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30 Jul 2005
Eccentric Contraptions - Maurice Collins - David & Charles, 2004
* * * *
Being generally a fan of science and technology, I must admit to a sneaking regard for the much-mocked and now sadly defunct Innovations catalogues that used to land regularly on our doormats. There was something quite inspiring about the ingenuity that people had put into solving problems you never knew you had, whether it was removing fluff from jerseys or measuring spaghetti by width. I suppose the reason I never bought anything from one, apart from living in a house that was quite cluttered enough already, was that some of the devices clearly wouldn't work as well as advertised and most looked cheap and plasticky - all the care had gone into the innards and none into the production.

No such problem with the collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century labour-saving devices that make up this copiously illustrated book. From the late Victorian teasmade (looking like a clockwork bomb) to moustache protectors for drinking soup to a coachman's belly warmer, all the devices have a pleasing solidity and complexity and a few are quite beautiful (my favourite is a "gatling" stapler which has a striking curly handle like a scorpion's tail). However, a number of the items would clearly suffer from the same functionality problems as their modern counterparts in the Innovations catalogue, and some of them, particularly in the medical section, seem positively dangerous (particularly the eye massager, which looks like a pair of opera glasses designed by a mad optician, and the "cure all" electrical belt, which probably did cure anything if it was as lethal as it appears). The text that accompanies each picture is informative and occasionally amusing, but more details on the principles involved or the histories of the inventors would have been welcome.

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