Where cumbersome, insecure, and unreliable wireless sets, along with telephones, signal lights, and flares failed, pigeons succeeded. When human runners could not pass through walls of barrage fire, pigeons rose above the explosions and the gas and flew swiftly to their lofts, bearing dispatches in tiny cylinders attached to their legs.
A pigeon about to be thrown from a tank during World War I
During World War I the British Navy attempted to train seagulls to reveal the presence of German submarines. The idea was to use a dummy periscope "from which at intervals food would be discharged like sausage-meat from a machine." The birds would, hopefully, learn to associate periscopes with food and would then fly around approaching German submarines, revealing where they were.
Initial tests were conducted by Admiral Sir Frederick Inglefield in Poole harbour in Dorset. Inglefield tried to train the birds not only to fly around periscopes, but also to poop on them.
Subsequent tests were briefly conducted in 1917, but then the Navy abandoned the idea.
One private inventor, Thomas Mills, refused to give up on the idea. In 1918 he patented what he called an "apparatus for use in connection with the location of submarines" (Patent GB116,976). It was basically a dummy periscope that disgorged ribbons of food.
Unfortunately for Mills, the development of sonar then made submarine-detecting seagulls unnecessary.
Potentially mad scheme: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian navy was casting about for ways to raise revenue and came up with the idea of using Typhoon-class submarines as oil tankers. The Soviets had built six Typhoon-class nuclear subs which were, and still are, the largest submarines ever made. The main selling point of this idea was that the subs could travel under Arctic ice, eliminating the need for expensive ice-breakers. From wikipedia:
In the early 1990s, there were also proposals to rebuild some of the Typhoon-class submarines to submarine cargo vessels for shipping oil, gas and cargo under polar ice to Russia's far flung northern territories. The submarines could take up to 10,000 tonnes of cargo on-board and ship it under the polar ice to tankers waiting in the Barents Sea. These ships – after the considerable engineering required to develop technologies to transfer oil from drilling platforms to the submarines, and later, to the waiting tankers – would then deliver their cargo world-wide.
The idea was abandoned when someone over there decided that a nuclear sub filled with 10,000 tons of oil might pose some safety concerns.
Operation Wandering Soul was a propaganda campaign and large scale psychological warfare attempt exercised by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War...
U.S. engineers spent weeks recording eerie sounds and altered voices, which pretended to be killed Viet Cong, for use in the operation, with the intended purpose of instilling a sense of turmoil within the enemy, the desired result being for the soldier to flee his position. The tape, dubbed Ghost Tape Number Ten, was played on loudspeakers outside U.S. bases.
Carl Kusch of Germany invented a way that a person would never be without a saw when they needed one, because the saw could be worn around their neck at all times. From his 1909 patent:
This invention relates to a saw which can be worn on the dress or on the person and is also provided with a frame adapted to serve as a guard.
The invention consists in a flexible saw frame convertible at any time by suitable means into a rigid frame and which is so constructed that the saw blade can be put into the frame in the known manner, when the saw is used as a tool, or be fixed to the flat side of the frame when the frame is used as a guard. In the latter case the frame of the saw protects the dress or the body from contact with the saw blade.
Kusch evidently had high hopes for his invention, because he obtained patents for it in the United States, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. Although in his patent he never explained who he thought was going to buy the thing. The military, I'm guessing, because it seems designed to be part of a German soldier's uniform. Although as far as I know, no army ever outfitted its soldiers with this thing.
Its formal name was the “man-carried auto-navigation device,” but it went by the nickname “Man Can.” The Martin-Marietta Corporation received patent no. 3,355,942 for it in 1967.
It was a device designed to help soldiers avoid getting lost. The patent offered this description:
a lightweight, completely mechanical, low energy device by which small units of men may locate themselves accurately with respect to some reference point when operating in the jungle, darkness or bad weather without dependence upon visual landmarks.
It combined a compass and a pedometer. A GI would record his initial location on a map, and then the device would track his footsteps and the directions in which he turned. When he was done walking, the device would tell him his new coordinates.
A key feature of the device was that it didn't use any battery power. So the GIs would never need to worry about it running out of juice. It operated via a bellows located in the heel of the GI's shoe.
I can't find any follow-up reports about how well this gadget worked. Apparently not well enough to warrant its adoption by the army. But it was an interesting concept.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.