Small Talk Tag: Mechanical Toy

Imagination Takes Flight

mechanical flying toys

From the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, to Leonardo Da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines, mankind has held the desire to fly for centuries. Up until the Wright Brothers finally got it right in 1903, “gentlemen scientists,” inventors and early aviators scrambled to unlock the secrets of powered and controlled air travel. During the era of the steam-powered engine, the idea of a flying machine really, well, took flight.

Toys of course mirror the times in which they were produced. Naturally, as the world became fascinated with flying, tin flying machine toys featuring propellers, wings, parachutes and hot air balloons became a common sight in the 19th and early 20th century. This particular clockwork wind-up mechanical flying machine toy was likely attached to a cantilevered weight on a central base. When the mechanism was wound, the pilot’s legs pedaled the propeller, causing the toy to “fly” in a circle. While this imaginative depiction of early flight makes for a charming toy, we’d still prefer a comfortable window seat and complimentary peanuts.

Look, She’s Walking!

walking doll

We’re guessing no Victorian child (or adult for that matter) probably called this doll by her proper name: Autoperipatetikos. This mouthful of a name is actually Greek for “self-walker” or “walking about by itself.” And walk she does! Ok, well maybe it’s more like a jerky scooting motion

Patented in 1862 by Enoch Rice Morrison, this china head doll is among the first walking dolls in American history. Previous examples of walking dolls existed, but they usually had to be supported by a string, wooden baby walker, or were guided. Mr. Morrison was able to solve this issue of balance by giving his doll larger feet with a wide stance, a stiff cone under her dress, and arms made of kid leather to reduce shifting weight. Her pink dress also hides the key-wound clockwork mechanism that allows her feet to move. Like most mechanical toys, the amazing and beautiful Autoperipatetikos is not without some faults, as her original box reads: “If it should stop at any time, turn the feet toward you and see if the inside leg is not caught up against the feet.” Oh dear.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Mechanical Oarsman

Patented in 1869 by Nathan S. Warner, this mechanical oarsman toy was the first of its kind. Warner worked for a sewing machine manufacturer and used his technical know-how to secure design patents for several clockwork-mechanized toys. The patent allowed E.R. Ives and Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut to produce this mechanized, mustached rower toy, which became a hit among kids and adults alike.

Once the toy is wound up and placed in water, the oarsman’s torso moves back and forth along with his arms, which are attached to the oars. The movement of the oars propels the boat through the water. When the rudder on the back of the boat is turned, the oarsman will row in a circle; when the rudder is straight, he rows in a straight line. Mechanical oarsman toys were manufactured by several other firms as well, so don’t be surprised if you come across some interesting variations. In fact, radio controlled versions are still manufactured today!

A Fair to Remember

Carnival Ride

Who doesn’t love the fair? The lights, the cotton candy, the spinning rides … ok, maybe those aren’t for everyone. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (or Chicago World’s Fair) marked the beginning of traveling carnival companies. The fair exhibited the most cutting edge technologies and innovations of the day and provided a fun diversion for spectators. On the edge of the fair was a pedestrian walkway called the Midway Plaisance, which hosted spectacles such as freak shows, burlesque shows, games, and carnival rides including the first Ferris wheel!

Naturally, the idea of traveling carnivals caught on. In the years that followed the fair, dozens of traveling carnival companies popped up and toured the country one city at a time. Toy companies took notice of the burgeoning industry, and carnival-themed toys began to pop up too. The Hubley Toy Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania was originally founded in 1894 as a train equipment company, but later switched to manufacturing toys like this carnival gondola ride at the turn of the century. A key-wound clockwork mechanism activates the ride, causing the gondolas to slide from side to side as the wheels turn. Carnival toys like this one were a great way to enjoy the rides after the carnival left town (especially if the real thing made you a little queasy!).

Look, I Can Swim!

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This boxy bathing beauty doesn’t look much like your typical doll—she’s equipped with a key-wound, spring-loaded mechanism that allows her to actually do the breaststroke! Patented in 1878 by E. Martin, Undine, as she was named in the patent, probably wasn’t meant for children. Fanciful mechanical toys such as Undine were likely too expensive for child’s play and were instead used as a form of entertainment for adults during parties. While we don’t think she crossed the English Channel or won any medals for swimming in the 1896 Olympics, this Victorian mechanized swimming doll is certainly a noteworthy gal.

Want to see Undine race Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps? We do too, but unfortunately she hasn’t been wound up in quite some time. We did, however, find some modern takes on the swimming doll — no winding required — she takes AAA batteries and has a built-in sensor!