August 22, 2008 A 1920s-era wrist-mounted display allowed the sophisticated gentleman to peruse his planned route. But since the map was created by feeding a series of thin scrolls through the display, it’s likely that using the gadget for any journey that deviated from a straight line would involve endless fumbling through the box of maps in order to find the connecting pieces of parchment. The prescient invention not only anticipated our modern GPS systems, but also the modern process of assembling Ikea furniture. Maurice Collins, a retired businessman from London, is exhibiting the 1920s GPS, and 50 similar items, at the British Library Business and Intellectual Property Centre.

Built up over 30 years, Collins’ collection is a celebration of ingenious labour saving devices, many of which are precursors of modern technology (with a touch of Rube Goldberg machine absurdity).

Items in the exhibition include an 1870s clockwork burglar alarm that rang a bell when a door opened and pushed its lever down; a 19th Century pistol purse that concealed a one-shot gun in a secret compartment; a 1930s “electro massager” that rewarded the user with a “zappy ending” in the form of electrical shocks; a mechanical page-turner and a grenade designed to put out fires from the 1890's; plus a pair of glasses equipped with two battery-powered lights that alternately provided its wearer with illumination and set their head on fire.

Collins will be giving a talk on this weird and wonderful technology on September 18th 2008. See the British Library Business and IP Centre for further information.

Note: For more wonders of the pre-computer world, check out the Museum of RetroTechnology – an online compendium of gyrocars, steam-powered bicycles, and personal helicopters. But be sure to keep a timepiece (clockwork or digital) on hand, because the site is seriously addictive.