Thursday, February 25, 2010

Milestones of Invention History

Recent discoveries in the Library of Congress archives have brought to light new details regarding some famous inventions. Even simple inventions like the fly swatter and the potato masher have gripping stories behind them.
     In modern times, people may not realize what a problem flies were in the bygone era. Before air conditioning, people had to leave their windows open. In spite of the best screenage, many homes still ended up with a swarm of 15 or 20 flies buzzing around the middle of the kitchen. The fly swatter was the principal means of dealing with the maddening critters. Fly paper wasn't enough. There were always a few flies that were too smart to land on it. Rural areas with lots of dogs, chickens, horses, cows and sheep, were breeding grounds for flies. You couldn't get rid of 'em. People were too dumb or too lazy to bury all that poop far from the homestead. Pretty soon the spread was overrun with flies.
     The modern fly swatter was invented by the noted American inventor, Samson Swanson. In the early 20th Century, Swanson was a contender for the Olympic fencing team. He was dismissed from the team after he tried to unnerve an opponent with highly disturbing grunts, considered an egregious breach of etiquette in those days. Swanson was a student of the legendary master Italo Santelli (the "Father of Modern Saber Fencing"). Noted for his overpowering lunges, Swanson had great potential as a fencer. The unorthodox "swatting" action he used in dispatching his foes never caught on in fencing circles.
     In dismissing him from the team, Santelli said, "Your riposte is revolting, and that swatting move is way too flamboyant. We don't need your kind."
     Swanson didn't take the dismissal lightly. He formed a troup of barnstorming outcast swordsmen, The Flying Bayonet Brothers, but the show never gained a wide audience. He abandoned the scheme after only a few shows in the cornfields of Indiana.
     In spite of the Olympic incident, Swanson might have been a champion had he not been so easily distracted by the flies that typically buzzed around fencing competitions of the day. Before a match, Swanson liked to clear the area of flies by swatting them with a crude device of his own invention. He fastened a square of fine wire mesh to an old foil and managed to combine fly extermination with his pre-match warmup. "You should patent that," a bystander commented, and a bolt of inspiration coursed through his brain. His venerable mentor must have felt the same way when he developed the famous Hungarian fencing method decades before.
     His Swanson Swatter was an enormous success and earned him royalties sufficient to assure a life of luxury. He retired from fencing to concentrate on a career as an inventor. He hatched a scheme to capture hydroelectric power from home water supplies. Each home would be outfitted with a tiny generator at the main feed. The captured power would be returned to the grid for a credit to the homeowner. In his declining years, Swanson was embittered that his idea was firmly rejected.
     Swanson also developed a red "Assistance Please" flag for restaurant visits. It had a telescoping pole. You would clamp the flag to the side of the table, and extend the pole so the waitress could see the flag. The flag did away with the annoying practice of trying to flag down an inattentive waitress. He was thrown out of several restaurants where he tried it.
     What Sampson hadn't reckoned on was the wait person's time-honored prerogative of deliberately ignoring a table for reasons known only to them. Maybe you remind them of a know-it-all brother-in-law. Or maybe they have unfairly profiled you as a lousy tipper. People who wear Birkenstock sandals, for example, are notoriously chintzy.

Guerrilla Tactics

Flies are fiendishly clever at eluding swats. Properly executed, the hand clap is the most effective way to dispatch a fly (sorry PETA). There's an art to sneaking up on flies. It takes practice. Once you become competent at sneaking up behind a fly, you have to execute a perfect clap. When the fly sees your hands sailing toward it at unthinkable speed, it will hop in the air. At that precise moment, if you have timed your clap perfectly, you will smash the helpless creature in the palms of your hands. That's the principal drawback. You'll want to wash your hands pretty soon unless you think it would be fun to prank someone with a handshake that includes a little something extra.

Here's Merlene Davis's take on the Barack Obama fly swatting controversy.

Notorious Fly Killers
President Obama sparked a national outcry after he swatted a fly on nationwide television.

Coming soon: The Potato Masher

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