PATENT NO. 137,121
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 were patented.

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 of sorts.

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.

PATENT NO. 135,738
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 and complexity.



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