Smith Flyer

The “Smith Flyer,” featured as a “Car for Boys and Girls” in Popular Mechanics (Jan. 1917), holds the record as the world’s cheapest automobile. Developed by the A. O. Smith company on the basis of the direct-drive “motor wheel” patented by Arthur William Wall of England, it had a buckboard frame that doubled as the suspension. The engine developed about 1.5HP, and top speed was roughly 20MPH. The entire unit weighed 135lbs. Briggs & Stratton bought the rights in 1919, continuing production until 1925.

Delivery Door

Here’s an idea whose time has come around once again: the Delivery Door, by the Sollitt Kitchen Door Co. of Chicago (Popular Mechanics, Jan. 1917). Keeps coronavirus OUT!

The following description is from the Architecture Catalogue (11th ed.), published by Sweets Catalogue Service, New York:

The object of this invention is to secure delivery of small goods and supplies through a closed and locked door, without the supply dealer’s seeking or gaining access to the premises within.

Construction — Door is made of best varieties of wood, as desired. It contains a
cabinet of several compartments, each of which has its own door (with printed sign
thereon) on the outside. One door on inside of cabinet provides access to all its compartments, which vary in size to meet usual requirements. The cabinet projects about six inches beyond the front and rear sides of door.

Operation — The supply dealer places his goods in the proper compartment, outside door of which has been left ajar for his convenience; he then pushes
shut the particular door or doors used by him, which action automatically causes a latch to fasten the same securely on the inside.

Installation in Old Doors — Cabinets complete will be installed in any old (the present) door; will be painted outside and varnished inside; and will be
equipped with all necessary lettering, with requisite hardware in place, etc.

Sises of Cabinet — Standard sizes (inches) of four compartments are: All shelves, 11 1/2 by 24 inches; heights, 9, 9 1/4, 8 and 4 inches, respectively.

Special sizes made to order.


( 1 ) Answering ring of door bell for each package, as delivered, is eliminated. (2) Thus time is saved by both dealer and buyer. (3) Supplies are delivered where and when wanted. (4) A great convenience whether occupants are or are not at home. (5) Delivery of goods through the Sollitt Door bars out tramps, beggars, thieves and defectives prone to commit crime. (6) Contact of children with delivery men, who may have been in homes where contagious disease exists, is avoided. (7) Useless conversation with such persons is dispensed with. (8) All strangers are properly barred. (9) Safety of inmates is secured. (10) Kitchen floors escape the dirt and germs carried in by delivery men daily.


Door (with cabinet) complete, ready to hang, painted on outside, lettered, hardware on cabinet, and delivered for $12.00 net.

Cabinet complete installed in the present door, painted outside, varnished inside, lettered, all hardware on, for $10.00 net.

Fire ‘Chute

Although it often promoted dubious devices, Popular Mechanics was capable of mocking the absurdity of some impractical gadgets such as Oppenheimer’s fire escape parachute (Sept. 1909, p. 345). The 1879 patent describes the parachute as being “about four or five feet in diameter” and made of “soft or waxed cloth.” While the parachute was to be connected “in suitable manner, to the upper part of the body,” the main attachment point appears to be the head.


“Second to None” and “Baby”

This is likely “Baby,” British Army Airship No. 3, launched in May 1909. Like its predecessor, “Nulli Secundus,” it was later re-built (the former as “Beta,” the latter as “Nulli Secundus II”). “Beta” made some longer trips and attempted experiments in radio communication, but was itself soon rebuilt. “Beta II” went on to score a number of firsts, including mast mooring (PM, Sept. 1909):


Sex, Death, and Airships

The tangled story of Charles Tolliver’s attempt to build a radical airship is more complex and violent than most. He began by convincing Hearst to invest $20,000 in his design, which housed crew and engines WITHIN the airbag. Tolliver borrowed a ravine on a farmer’s property, lined it with boards, and here a huge design took shape: 250 by 44 by 40 feet. In 1907, his first flight was announced. Popular Mechanics took an interest and ran a story on the new dirigible (Sept. 1909).

PM, Sept. 1909

However, the farmer and Tolliver’s patron were fed up with him. By 1910, Tolliver had decamped to San Diego. Here his agent, one Bert Lewis, bought iron filings and sulfuric acid to generate the huge volume of hydrogen needed. Meanwhile, the city gas inspector became anxious about the presence of such a large volume of gas, and took a sample back to his lab–and blew it up! Tolliver again failed to get his dirigible off the ground, and as the city pondered how to get rid of it, a wind came up and shredded it. Meanwhile, Bert had been kept busy making gas–while Tolliver was making time with his wife, Ellen Lewis. Lewis shot Tolliver dead; he was acquitted of murder on the grounds of temporary insanity, but Ellen left him. So he did the only thing left: he joined the circus!

The airship never left the ground.


Popular Mechanics (July 1907, pp. 739-742) announced Louis Brennan’s proposed monorail system with great excitement; later, it was a triumphant success at the Japan–British Exhibition (1910), dazzling (among others) Winston Churchill and winning the Grand Prize! Predictions of speeds in excess of 150mph were advanced, but Brennan’s patented system was never adopted by any major customer.

In fact, monorails only ever featured as futuristic novelties, save in Japan. One of the biggest obstacles they faced was the increasingly popular private automobile.

It is one of life’s great ironies that Loius Brennan died after being knocked down by a car in Montreux in 1932.

Motor Swimming

The footwear and bathing costume make this one seem even stranger than it is:

According to Popular Mechanics (Nov. 1906, p. 1104), this is an invention of M. Constantini:

Similar devices have appeared at intervals, but the modern ones are electric and altogether friendlier-looking.