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9 Bizarre and Endearing Inventions From 100 Years Ago

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Popular Mechanics has long profiled interesting new ideas and inventions, even if those innovations were destined to go no further than the magazine's pages.

1. Electric kitchen table, 1917

Even in the early 20th century, there was still a frightening amount of housework needed to keep the average home running. The "Electrified Kitchen Cabinet" was intended to help the modern housewife solve that problem... in very specific ways. The Kitchen Cabinet could knead bread, chop food, and make ice cream by means of attachable hardware connected to belts and motors. It also had an automatic dishwasher and "a clock to break the circuit and the required moment, so that constant attention to the work in hand is not required."

2. The great "Sea Tank," 1917

The plans for the mighty Sea Tank were submitted to the Council of National Defense in 1917. Meant to assist in beach landing offensives (it was referred to as "somewhat" amphibious), the Sea Tank was basically two water wheels with gun turrets for hubcaps, as well as another turret mounted in the center of the axle. The axle would hold the landing crew as well. How was it supposed to move? With some complexity. "Powerful motors mounted on heavily weighted sliding platforms in the lower part of each drum engage cogged rings encircling the inner circumference of the cylinders. In tending to climb the latter they impose weight that revolves the drums and causes paddles to send the craft forward."

3. Convertible office desk, 1917

While some "almost-inventions" seemed to lay clear paths to failure before they ever came off the drawing board, others really seem like they could have made it. The Convertible Desk is a clever space saver, combining the nooks and crannies of a roll top with the ability to expand usually only found in Grandma's table at Thanksgiving. Fold the desk top wings once to have downward access to files and assorted necessities, and flip the folds to create a large drawing board.

4. Elevator to Jungfrau summit, 1921

This beautiful piece of engineering might have actually been built if WWI hadn't come along. The Jungfrau railroad was built over the course of 16 years, finishing in 1912. It was meant to increase tourism to that particular region of the Swiss Alps, by bringing passengers a good deal up the summit of the famous mountain. The elevator was intended to bring them the rest of the way, 2206 feet straight up. Though the elevator was never made, the Jungfrau train station is still the highest in the world, and its terminus under the mountain contains many caverns and tunnels designed to delight tourists.

5. Personal submergers, 1921

This "Submerging Boat," meant exclusively for fun and frolic at the beach, falls into the category of "What an incredible idea! That makes no practical sense!" It was neither a real submarine nor a personal speedboat of any merit. The depth it could reach was controlled by four "planes" mounted on the sides of the vehicle, which the driver controlled with foot pedals. The wheel controlled the rudder, and to prevent drowning there was a "buoyant ball mounted on a tubular guide on the stern of the boat." When the water pressure of the sinking vessel caused the ball to rise too high, it would strike a switch that cuts off the motor, keeping the passenger bobbing shoulder deep in the water.

6. Extendible gunstock for recoil, 1921

The adjustable, shock-absorbing gunstock was intended for the lady sportsman, whose love for athletics might not be outweighed by a sore shoulder from that nasty kickback. The stock could be lengthened or shortened to meet personal preferences by means of setscrews, and, reportedly, 70 percent of recoil was absorbed by the springs placed with the setscrews.

7. Elaborate auto bungalow, 1918

This 1918 "Elaborate Auto Bungalow" prototype looks similar to the recreational vehicles that would succeed it decades later. Except this one is quite a bit fancier, used by Captain Charles Percival, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars, as he toured the country. It had a hardwood body with room for a typewriter desk, sink, water tank, and cabinets. Ahead of its time, but not by far.

8. Hand-powered velocipede, 1918

In 1918, the newest form of transportation in Paris was the hand-powered buckboard scooter. This "velocipede" was meant to be propelled with the same action as boat rowing, except with handlebars instead of oars. Steering? Why, you'd do that with your feet, of course.

9. 5-in-1 playground, 1918

The 5-in-1 playground is clever—and not even remotely safe. The slide was the starting point for all the other toys. Remove the slide board and place it over the "lower standard," and you'd have a teeter totter, plus monkey bars where the slide used to be. The board and lower standard could also support a little roller coaster, which was kept on track with flanges. We certainly don't advocate that talented home craftsmen try to recreate this perilous structure... but we  do  wish our own dads had thought to do it.

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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