Historic tech breakthroughs: Weird and wonderful inventions from the past

Associated Press has released 1 million minutes of historic world news footage onto YouTube, showcasing some of the most iconic events from the past, including the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.

However, amongst the 550,000 videos, dating from 1985 to the present day, are also many long-forgotten clips showing some of history’s incredible technological breakthroughs and bizarre inventions. From the world’s first driverless car being tested in 1971, to the Lunar Cycle bike designed for commuters on the Moon, the clips give a fascinating insight into the weird and wonderful history of engineering.


The Human Voice Machine

This clip shows the demonstration of a machine that can turn electrical impulses into sounds that mimic the human voice. The results are a little underwhelming compared to the lifelike robot voices we are used to today, but would have been hugely impressive at the time.

Baby leg strengthener

This bizarre invention was created to develop a child’s leg muscles, as well as help send them to sleep. We have no idea why it didn’t take off!

The Railmobile and Amphicar

The first invention showcased here is the Railmobile, a rather unsafe looking device that allows motorists to drive along railway lines. The second is the Amphicar that can drive on land and water, reaching speeds of 8 knots.

The first ‘flat-screen’ TV

A news report from the International Inventors’ Exhibition in London shows several weird and wonderful inventions, from bouncing bollards to a wearable sauna, and at the end we get a glimpse of an early attempt to create a not-so-flat-screen TV that you can hang on your wall.

Boat shoes

Walking on water was made possible by these rather hilarious looking blow-up floating shoes, complete with propulsion units to help speed up your journey. They are designed to help you beat the morning rush hour by commuting via rivers. We definitely think they should bring these back.

The Lunar Cycle

Even though we had only just landed on the Moon, cartoonist and inventor Rowland Emmett was already thinking about potential modes of transport to for if humans went to live there. His solution was the Lunar Cycle. The prototype was driven by a robot astronaut and came complete with an oxygen pumping system, a ‘moon dustpan and brush’ and a robot ‘astrocat’ with the very important mission of ‘moon cheese preservation’. Genius.

The Hover Scooter

Base don the principle of the Hovercraft, this extraordinary vehicle allowed you to move over land or water by floating on a fusion of air. The report comments that it was hoped the Hover Scooter would be marketed in Britain soon, but sadly it was not meant to be.

An early driverless car

This clip from 1971 predicted that we would all using driverless cars by 2000. Although that didn’t quite happen, this vision of the future isn’t far off, what will Google and several other manufacturers currently testing driverless vehicles. In the video you can see an early ‘robot car’ that uses similar technology to the automatic pilot system used in aircraft.

The Aerovan

Looking like a ‘giant bumblebee’, this early passenger aircraft had a range of 450 miles and could carry a 1 ton payload of 10 passengers or a car. It doesn’t look like the most comfortable or safe mode of transport, but it helped paved the way for the enormous jets we use today.

You can find more historic video clips on the British Movietone and AP Archive YouTube channels.

Discover more about history and technology in the latest issue of How It Works magazine. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!

Plus take a look at:

The evolution of the smartphone 

Jet engine tech: New ‘super material’ being developed

The Audi RS7 driverless car