1800s could have been more aptly titled “System and Method for Killing a Baby Through Violent Shaking.” Pretty much any factory machine, farm implement or laundry wringer patent, for that matter, was just as likely to pull off a hand as serve its intended purposes.

Take old inventions using fire. Until relatively recently, geologically speaking, fire was humanity’s one “system and method” for heating or lighting things up. Fire has been our constant companion since our ancestors emerged from the paleolithic era and decided to go everywhere. The only problem with fire is that it can burn things other than the thing you want to burn…like you!

Cigar lighter and perfumery ejector combined. U.S. Patent No. 348,409.

The inventors of the past sought to harness fire in ways that would certainly make our modern Consumer Product Safety Commission spontaneously combust. Here are just a few samples. Please feel free to add more ludicrously unsafe incendiary patents in the comments.

One highly dangerous patent that I wrote about last year was Munk’s Cigar Lighter and Purfumery Ejector Combined. It was a cigar lighter (a rather decorative one at that) that included a means of spritzing a cigar with perfume. Who doesn’t like a nice smelling cigar? the inventor asked. What better way to conveniently improve the scent of a cigar than to add a perfume dispenser right on the lighter? But of course, aerosolized perfume can be flammable. The device was basically a little desktop flamethrower. Some might find that concept far more enticing than a cigar perfumer.

Bathing Apparatus. Fig. 1 of U.S. Patent No. 714,659.

In 1901, inventor Herbert G. Batchelder set out to solve the problem of how to get that fresh-from-the-Sanatarium glow to your skin without building your own steam room. What he came up with was a bathing apparatus you could put right into any household bathtub. You place a steam-tight cover over your tub with a hole for your head. Then it’s just a matter of relaxing and letting the healing vapors do their work. But where do the healing vapors come from? In Figure 1, we see the anticipated means of adding those vapors to the sealed tub. To my eyes, that looks like a little fire. So really, you’re trapped in your bathtub with a tiny bonfire down by your feet. If you relax a little too much, you might find yourself taking an extended stay at the local burn ward.

Bed Warming Device. Fig. 1 of U.S. Patent 1,762,663

Intended for tuberculosis patients, MacLeod’s Bed-Warming Device places a small oil lamp next to a bed and then pipes in the warmed air under the bed via a little stove pipe. Keeping a flame right next to the bed may be a little close for comfort. Luckily, MacLeod addresses the fire hazard by suggesting that the undersheet of the bed be made of asbestos. Well, I suppose if it was intended for TB patients, TB was bound to get them long before Mesothelioma did!

The Jack-o-Lantern Helmet (see image at top) is interesting, first, because that’s not a jack-o-lantern (at least not by contemporary interpretations), and second, it requires you to place a lit candle on your head. Did I mention that the preferred embodiment of the jack-o-lantern exterior is made of cardboard? If you think walking with a book balanced on your head will give you poise, how about waking with a potential fire up top. So really, the Jack-o-Lantern Helmet is only slightly safer than cutting off the top of your head, scooping out your brains and eyeballs and sticking a candle in it.

With all these fire hazards around, you’d think that someone might see an untapped market for inventions that put fires out, rather than starting them. And there were a few inventors attempting to make the world just a little less incendiary. Grinnell’s Automatic Fire Extinguisher from 1880 shows a ceiling-mounted bucket of water with a soldered-on bottom that would fall off in the event of a fire…dumping a bucket of water on the floor. Without continuous water flow under high pressure, it’s doubtful Grinnell’s invention would have done any good. But at least he was trying!

Automatic fire extinguisher. U.S. Patent No. 231,713

Fire was a constant threat to the lives of the people living back then, so perhaps the danger engendered by inventions such as these was not so apparent. (People used to put lit candles on Christmas trees, for crying out loud!) Still, it’s nice to live in a time when you can stick a few LED lights in your jack-o’-lantern helmet and not only be safer, but stay lit from one Halloween to the next.


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Stan E. Delo]
    Stan E. Delo
    May 29, 2012 04:31 pm

    Mike B-

    Your comment also reminded me of Jimi Hendrix *inventing* the concept of lighting an electric guitar on fire during a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

    Fortunately he seemed to have run out of lighter fluid before he lit the stage on fire.

  • [Avatar for Stan E. Delo]
    Stan E. Delo
    May 29, 2012 02:19 pm

    Pretty funny stuff Stewart and Mike B-

    Hot jazz as in Very hot! Your article reminds me of an old way to put out fires that I found when I was a kid, when I found a number of these *devices* laying around, still in their original boxes that must have been decades old.

    They consisted of thin glass globes, about the size of a softball, that were filled with a clear liquid. The idea was to throw them at a fire, whereupon they would break and release the fluid to extinguish the fire.

    Upon closer examination of the boxes, the globes were filled with pure carbon tetraflouride!?! If the fire didn’t get you, the carbon tet might just get you anyways. Fluorine or Chlorine is what they used to produce mustard gas during WWI, so it seemed like it might not be a very good idea to throw them at a very hot fire.


  • [Avatar for Mike Brown]
    Mike Brown
    May 29, 2012 01:15 pm

    Let’s not forget “Musical Instrument Adapted to Emit a Controlled Flame” – Patent No. 4,247,283, from as recently as 1981. It’s a combined trumpet and flame thrower, presumably for hot jazz.