With groans and squeaks Jimmie’s chair collapsed.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 28, 1936.

“This ice going out,” said Jimmie Frise, all over Canada, all over Siberia, all over the world, this vast, plunging, crushing volume of power and force going to waste…”

“These gutters,” I added, “these rain pipes, these ditches along the roads, everywhere.”

“Waste, waste,” said Jim. “If humanity only knew how to harness all the forces of Nature, nobody would have to work.”

“In this little rushing rivulet along the curb,” I contributed, “is enough power to light all the electric light fixtures in my house.”

“We talk of horsepower,” scoffed Jimmie, grandly. “Why, there is mountain power going to waste these days in a million rivers of the world. Mountain power, in these freshets.”

“But on account of the hunks of ice,” I pointed out, “it might be a little awkward trying to hook it up to a dynamo or whatever you call it.”

“Awkward,” cried Jimmie. “Just because a thing looks difficult, we shy at it. That’s the reason mankind hasn’t conquered the forces of this world ages ago. That’s why we are still slaves.”

“Do you suppose we could get enough power out of anything to write our articles and draw our pictures for us?” I asked. “It is all very well to talk about machines freeing men. That may help out the mechanics and farmers. But us poor writers and artists will still be in the same old boat.”

“You have the habit,” said Jim, “of sort of picking at an argument, sort of scratching at it with the fingernails of your mind. Why don’t you join in with me in a conversation like this and let us get somewhere. I was saying, why don’t we start to use the power that is going to waste on all sides of us?”

“Personally,” I said, “I think we are doing very nicely.”

“By a little use of our brains,” said Jim, “we might think of some way of harnessing some force of nature, now going to waste, that would set us free forever of doing anything.”

“We can’t compete with trained engineers,” I pointed out.

“Trained engineers,” Jim stated, “are trained to believe in what can’t be done, rather than what can be done. Was Stephenson an engineer? – the man who invented steam engines?”

“That’s so,” I confessed.

“Was Newton an engineer?” demanded Jim. “The man who invented gravity? Was Harvey an engineer? the man who invented the circulation of the blood.”

“He didn’t invent it,” I disagreed. “It had been circulating all the time. He only discovered it.”

“That’s my point exactly,” cried Jim. “These tremendous forces of nature are going on all around us, wastefully, uselessly. All we have to do is see how they can be used. And we don’t need to be engineers either.”

“I wish I could think up something,” I assured him. “I have often thought we ought to have some kind of a little machine attached to our knees, a sort of generator so that, as we walked, we could charge a battery in our pocket. If everybody in the world wore a gadget like that, we could certainly store up an awful lot of electricity.”

“That’s an idea,” encouraged Jim.

To Patent the Invention

“Each day, at five o’clock,” I warmed up, “everybody would turn their battery in at the local electric station, sort of like cigar stores located all over the place. And on receiving the charged battery, the service station would hand us out a new empty battery for tomorrow.”

Perfect,” said Jim. “You’ve got something.”

“Say we each charged one volt into that battery,” I explained, “on the average. Although policemen and postmen would charge much more. We could give them bigger batteries to charge. Well, anyway, in a city like Toronto, that would be nearly 700,000 volts of electricity stored up every day, and immediately contributed to the power, lighting and heating of the city.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Jim, “that you are another Stephenson or a Farragut.”

“Just a simple little device,” I explained. “A small metal rod attached at the knee by a sort of garter to each leg, the two rods meeting in the middle in a small generator about the size of a walnut or an apple. It might be at little awkward at first to walk with these things on. Sort of bow-legged, or waddling maybe. But we would soon get used to it. At each step, these rods would drive the small generator, like the drive shaft, in miniature, of a locomotive.”

“Let’s patent it,” said Jim.

“I hardly think,” I surmised, “it is ready for patenting.”

“Don’t be crazy,” cried Jim. “That’s the way fortunes are lost. When you get an idea, seize it. Patent it. The real thinkers of this world are all poor men just because they didn’t protect their ideas. They let human weasels steal their stuff.”

“We have to have a working model,” I said.

“Any electrician could make it,” said Jim. “Don’t explain what it is for. Just give him the specifications. Make a drawing. He’ll never guess what it is. And there you are.”

“I’m not just sure,” I confessed, “how many steps or movements of the leg it will take to charge one volt. I was just making a supposition there, when I said one volt.”

“Now, now,” admonished Jim. “Don’t start backing and filling. The idea is what counts. I see mountainous force going to waste in spring freshets all over the world, but I can’t think up any practical scheme for harnessing it. You see vast sources of power going to a waste in the motion of the human leg. But… but, my dear boy, you see at a glance the solution of it. It is vision that counts in this world. Not the poor mechanics of it.”

“Very well,” I said. “I’ll sketch it out. Let’s see: how does a car charge its battery?”

“The motion of the engine operates the generator.”

“Then,” I said, incisively, “the motion of the leg will operate the generator, which will be supported between the knees by two rods attached to the knee joint.”

“Correct,” said Jim.

And after supper, we walked over to the corner and saw our local electrician, but when he studied my drawings, simple as they were he said they were a little out of his line. He sticks to installing fixtures and mending door bells. He thought maybe a radio man might tackle it.

“What’s it for?” he inquired.

“It’s an invention,” I explained. “A little idea of mine.”

“Little idea, huh,” said Jim darkly.

A Very Wonderful Room

“If it’s an invention,” said the electrician, “there is a man upstairs, he rents my attic, and he’s an inventor. He makes all kinds of things. I bet he’d be the very man for you.”

“Steer clear of other inventors,” said Jim, quietly. “They’d steal your idea.”

“Oh, no,” said the electrician. “This man is the gentlest little fellow. He wouldn’t steal anything. He doesn’t even want anything. Why, he has invented thousands of things, and never sold a single one yet.”

“How does he live?” I asked.

“His relatives give him so much money a month to live somewhere else,” said the electrician. “I don’t mind him. Even if he does make some awful smashes and things.”

“Smashes?” asked Jim, always interested in action.

“He invented a thing last year,” said the electrician, “for catching your dog when it runs away from you and won’t come back when it’s called. You know? He says he has so often seen old ladies frantically trying to call their little dogs back to them and the dog won’t come. So he invented a thing for catching dogs that won’t come back.”

“Mmmm, mmmm,” said Jim, interestedly.

“Yes, siree,” said the electrician. “It was a great thing. He was going to give me one of the first ones manufactured, for a month’s rent. But my goodness.”

“What,” we both said.

“The day he perfected his working model,” said the electrician, “he got me up to witness the first operation of it. My, my. I was standing in the room, by the door, see? And he sprung the trigger. And the thing caught him instead of the imitation dog he had made out of a pillow. And it threw him right out the attic window and held him suspended in space until I could go around to the hardware store and borrow two ladders.”

“Indeed,” said I.

“I like the sound of this man,” said Jim. “I think we should see him. I think he could easily make a model of your machine.”

“I’ll think it over,” I said.

But Jim was impatient. He said no progress was ever made in this world if people hummed and hawed all the time. He said if Diogenes had only gone on with his barrel idea, they would have had motor cars in ancient Greece two thousand years ago. And look how far ahead we would be now?

So the electrician ushered us upstairs two flights to the attic.

“Be careful,” he warned us. “He has an automatic door opener that works when you push the bell, but unfortunately, the door opens out. You have to reach away out, push the bell and then jump quickly back.”

Jim did so, reaching far. The attic door burst open violently.

“Come in?” said a mild voice.

And we stepped cautiously into a very curious room. The inventor sat at a desk at the far end, a small elderly little man with thin wispy whiskers, glasses resting right on the end of his nose, and a look about him as if Santa Claus had had an older brother who never had the meals Santa Claus had, nor the opportunities in life.

The room was too wonderful and fearful to take in, even in many long steady glances. Things new and old, like cow bells old and green and bright new squares of oil cloth suspended like banners from the wall, and all colors of the rainbow. There were chairs built in curious sections, like easy chairs, only they looked dreadfully uneasy, as if they might, at a sharp word, either collapse entirely or close up like a book.

“Come in, gentlemen, come in,” said the old inventor, kindly. “What can I do for you?”

There were test tubes dusty and filled with forgotten liquids; baskets of empty bottles, a weird-looking machine like a gum slot, with a pair of rubber lips, shaped like human lips, and over the slot a sign reading: “Lipstick your lips, any shade, 1c.”

There were baby carriages with engines on them and a human figure made of the stuff store window dummies are made of, and it was covered with a sort of fuzz, light blue.

“Be seated, gentlemen,” said the inventor, indicating the chairs. Jim cautiously eased himself into one of the curiously jointed chairs. Nothing happened. So I got into another, and immediately a phonograph began playing “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

I sat up, but the old gentleman, delighted beyond measure, assured me:

“Aha, you’re astonished, sir. That is my slumber chair. Adjustable to any angle. And will play any record.”

“And my friend’s chair?” said I.

“Ah, that is a masterpiece,” said the old fellow, “a masterpiece. Now, sir, just to demonstrate, will you be so good as to lift your feet and place them on the edge of my table. Please. I will not mind. Just put your heels on my desk, there.”

Jim obliged.

The instant his feet touched the edge of the table, the chair slowly began to collapse, not suddenly, but, with creaks and squeaks, gently began lowering itself flat on the ground, with the painful but certain slowness of those freight elevators you sometimes meet up with in warehouses.

Jim leaped out of the chair in time to save being dropped to the floor, where the chair subsided in complete exhaustion.

“That,” said the old gentleman, “is my solution of one of the nastiest problems of modern business. The person who comes into your office and sets his feet on your desk.”

“Wonderful,” said Jim, sitting down on the edge of a box.

“What is that human figure in blue fuzz?” I inquired.

“The time has come,” said the old gentleman, “in fact it had come some thirty years ago when I invented that thing, when we humans need no longer be bothered with all the fuss and fatigue of dressing. Do you realize, sir, that the average man has to put on thirty-nine different articles of clothing before he can go out?”

“You see before you,” said the old gentleman, “the perfect solution of a modern problem. It is the Asbestos Dip. Perfectly insulating. Warm in winter, cool in summer. You can set up a small tank in your boudoir. Asbestos Dip may be purchased in any fashionable color, brown, blue, tweed, and so forth. And all you do, whenever you feel like it, is dip yourself in the tank, and there you are, newly clothed for a week, or a month, whichever you require.”

“But, er, ah,” said Jim.

“I know, I know,” hastened the old gentleman. “You are thinking of the bath. But you forget that, being perfectly insulated, you neither perspire nor get goose pimples. We require baths, why? Only because our clothes cause us to exude moisture, and because our clothes being porous, with gaps, openings, slits and apertures in them, permit dust and dirt to come in contact with our bodies. Asbestos Dip being perfectly impenetrable, even by the finest dust, keeps the human body as clean and pure as the hide of a bear keeps the body of the bear.”

He explained the baby carriage, the bells, the roller skates under a curling stone for curling in the summer, the real dog which could be trained to serve as an iron dog on the lawns of old-fashioned homes, the door bell that could be so adjusted, on going out for the day, to squirt ink on all callers so that you could later know who had been to visit you in your absence: the lipstick vendor, a magnificent device which would enable young ladies, anywhere, to dress their lips simply by briefly kissing a pair of rubber lips on the slot machine.

“There would be six sizes of lips on the machine,” explained the dear old man, “representing all the standard sizes and shapes of mouths. On putting one cent in the slot and pressing the button of the size and color you want, the lips protrude from the machine, you kiss the rubber lips and presto, as simply as a rubber stamp, you have your lips perfectly rouged. Isn’t that a caution?”

And it sure was. So we got down to work, and I showed him my drawings. He studied them intently. I told him, as far as I dared, just how the little generator was to have the two small rods working, attached to garters.

Suddenly the old chap’s face lighted up.

“My dear sir,” he cried. “Of all the coincidences! Why, this is the very core of my famous invention of 1903, called the “1903 leg-action generator.’ I had the most wonderful scheme for putting Niagara Falls back where it belongs as a beauty spot. Wait till I get my model.”

He came back, carrying a little jigger with two rods and two gentleman’s garters.

“See,” he said, strapping the garters on, and suspending the generator between his knees so that the two rods were fastened to his knee joints.

“Did it work?” I asked, numbly.

“We made the dreadful discovery,” said the little man, “that the entire human race is either bow-legged or knock-kneed. The bow-legged ones had a lateral action that wouldn’t work the rods at all. And the knock-kneed ones couldn’t get the generator between their knees. Strong men, who were backing me in that invention, broke down and wept like children when we made that discovery. Still, so it goes. Nothing is ever lost. One discovery leads to another.”

We said good-day.

“Well,” I said, when we got outside, “now we can turn our minds to the ice going out.”

“Aw,” said Jim, “the heck with it. Let it go to waste. We’ve got too much power in the world as it is.”

So we went down a few stores to where they have this year’s seed catalogues spread out in the window, all the different pages showing, zinnias, nasturtiums, beets, mammoth oats, everything.

February 1, 1941.

Editor’s Notes: This story has a lot of the early 20th century notion that nature needs to be exploited and harnessed to do humanity’s bidding. It was also before it was realized that asbestos was toxic.

The various “inventors” mentioned included George Stephenson, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, and Diogenes. When “Farragut” was mentioned, I think they meant Michael Faraday. David Farragut was a United States Admiral during the U.S. Civil War.

The story was repeated on February 1, 1941. It was unusual in that they even repeated the same drawing and title.