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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Livingston Alden (1837–1908)

An Unnecessary Invention

From “The Comic Liar”

FEW people have any accurate idea of the immense number of ingenious inventions that are annually patented at Washington. It is creditable to the inventors that for the most part these inventions are intended to serve some really useful end and to meet some obvious want. Nevertheless, there are inventors who appear to have more desire to display their ingenuity than to accomplish any public benefit. Such inventors are akin in spirit to those captious persons who decline to rent a room or an office unless it possesses facilities for swinging a cat, although they have not the remotest intention of ever performing that exciting but frivolous experiment. The Patent Office contains numerous models of machines framed with the utmost skill, but intended for purposes for which no man will ever desire to employ them, or which are hostile to the best interests of the community. We may admire the ingenuity of these machines, but at the same time we must regret that the inventors have wasted or perverted their abilities.

It is to this latter class of inventions that the recently patented “Smith Rolling and Crushing Machine” undoubtedly belongs—unless, indeed, the nature and object of the invention have been grossly misrepresented. As its name implies, it is obviously intended for diminishing the number of Smiths. It is understood that it consists of a series of heavy rollers resembling those by which iron plates are rolled, and also of a pair of gigantic grindstones of novel pattern and enormous power, the whole being set in motion by a 12-horse-power engine. Its method of operation is at once simple and effective. The operator takes a Smith of any size, and, adjusting the gear of the rollers to the exact width to which it is desired to roll the Smith, gently inserts his head between the rollers. The machine is then set in motion, and in the brief space of fifty-eight seconds the Smith is rolled to any desirable degree of thinness. If a Smith is to be crushed, he is placed in a hopper communicating with the grindstones, and after a rapid trituration, varying from two minutes to five minutes, according to the size and toughness of the Smith, he is reduced to a fine and evenly ground powder, in which such foreign substances as buttons or shirt-studs can be detected only by the most delicate chemical tests. The inventor, so it is said, claims that by a very simple mechanical attachment the machine can be made to roll or crush Smythes and Schmidts with equal efficiency, and he is confident that the general principle underlying his invention can be applied to Brown-crushing or Robinson-rolling machines.

Now we may fully appreciate the ingenuity displayed in the conception of the Smith roller and crusher, and the skill with which that conception has been embodied in iron and grindstones. A grave objection, however, can be urged against the invention, and that is that there is no evidence of any existing demand for such a machine. That there is a large quantity of Smiths, not to speak of Smythes and Schmidts, in this country is undeniable. There is, however, no proof that the volume of Smiths is more than commensurate with the necessities of business. It may be conceded that, at certain times and in certain limited localities, there is an excess of Smiths. A plethora of Smiths in one place, however, implies a corresponding paucity of Smiths in another, and the difficulty soon regulates itself. It may be confidently asserted that the great law of supply and demand can be trusted to preserve the balance of Smiths from any serious disturbance. Hence it is sufficiently plain that there is no need of a sudden contraction of the volume of Smiths, and that the Smith roller and crusher is wholly superfluous.

There is still another objection to the machine which is, at least, as serious as that already suggested. No one will deny that, were it desired to contract the volume of Smiths by a certain definite number every week or month, the Smith roller and crusher would accomplish that end with thoroughness and success. A Smith when once rolled to the uniform thinness of a quarter of an inch, or crushed to the fineness of ground coffee, would be of no further use as a Smith. But why employ costly machinery to roll and crush Smiths, when they could be retired with equal efficiency in a dozen different and less expensive ways? The inventor has as yet made no suggestion as to the possible uses to which a rolled Smith might be put; neither has he proposed any plan for the utilization of crushed Smiths. On the other hand, it is perfectly evident that one result of his process would be the financial ruin of the coffin-makers, who, as is well known, regard the Smiths as their most valuable clients. The more closely the invention is studied, the more plainly is it seen that it meets no real want, and that it proposes to do in an elaborate and costly way what might be done more simply and cheaply. It is an un pleasant task to say to an ingenious inventor, “You have wasted your labor and have produced what is at best only a curious scientific toy.” This, however, must be the universal verdict upon the Smith roller and crusher. The rich and idle amateur of science may occasionally amuse himself by rolling or crushing Smiths in his private laboratory or workshop, but it is folly to suppose that the machine will ever come into general use, or that the inventor or the public will ever reap any decided benefit from it.