W.H. Alcorn, Inventor 1873
Here is a stately thing, an oscillating carriage to teach
a child self-reliance. "My invention...shall be constructed
such that a child sitting upon its seat and pulling upon a lever
can give the seat an oscillating movement." The child-activated
swing with a set of levers and connecting rods is a popular
theme in the nineteenth century. Dozens and dozens of swings
Second only to the mousetrap perhaps, the swing has kept a hold
on the mind of inventors. Though safety is mentioned occasionally,
it does not appear to have been a central concern. What really preoccupied
the inventors was the incorporation of a self-propelling mechanism.
From simple poles, to ropes and pulleys, to elaborate systems of
"foot-boards" and levers, the idea is to enable the swing
occupants to swing by themselves. One may imagine reluctant parents
who would rather spend their time inventing and building such improbable
devices than give an occasional push to their offspring on an old
fashioned "pendulous" swing–an early search for
the gadget that will dispense with tending the young, a proto-Nintendo
Next to self-propulsion is "combinatin": the swing that
is also a rocker, a swinging cradle, an exercise machine, a sled,
a rocking swing, all in one. There is a strong fascination for these
kaleidoscopic changes of a basic form into all other sorts of "useful"
objects. The prototype may be the Swiss army knife that is also
screwdriver, spoon, corkscrew, chisel, gouge, shim set and what
not, or the kitchen cabinet that can also be chair, commode, and
bed. It all seems to rest on a metaphysical belief in the fundamental
unity of things manifesting themselves in a manifold creation.
This is what makes these devices so interesting. Each period reveals
its concerns and expresses its deeper yearnings through the means
at its disposal: poetry, music, technical inventions. Robert Fulton,
of steamboat memory, a gifted inventor himself, knew this well:
the mechanical craftsman, said he,
should sit down among levers, screws, wedges,
wheels, like a poet among the letters of the
alphabet, considering them as the exhibition of
his thoughts, in which a new arrangement
transmits a new idea to the world.
Well, our mechanical craftsmen here clearly did that.
E.A. Tuttle, Inventor 1873
Ah! What fun it must have been to play on one of these.
Imagine the dear cherub swinging chaotically on this double-pendulum
swing when his shoe-laces get caught in the springs. It is good
to know that the intentions of the inventor, at least, were
honorable: "My invention... shall be constructed that the
seat of the swing, throughout the whole extent of its vibration,
may be close to the ground, thus obviating the danger of injury
from an accidental fall from the swing."
In slow, coordinated motion, of course! The double-pendulum
structure of this swing makes it a chaotic system.
Portability was and is a major consideration in most of the homebased
inventions. The ingenuity of our Sunday inventors is taxed by this
classical dilemma of designers: sturdiness versus lightness, compactness
of storage versus complexity of assembly. That you prepare to go
to the moon, or to visit your relative two miles away, as Mary Brine
of Chicago, holder of patent No. 101,576 for "improvement in
portable swings," might have done, or simply have a small cellar,
the problem in essence remains the same: like Mary Brine, you struggle
more or less happily between sturdiness and lightness, compactness