Category Archives: technology

Inventions in Everything: The Toilet Snorkel

Imagine this situation, if you will. You are trapped in a high rise building that is on fire. Smoke fills the air and oxygen is running low. If you want to live, you need to breathe and for that, you need a source of clean air.

That's why our featured invention today should intrigue you, because it offers an individual in that situation with a way to access fresh air until they might be rescued. William O. Holmes of Belmont, California came up with a unique and yes, patentable, solution for this scenario, as witnessed by his 1982 patent for a "Fresh-air breathing device and method". Most however will describe his invention as what it really is: the toilet snorkel.

Don't believe us? Here's Figures 1 and 5 from U.S. Patent 4,320,756 and Holmes' disclosure of the invention describing its utility:

U.S. Patent 4,320,756 Figure 1 and Figure 5

This invention provides an economical device and method for ensuring a life-saving supply of fresh air to a person entrapped in a burning hotel room or the like, when the person is subjected to toxic smoke inhalation.

The fresh-air breathing device comprises breathing means for being held in communication with a respiratory intake passage (mouth and/or nose) of the user and conduit means for communicating fresh air to such respiratory intake, including a first end connected to the breathing means and an open second end having sufficient flexibility and length for insertion through a water trap of a toilet. Carrying forth the method of this invention, such insertion of the conduit means or breathing tube through the water trap will expose the open end thereof to fresh air from a vent pipe connected to a sewer line of the toilet. The user may then proceed to breathe fresh air for life-saving purposes, until rescued.

We really like the facemask accessory for the invention as shown in Figure 5 above. Because if you're going to breathe in fresh air through a vent pipe connected to a sewer line of a toilet, you might as well do it in style!

Other Stuff We Can't Believe Really Exists

Where Humans Can Still Beat Machines

In our age of electric power tools, is there any area left in the modern shop where an individual working with hand tools can outperform a machine tool?

Mostly, the answer is no. Today's power tools so greatly increase the productivity of those using them that it often doesn't make sense to drag out their hand tool predecessors. That's something you can certainly confirm for yourself if you ever took out an old-fashioned hand drill to drill a number of holes in a wood board instead of a modern battery-powered hand drill.

But not always. Core77 recently featured a story about Shannon Rogers, the Renaissance Woodworker, who found that in the hands of a skilled carpenter, a hand-powered frame saw invented in the 18th Century could outperform a modern day electricity-powered band saw in the task of resawing, which involves cutting a large board or post into thinner boards or sheets.

The following short video shows the frame saw in action.

Core77 describes how Rogers' hand-powered frame saw can beat the typical band saw found in virtually all of today's workworking shops in a battle of productivity:

With this saw Rogers has managed to cut veneer slices as thin as 1/8", and when cutting across 24 inches of wood, clocked himself at a cutting depth speed of one inch per minute. And when he tried doing boards of lesser width, he found this surprising fact: "I realize that my 14" bandsaw is pretty underpowered, but I know I can resaw a typical 6-8" wide board faster than it can. I have timed it and my hand method beat the bandsaw by 2 minutes on a 7×24 piece of old growth heart Pine for drawer sides. I’m not a super sawer, I chose the right tool for the job."

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. This 18th Century frame saw design would be capable of providing ordinary woodworkers with the ability to work with much larger pieces of lumber, which would put them on a much more advantageous and competitive footing with today's established large-scale woodworking shops that rely upon large mechanized and automated production equipment to perform the same tasks. Armed with the right tools, humans are not destined to become obsolete in a world of manufacturing otherwise trending in favor of greater levels of automation.

Shakespeare once wrote that what's past is prologue. In truth, sometimes it's more than that. Sometimes, what's rediscovered from the past that has been long lost becomes the future way of doing things.

There Is No Great Snowplow Stagnation

What the world needs now is a better snow plow. Imagine what it would mean for state and local transportation departments to be able to clear two lanes of road with just one vehicle, rather than the one vehicle per lane method in widespread use today. Now, meet the future as envisioned by now-retired Missouri DOT engineer and inventor Bob Lannert (HT: Core77):

Core77 describes the benefits of the TowPlow system:

As we saw in the rooftop snow removal post, getting rid of the white stuff provides unique design challenges for individual snow-clearers. And those challenges grow exponentially when spread over the community level. When entire towns and highways are buried under snow, local officials are tasked with an economic problem: How can we remove as much snow as quickly as possible while using the least amount of resources? Every hour of every day that a road remains unplowed, the local economy suffers; yet there are only so many plows, drivers, and fuel to spare, and there may be another storm coming next week, meaning resources have to be carefully managed.


The units aren't cheap—we found conflicting sources online indicating they cost anywhere from $67,000 to $100,000—but with states spending millions of dollars on diesel fuel each year to clear snow, the TowPlow is still a no-brainer investment. "TowPlows can pay for themselves the first year in many states," the company claims, and the math adds up: While it increases the fuel consumption of the vehicle towing it by 10-15%, that's still an 85-90% savings over having two vehicles do the work.

Lannert's home state of Missouri now has more than 130 TowPlows in their fleet, and found that they do such a good job of clearing the snow that less salt needs to be sprayed on the roads. That also adds up to a savings. "For every ton of salt we don’t use in the winter, that’s a ton of asphalt we can use in the summer," Missouri DOT Maintenance Superintendent Mike Belt told The Missourian, pointing out that the two materials have similar pricing.

As Tyler Cowen might observe, there is no great snowplow stagnation!