It tells you almost everything you need to know about 1974 that it was the year some poor misguided soul invented the Hijacker Injector: a remote-controlled hypodermic needle designed for installation inside the seat cushions of passenger jets and guaranteed to tranquilize, exterminate, or otherwise inconvenience any hijacker fool enough to mess with an airplane equipped with these babies. It’s difficult to say which aspect of the Hijacker Injector is harder to credit: that Americans could ever have been so blissfully unschooled in the ways of airborne terror as to dream up a countermeasure entirely dependent on the terrorist’s willingness to remain seated, or that the American government actually issued a patent for the thing. Yet the evidence for this and other preposterous technological propositions stands in plain sight at Ted VanCleave’s delectable Totally Absurd Inventions (totallyabsurd.com)—a voluminous, handpicked archive of officially patented exercises in near lunacy.
Horse diapers the size of small parachutes, lightbulb changers with over 200 parts, split-level crunch-protecting cereal bowls—they’re all here, with droll commentary supplied by curator VanCleave and even droller illustrations taken straight from the original patent applications. But though there’s plenty to laugh at here, it’s clear in the end VanCleave comes not to ridicule the contemporary crackpot inventor but to praise him. Or at least to service him: The site bristles with ads for patent attorneys and legal software and includes an “Invention Showcase” replete with marginally useful gadgets in search of distributors. That these are largely no less ludicrous than the inventions singled out for giggles says a lot about the enduring relationship between creativity and folly. So does the glaring absence here of corporate patents, which have lately extended their rapacious reach to human genes, Web links, and even certain numbers. Nothing wrong with a little absurdity, after all, but some things just aren’t funny.