It’s safe to say that what sets Homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to invent stuff. From the wheel to the iPad, we don’t just use the tools we’re given—we make better ones! On the other hand, humanity has also had its fair share of trial-and-error moments.
Here are some of the most ludicrous items that people actually invented, but were (thankfully) left where they belonged: in the past. Frankly, it’s amazing that any of them ever made it off of the cutting room floor…
1. Anti-masturbation device: This may seem like some sort of phallic medieval torture device—and depending on your perspective, it may very well be!—but being chaste clearly used to take some extra work.
Used by Catholics throughout 19th-century France, the inventor of this device likely took what you might want to call a hands-off approach to his work. It certainly doesn’t look comfortable, does it?
2. Nose and ear picks: You’ve got to admit that these are really quite exquisite. Just imagine using one of these things to pick a booger? They must have been the talk of the town back when they were invented.
3. Flea traps: These lovely little devices look far too pretty to be used for something as mundane as catching pesky fleas, don’t they? The one on the left even looks like it was carved out of ivory. How exquisite!
4. More flea traps: This contraption was simply an ornate dead animal. It was intended to double as an accessory and a flea trap; the hope was that the pests would be drawn to the animal instead of the human.
5. A dance card: Believe it or not, women used to record the men whom they planned to dance with whenever they went to a ball—kind of like a little black book. “Care to dance, m’lady?” “Sure—let me pencil you in.”
6. A shaving stand: Why would anyone want something so complicated and fancy for something as simple and ordinary as shaving their face? Then again, times were different. Primping was a bigger deal!
7. A metal toothpick: This may look a bit more like a weapon than something you’d willingly want to put in your mouth. Perhaps people used to just have very stubborn bits of food in their teeth?
8. A fancy back-scratcher: You know when you have an itch and you just need a good scratch, but there’s no one around to help you? This fancy back-scratcher was just the thing to provide relief.
9. This hairstyle: Anybody who claims today’s hairstyles are crazier than ever before need look no further than these women to see how wild things used to be. Can you imagine how long it took to get ready with this ‘do?
10. “I C U” chamber pots: If you were a member of high society back in the day, it wasn’t enough to just do your business in an ordinary bucket like some sort of peasant. Then again, there’s only so much one can take before the design becomes a bit creepy…
Here’s an artist’s rendering of how one would go about using a fancy chamber pot like this. People of yore practically needed to be acrobats just to pull off this maneuver!
It gets weirder, however. Here’s an actual chamber pot with a depiction of Napoleon inside of it. You have to imagine this was the result of somebody making quite a political statement…
11. A posy-holder: This diamond-encrusted posy holder was undeniably beautiful, but it also must have seemed terribly unnecessary. Posies are pretty enough as they are. You don’t really need to do much to them to make them more intriguing!
12. A buttonhook: Again, what was the obsession in centuries past with making absolutely everything as fancy as possible? It’s respectable, but does every little thing have to be quite so intricately designed (and likely expensive)?
13. A mustache cup: This very specific invention was designed to keep your mustache from getting wet whenever you took a sip of your drink. Still, it begs the question: why didn’t they just use a handkerchief?
14. Wooden bathing suits: This trio, who called themselves the “Spruce Girls,” wore wooden veneer bathing suits made from spruce in 1929 in Hoquiam, Washington. They wore them specifically for “Wood Week,” which was an effort to promote the Grays Harbor timber trade.
UW Digital Collections / Flickr
15. The monowheel: An upgrade from the unicycle, the monowheel was invented by Rousseau of Marseilles in 1869. While some inventors tried adding fixtures, like airplane propellers, in the years since it still hasn’t quite caught on with the mainstream.
Magnus Manske / Wikimedia Commons
16. A camera gun: This may look like an ordinary gun, but when you take a closer look, you’ll notice there’s a camera attached! This Colt .38 revolver gun from 1938 was designed to automatically take a photograph every time the trigger was pulled.
Nationaal Archief / Flickr
17. Motorized bathtub: Three young students in the town of Kingston in Surrey, England, developed this motorized bathtub in 1960. The invention was likely little more than a joke, but the fact that it existed and worked at all remains remarkable!
18. Bed Piano: Today, when you’re sick in bed, you might pull out a laptop and blow through a few seasons of a TV show on Netflix; in 1935, you pulled out your bed piano and knocked out a few afternoon symphonies.
19. Television Glasses: Hugo Gernsback, the man known today as “The Father of Science Fiction,” dared to dream of strapping a television set to his face in 1963 — so he made it happen (and later inspired future 3D glasses, too).
20. Man from Mars Radio Hat: Speaking of entertainment on your head, in 1949, Victor T. Hoeflinch created this hat, which allowed wearers to listen to the radio on the go, so long as they didn’t mind wearing a hat that wasn’t exactly a fashion statement.
21. Dimple Maker: In the ’30s, a smile was nothing without a set of dimples to go with it. But the dimple-less were not hopeless: the Dimple Maker could force dimples onto their smiles by digging into their cheekbones. It did not work well.
22. The First PET Scan Device: As if going in for a PET scan wasn’t scary enough, the first machine capable of performing one was this wire-wrapped monstrosity, developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.
23. Portable Sauna: Back in 1962, a Finnish inventor realized that being unable to step into a sauna wherever he went was comparable to actual torture. So he created the portable sauna so he could live every moment in hot, steamy bliss.
24. Sunscreen Vending Machine: Tennis courts, swimming pools, and beaches of the 1940s offered this vending machine, which dispensed little globs of sunscreen right into your hands. Honestly, weird as this was, it could come in handy today!
25. Cone Mask: The inventor of these masks wanted to protect the wearers’ faces from things like hail and rain. Somehow, getting pelted with rain was a big enough problem that he couldn’t just, you know, tilt his head down like three inches
26. Pedal Skates: In 1913, Charles A. Nordling understood people look for any excuse possible not to walk, so he created the pedal skates. A bit cumbersome, yeah, but unlike many other items on this list, they nobly served their purpose for a while.
Online Bike Museum
27. Cigarette Pack Holder: Because smoking one cigarette at a time was totally inefficient (and totally lame by 1950’s standards), this 1955 invention allowed smokers to stop dreaming about chain smoking an entire pack and start doing it.
28. All-Terrain Car: Invented in 1936, this English automobile ascended and descended slopes as steep as 65 degrees. With, what, 12 tires, it must have cost an absolute fortune to manufacture. Speaking of all-terrain…
29. Cyclomer: With six flotation devices, the cyclomer — also called “The Amphibious Bike — was designed to function on land and in water. In practice, it was clunky on dry land, borderline deadly in the water, and no one liked it much.
30. Goofybike: So the cyclomer didn’t catch on, but that wasn’t the end of all bike-alteration efforts. The Goofybike — seen in Chicago, 1939 — sat four people, one of which worked a sewing machine that kept the bike’s weight evenly distributed.
31. Pedestrian Shield: To reduce fatalities, inventors drummed up a shield reminiscent of a train’s cowcatcher to slap on the front of automobiles. It doesn’t look like a much better alternative to the front of a car.
32. Fax Newspaper: Imagine just wanting to catch up on your daily news and waiting (and waiting) for the darn newspaper fax to show up! Cool, but a paperboy standing on the corner was probably more efficient.
33. Shower Hood: Marketed as a way to keep your makeup intact, the shower hood prevented water from hitting your hair or face, which kind of defeated the major purpose of taking a shower altogether.
34. The Baby Dangler: Today, naming your device “The Baby Dangler” would make your peers mock you at best and land you in prison at worst; but back in the day, it was the perfect name for a device that strung up a baby between mom and dad.
35. A Radio-Controlled Lawn Mower: The lawn’s not going to mow itself, so why not invent a small mower operated with a remote control? Developed in the 1950s — and later celebrated by British royalty — the device survived time and still exists!
36. Ice Mask: There were plenty of reasons to drink in the 1940s, and inventors knew it. That’s why one developed the ice mask, which advertisers touted as a cure for the morning hangover.
37. Wooden Bathing Suits: These barrel-like suits were invented in 1929 and, allegedly, acted like flotation devices for swimming (wood floats, after all). But they must have been restrictive!